Sunday, August 14, 2011

Biosphere 2: A Cautionary Tale Of Utopianism

Those that know me well will know that I take certain perverse pleasures in outstanding acts of human hubris.  There is something fascinating about processes, frequently by determinist ideologies, that drive the creation bubble economies built around perversities (the Dutch 15h century 'Tulip mania' is a favorite dinner party topic) or monuments to extreme arrogance or ostentatious wealth teamed with no sense (the mad proposals for Paris of  Le Courbusier and the 'stupid buildings' of Dubai excellent example of the former and then latter). Wrong-headed attempts at social engineering may be among the most Schadenfreude rich.  To wit, I've been reading a lot about I've been reading up a lot on Biosphere 2 recently (which came out of the commune and ecology movements of the late 60s) which I think is one of the more fabulous and flawed ideas that humanity has attempted. Biosphere 2 something of a pitch-perfect example of a fraught pseudo-scientific concept being used to underpin a crazed enterprise with disastrous results.

Housed in a stretch of the Arizona desert, a recent Cabinet magazine article on Biosphere 2 described it as:

...[A] three-acre complex of interconnected glass Mesoamerican pyramids, geodesic domes, and vaulted structures contained a tropical rain forest, a grassland savannah, a mangrove wetland, a farm, and a salt-water ocean with a wave machine and gravelly beach. This was Biosphere 2—the first biosphere being Earth—a $150 million experiment designed to see if, in a climate of nuclear and ecological fear, the colonization of space might be possible. The project was described in the press as a “planet in a bottle,” “Eden revisited,” and “Greenhouse Ark.
The project caught the national imagination. Discover, the popular science magazine, declared the mission “the most exciting venture to be undertaken in the US since President Kennedy launched us towards the moon.” Tourists came by the busload to peer through the glass at the bionauts, trapped in their vivarium like laboratory rats (the project was an acknowledged precursor to the Big Brother reality-TV show). Over the first six months, 159,000 people visited, including William S. Burroughs and Timothy Leary.

Biosphere 2 had a prominent role in the most recent Adam Curtis documentary cycle: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. Over the course of that series, Curtis made the case that a false notion of ecology - notably that natural systems are in any way balanced - promoted a mechanistic (almost Descarte-like) view of the world that resulted in the creation of non-hierarchical institutions that failed to govern effectively, enabled the abuse of minorities and proved damaging in the long-run to the notion of a 'common good'.

In a promotional article for that series, Curtis provides a slightly different summary of the Biosphere 2 project and it's eventual collapse:

Biosphere 2 was a giant sealed world. Eight humans were locked in with a mass of flora and other fauna, and a balanced ecosystem was supposed to naturally emerge. But from the start it was completely unbalanced. The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the "ocean" and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse – the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The "bionauts" began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another's faces. A psychiatrist was brought in to see if they had gone insane, but concluded simply that it was a struggle for power.
Then millions of ants appeared from nowhere and waged war on the cockroaches. In 1993 the experiment collapsed in chaos and hatred....

Curtis concludes the piece:

...At the end of Biosphere 2 the ants destroyed the cockroaches. They then proceeded to eat through the silicone seal that enclosed the world. Through collective action the ants worked together and effectively destroyed the existing system. They then marched off into the Arizona desert. Who knows what they got up to there.

What was so wrong-headed about Biosphere 2 was it was Utopianism projected onto non-scientific assumptions under the guise of being 'good' science.  Like with many economic models, you can build as many fancy mathematical equations you want on top of a false assumption, but that hardly makes the assumption any more accurate.  That biosphere 2 ended with a colony of ants - a 'superorganism' structured, surprisingly, almost as a fascist state* - obliterating an army of cockroaches and escaping into the wild is almost too perfect a metaphor for the whole endeavor. The arrogance of attempting to control and 'game' natural systems deserves no less.

Surprisingly, the near starvation conditions resulting from Biosphere 2's food production shortages and shortcomings were actually recommended and promoted by the doctor tasked with monitoring and advising the bionauts on their health and nutrition.  The doctor you see had pioneered said diet and believed that it's test within the context of Biosphere 2 was proof of it's efficacy.  After all, though the bionauts appeared half-starved and weak, they were relatively free of disease.  To this day, there remains nutritional pseudo-cults that believe (admittedly with some evidence) that these diets may greatly prolong human life spans and guard against illnesses.  One gets the feeling that the ascetic demands of the diet are such that, salubrious health affects aside, death may be preferable option.

Perhaps the most clear lesson is, as with the human race's experiments with Social Darwinism, Communism, Fascism, American style capitalism and other absolutist ideologies that promise Utopia of one sort or another - any belief system that relies on various rationale rather than pragmatism seem doomed to collapse under their own self-importance and hubris.  The human desire to build Utopia seems to frequently result in dystopia instead.

Our finest achievements are indeed visionary, but are flexible and perhaps the best that can be said for them is that they succeed in meeting particular needs with limited maintenance. As our ability to 'know' natural systems, let alone control them is highly limited - thus our ability to effectively 'play god' also remains limited. Certain grand ideas can be effective, but they are not always the ideas that stir the public imagination.  Because we think we can know everything, the solutions we arrive at tend to be those that play towards our desire for simple, or elegant solutions that sweep all considerations into a single, satisfying package.  This is not how organisms or natural systems actually work however, creating a disconnect that can often be dangerous. Thinking 'big' is not the problem - thinking ideologically is.

As for Biosphere 2: after the 'bionauts' were eventually evacuated, the project went bankrupt in a cloud of disgrace.  In the 90s it was resealed and resuscitated as a research station by the University of Arizona and the research project was eventually taken over by Columbia University in New York. While certain breakthroughs about how microclimates or biological phenomena operate in a closed system may yet be derived through the ongoing operation in some way of Biosphere 2, what remains most educational remains social. This does not simply constitute the break-downs and power relationships of the 'bionauts' while they 'manned' Biosphere 2, but rather the ideological system and thinking patterns that built Biosphere 2 in the first place. It may also be the hardest of lessons to learn.


*All insects are fascists, which was why Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers was so effective (almost more so the Paul Verhoeven film adaptation) - you were left wondering which society was the more totalitarian, that of the 'bugs' or that of the humans that waged war against them.

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