The grand experiment known as Biosphere 2 — in which eight people, along with many animals and plants, locked themselves for two years into an optimistically self-sustaining glass dome — has not gotten the credit it deserves. This semi-scientific, semi-theatrical adventure is a vitally important experiment for any long term space venture, and a fantastic lab for planetary studies. The Biosphere 2 trial yielded many insights, both of nature and human nature, but because it was marred by pathological secrecy, personality flaws, and unexpected technical glitches, its achievements were ignored in science and overlooked by the press. I’ve written a lot about the scientific lessons of Biosphere 2, but nothing about the “human experiment” because the insiders were not talking. Now at least one of them is.
The kind of mavericks needed for any wild-eye utopian undertaking are usually remarkable and remarkably flawed. This hairy experiment was no exception. Its large-scale audacity was guaranteed to produce large-scale doses of human drama, which is what eventually filled the Biosphere 2. This book, written by one of the participants, is unflinching in its honesty and does a fair job of recounting the intense two-year journey of the eight inside, and what was learned. Before you set off for the stars, read this.
The Human Experiment: Two years and twenty minutes inside Biosphere 2
2006, 368 pages
Available from Amazon
What confused people all the more was that Biosphere 2′s magic — and possibly its Achilles’ heel — was that it was not conceived as any single thing, making it impossible to pigeonhole. It was a scientific project, a tool for furthering our knowledge of ecosystems and systems ecology. It was an artistic expression in its extraordinary architecture. It was business enterprise, meant to make money from spin-off technologies and later, tourism. It was an educational tool to inspire people of all ages. And it was an engineering project, developing a prototype for long-duration, self-sustaining space bases. If you ask twenty people who were part of the project what the aim of it was, you would receive close to twenty different responses.
So, the question remains, were we a cult?
The real difficulty in honestly answering that question lies in the definition of cult. The meaning is so diffuse that it is nearly useless. However, the predominant flavor of the word is pejorative, which I wholeheartedly reject. Those who study cults today make a clear distinction between dangerous cults and other forms of tight-knit groups that can include corporations.
Some of the common denominators between definitions of cults did fit our group. There is usually a domineering charismatic leader, a sense of isolationism, and a central ideal. John had been our unquestioned leader and was increasingly authoritarian. Before coming to Biosphere 2, I had seen John only a few times each year on his rounds through each IE project. He could be mean and humiliating, but he was also funny and inspiring. But now John remained at Biosphere 2 most of the time. His grip on the group tightened with every piece of bad news.
The isolationist attitude was particularly acute toward people who questioned our way of life. Our central ideal was the way of life itself. But I can say unequivocally that we were not a cult if the definition includes brainwashing and loss of individuality. And we certainly were not a cult based on G. I. Gurdjieff — an early-twentieth-century American mystic with followers in Europe and America — as some claimed who heard that we read some of his works.
Here I am showing off newborn triplet goats. Vision, the goat in the foreground, was one of four female African pigmy goats. Along with a male goat, Buffalo Bill, chickens and pigs also ran around the animal bay. (more…)