Lessons from Biosphere 2 – The London Economic


By Guy Dorrell @GuyDorrellEsq

Many of us dream of stripping away the complications of modern life, its hectic pace, its technologies, the dependency upon a steady income, and returning to how our distant ancestors must have lived.

Of course there are complications and contradictions; few of us want to step back from the availability and efficiency of the NHS or the police, law and judicial system. Fewer still have the resources to step back, while retaining what is good about modern day life.

But one man who has. Ed Bass set about recreating a modern day utopia. Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Bass was surrounded by fortunes created by the oil industry – indeed he and his three brothers became millionaires when Bass was 13, due to a sizeable inheritance left to each of them by an uncle. He was also surrounded by the evidence of what oil does to the environment; from the pollution that gas-guzzling cars create, to the abandoned, dry wells – all was there to condition an impressionable Bass.

Early seeds

And leave a lasting impression it did; having graduated from Yale, Bass started a Masters degree in Architecture but dropped out to pursue his interest in ecology. All the time that he was in New Mexico, Australia or Nepal indulging in his fondness for environmentalism, he retained significant business interests, to which he brought the same focus and determination to succeed. These business interests were to make a wealthy man into an extremely wealthy man. The 2012 edition of Forbes’ 400 wealthiest Americans estimated his fortune at somewhere in the region of $2 billion.

The twin passions of business and ecology would lead him on a thrilling exploration of the limits of environmentalism, but would also see the worlds that he inhabited, the ecological and the big-corporate, collide spectacularly.

In 1984, Bass together with John P Allen decided to create a project to re-create an Earth, on Earth using closed structures of different ecologies; biomes. To create this home-from-home, they purchased a plot of land in Arizona, at the foot of the Santa Catalina mountain range. Construction of the World’s largest completely sealed structures began in 1987 and ran through until 1991.

The project would require sealed environments to give conditions closest to those early agriculturalists would have experienced, or to give an idea of what issues and stumbling blocks colonising another planet might bring.

The Biosphere 2 project, named in homage to Biosphere 1 – the Earth, was to be run along the lines of a space mission; a hand-picked crew would embark on the voyage – in this instance, a voyage of discovery rather than of space – just as astronauts do, without the usual back up plans from which other experiments can escape.

Critical mission

Two missions were planned, one running from 1991 to 1993 and another for a two year period commencing in March 1994. Between these two experiments would be a six-month transition period where the scientists and engineers from the ‘ground staff’ would enter via airlocks – to ensure continuity of the experiment and of conditions – while they performed research and system engineering tasks ready for the start of the second experiment.

The first experiment was a success, in that knowledge and understanding was gained through a number of failures. The crew lost weight – on average 16% of their bodyweight – due to their initial lack of skill in farming within the biomes. The second year’s crop yield was much better as they learnt and adapted. Many of the species introduced died; insects and pests flourished. Carbon dioxide levels fluctuated wildly, possibly hastening the death of many of the species.

As a research project however, the data gained was very valuable and the modelling possible within the experiment was unique.

The second mission was in stark contrast to the first. Systems and infrastructure were improved prior to the sealing of the biomes. From the outset, and certainly from the lessons learned from the first experiment, the crew were self-sufficient in food.

Conditions outside the biomes for the second mission were in stark contrast to the first too. The mission was scheduled to run for 10 months starting in March. Within 25 days of the beginning of the experiment, a catastrophic row between the management team for the project and the on-site management erupted. Not just a disagreement, this row was so hostile that federal agents served a restraining order upon the on-site management and required the mission to be handed over to an outside management company, based outside Arizona.

Furthermore, crew changes threatened the integrity of the mission, while vandalism and opening of four airlock doors to the biomes for 15 minutes destroyed the scientific credibility of the experiment. Astonishingly, these acts were carried out, not by casual vandals, but by members of the original mission.

Winding up

The management company that owned Biosphere 2 was dissolved on 1 June, and the mission itself was terminated on 6 September 1994. Following that, the site and its biomes and associated infrastructure were transferred to New York’s Columbia University as a campus and research site, where studies continued until 2003.

In embarking on an exciting research project to re-create a microcosm of the planet in a controlled environment, Ed Bass achieved both modest failure and great success; some plants, habitats and species proved unsustainable within the biomes. However, in modelling life on Earth, a completely unexpected success was achieved; greed, conflict, top-down reorganisations and leaders out of touch with the workers mimicked the world outside.

The research project generated huge volumes of data to be studied and interpreted but it was the unintended consequences, rather than infrastructure or systems that spelt success or failure for the project, something that the management company failed to learn from.

Recent political events in the UK, from the rush to implement the Free Schools policy to the gradual privatisation of the NHS appear to show that some of the most interesting lessons from Biosphere 2 are still going unheeded.

3 Responses

  1. Bill Dempster

    Very appreciative of this article which comes much closer to the truth than almost any other. However, there are a few nuances that mis-characterize events :
    1. It was not a “failure” that species died and carbon dioxide “fluctuated wildly”. The founding concept of Biosphere 2 was that in order to deeply understand the fundamental nature of a biosphere it is necessary to build and operate them as experimental systems and observe what happens. Biosphere 2 was NOT intended to replicate earth (Biosphere 1) and simply be a duplicate. It was the first experiment of what potentially could inspire many more. We expected species to die, others to flourish, and observation of which ones and the circumstances would be part of the knowledge building process. We didn’t think it would indicate “trouble” unless more than 50% of species died. In fact only about 15% died. We well knew in advance that carbon dioxide would fluctuate “wildly” in comparison to earth because the volume of the atmospheric buffer in Bio2 was tiny compared to earth’s. This is not a failure, it is simply the physics and atmospheric chemistry of that size system. That was not harmful (except for marginal concern about ocean acidification) and is unrelated to current concerns of CO2 and climate change in earth’s biosphere.
    2. The “vandalism” – momentary opening of doors – by two members of the original crew was a tiny blip in the continuity of closure, insignificant in the multiple years-long run of the system and easily noted in the record of operation. It was only shocking to the hyped mindset of the general public who had come to think that absolute continuity of total closure meant everything. In fact, the door opening was an attempt by those two individuals to warn the current Biospherian crew that the project had been seized by bankers and the knowledgeable management team abruptly banished from the site and denied all communication without notice which posed significant danger to the 2nd crew that was inside at the time.
    The true significance and history of Biosphere 2 remains hidden, buried by media repetition of the “failure” label. This article only hints at the ways that Biosphere 2 was a success.
    Bill Dempster – Director of Systems Engineering for the Biosphere 2 project, 1984 – 1994.

  2. Guy


    Thank you for your corrections; the inaccuracies are entirely down to my own research and layman’s perceptions.

    For me, Biosphere 2 remains the most thrilling experiment yet undertaken and my awe of the undertaking and of the people involved is undiminished.


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