Ecotopian Bubble

'Dreaming the Biosphere' tells the strange and wonderful saga of the world's greatest eco-experiment

I blame Pauly Shore and his execrable 1996 comedy Bio-Dome for nearly sealing off my curiosity about Biosphere 2, the grandly designed and once-privately funded closed-ecology facility in Oracle.

The dome became the butt of many jokes, making me dismiss out of hand the notion that a giant terrarium could teach us anything about human interdependence with the natural world.

But after reading Rebecca Reider's beautiful and balanced account of Biosphere 2 and the people who participated in its construction, abandonment and rediscovery, I feel better knowing that the whole enterprise wasn't in vain. And I believe the book's subtitle—The Theater of All Possibilities—speaks to the hope many of us have of eventually living in a world of ecological harmony, not harm.

Of course, the thought of inhabiting an ecotopian bubble grows more attractive the longer we experience, say, an oilpocalpyse like the one currently unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Man's stupidity—and his greed in clumsily acquiring resources in places he's not even equipped to navigate—is easier to block out when you're isolated behind glass. Then again, everything depends on who's inside the bubble with you.

That's one of many lessons drawn from Reider's spellbinding account of the Synergia Ranch, a quirky yet brilliant bunch of amateur thespians and tinkerers with the good fortune to recruit a Texas billionaire, environmentalist/businessman Ed Bass. The group, led by the charismatic John P. Allen, comprised an intellectually diverse group who pushed each other to build Biosphere 2. Lucky for them, they had a seemingly infinite amount of money and resources at their disposal.

But this isn't just the story of a bunch of wealthy science-loving nuts who enjoyed writing and staging plays on the side, seeking to devise a better world, on this planet or another, for humankind. Reider is careful throughout to interpret the multiple "meanings" of Biosphere 2—was it a space-station, post-commune or psychological-confinement experiment?—while thoroughly articulating the socio-historical context behind the effort. More importantly, she's a great writer; her descriptions of the six biospherians' daily tasks inside the dome are compelling:

The biospherians' labor was not glamorous. They passed long hours not just in their fields but in their concrete-walled basement, whether threshing grain or scraping muck of algae scrubbers. But through the dirt and sweat, the biospherians developed an enormous personal, emotional sensitivity to their world, like mothers caring for a demanding child.

Four men and four women growing their own food (naturally, they lost weight), recycling their air and water, and trying not to kill each other may sound like Survivor on steroids, and that's because it is. Despite petty allegiances and hunger-induced paranoia tearing them apart, the plucky biospherians managed to survive and complete their two-year mission.

The damage inflicted by the media, however, remains incalculable to this day. Plagued by biased coverage striving to paint the whole affair as a little more than stunt orchestrated by a cult, Biosphere 2—heck, its name alone—continues to serve as shorthand for "kooky Mother Earthnauts."

Reider does right by them, re-framing the enterprise as a hair-raising adventure and a triumph of the eco-minded will that starkly illuminates what it means to live in (and out of) harmony with nature when nature is severely limited. Unlike the hypocritical Al Gore, the courageous souls of Synergia put everything on the line, including their very lives, only to see their cost-spiraling work eventually dismantled by Bass—in the middle of a second mission, no less!—and sold off piecemeal to Columbia University, which in turn abandoned the facility in 2003. (The University of Arizona currently manages Biosphere 2.)

Dreaming the Biosphere is a wonderful read, offering both narrative pleasure and thought-provoking analysis. Arizona historians and environmental academics will appreciate a positive, but not at all hagiographic, take on this oft-ridiculed test outside of Tucson, while anyone with a taste for edgy nonfiction will love the Robinson Crusoe-like spirit displayed by the biospherians who have to ask themselves hard questions like: Do we rip out the rainforest so we can plant squash?

We all know what Pauly Shore would have done.

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