It may not surprise that Spaceship Earth, the new documentary about Biosphere 2, directed by Matt Wolf and available now to stream online, is replete with references to science fiction. Biosphere 2 was, after all, an experiment in high-tech, closed-system, sustainable living in the Arizona desert, intended by its designers to be a literal dress rehearsal for habitation on Mars or the moon. But the 1990s-era project was also an exercise in both spectacle and speculation. Its initiation was branded as a “launch.” Eight people, calling themselves “Biospherians,” embarked on a “mission,” attempting to live inside the three-acre facility for all of two years. In a revealing scene of the film, the project’s PR strategist, Larry Winokur, is not afraid to go right to Star Trek metaphors when he talks about his strategy for drumming up media interest in the launch. “We had to ‘beam them up,’ somehow,” he tells Wolf’s camera.
The vessel of the film’s title is twofold. Spaceship Earth is a concept first captured in those terms by economist Barbara Ward, in her 1966 book of that title. It was made popular by the architect and engineer Buckminster Fuller, whose influential 1968 book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth makes an early appearance in the film, as part of the future Biospherians’ library. Earth, in the story that the film tells, is Biosphere 1. But Biosphere 2 is also conceived as a spaceship, whose interior conditions were meant to replicate, as much as possible, all of the functions of its predecessor. Rather ambitiously, its creators hoped that the project would offer applicable lessons in saving the original from ecological breakdown.
The structure of Biosphere 2 was designed by Peter Jon Pearce, a former assistant of Fuller’s, and its triangulated geometry owes much to the latter’s famous domes and to large-span space-frame systems originally developed by Alexander Graham Bell. Inside these latticed vaults, roofs, and domes, Biosphere 2’s ecologists placed several “biomes”: a desert, a grassland, a tropical jungle, a mangrove swamp, even a small ocean, complete with a coral reef. This was the set of “wilderness” places, but there were other more cultivated human spaces as well, including dwellings, labs, farms, and extensive technological underground infrastructure. During the two-year initial mission, nothing was to enter or leave the Biosphere except energy, sunlight, and information, the latter transmitted by video and audio uplinks.
This may sound like the perfect place for self-isolation, especially during the stay-at-home orders of the past several weeks—but not much ran smoothly during this quarantine. What started as a set of utopian experiments intended to improve life on Earth and in space ended up coming apart at the airtight seams. Spaceship Earth shows how the story of Biosphere 2 is ultimately not about the past or the future, but the present.
The idealism of the group that led the construction of Biosphere 2 had its roots in the 1960s counterculture, and their trajectory is a familiar one. The filmmakers seem to gloss over the extraordinary levels of privilege and social mobility that enabled all of this, and some of the backstory now sounds like a message from another world. One founding member of the group remembers that she didn’t want to be a “typical New England wife,” and was desperate to “figure out what the heck I was going to do.”
“Let’s do all of it,” her co-conspirators decided, following the lead of their charismatic figurehead, John Allen. The collective created a DIY institution in San Francisco, part drama club, part group therapy—dubbed the “Theater of all Possibilities”—and then left the city in 1969 to found a commune in New Mexico—Synergia Ranch. From there, things only got weirder. This group of Synergists (another term borrowed from Fuller) somehow chanced upon an opportunity to build their own oceangoing ship—the Heraclitus—and spent the next several years sailing around the world, performing and founding institutions in every continent, and convening scientific conferences on each of the biomes that would later form the miniature world of Biosphere 2.
The key to this seemingly infinite expansion of potential for the future founders of the Biosphere—besides the boundless self-confidence of entitled white North American members of the Baby Boom generation—was in the intervention of Texas oil billionaire Ed Bass. Bass bankrolled the group’s expeditions, and their property acquisitions, in the hopes that they would do “something amazing” with the investments, thereby increasing their value. In the film, the extant Synergists repeatedly call the construction of their ship, and all of the rest, a performance. One former member of the group says that the genius of their director John Allen was that he helped people realize “it’s all theater.”
So the Star Trek aesthetics of Biosphere 2 are part of that theater. When the first mission breaks down, technologically and socially, the group pushed even harder to make sure that the show goes on. They smuggled in supplies and air and then lied about it, they got into conflicts with each other, and, with the help of their “mission controllers” on the outside, covered it all up. Even though this is a structure made of glass, transparency is an illusion, and even though the envelope is meant to be airtight, there are inevitable leaks to the media.
The underlying narrative about how the science-fictional idealism of the Biospherians was exploited by Allen—he held the line on maintaining the experiment for the entire two-year period—is frustratingly left as a subplot here. The story of their heartbreak is a tragedy, but elsewhere things take a more comedic turn. Allen’s funder Bass upstaged him, directing another set of made-for-TV productions that undermined Allen’s scientific credibility, his audience, and ultimately his claim to this pocket world. Bass had hoped that the development of “eco-technics” in Biosphere 2 would be educational, but also profitable, and that these technologies of world-making could be licensed to future entrepreneurs in outer space. Saving the world turns out to be just another real estate investment scheme. To recover his sunk costs, Bass eventually brought in Steve Bannon, movie producer and future advisor to the reality television star-turned President. If all of this miniature world is a stage, then the players themselves ultimately got played. No spoilers, but one of the lessons of the story of Biosphere 2 is that there’s always a bigger showman waiting in the wings.