In May 1984, John Allen was ready to launch plans for the project that had become his life’s work. Biosphere 2 had been developing in his brain since the early 1960s—at least philosophically. What Allen wanted to design was an experimental structure that put to use the total systems approach to society, ecology and his own life.
For Allen, total systems describes a scientific philosophy in which everything is linked—be it the arts or soil quality. Allen aimed to prove such interconnectivity through the construction of a completely closed 3.14 acre system including plants, animals and humans that could conceivably fully sustain eight people for at least two years.
Biosphere 2 was designed to replicate Biosphere 1—aka, the Earth—in its ecological processes, as well as the habitat it provided for the humans set to live inside it. Different sections of the completely sealed structure represented a shallow ocean, a desert, a savanna, an intensive agricultural area, a rainforest and living quarters for the inhabitants; it could, in theory, fully support human habitation for up to 100 years with absolutely no contact from the outside world. For the sake of time constraints, Allen resolved to plan an experimental habitation for two years.
In the early ’70s, Allen and his colleagues formed an innovative theater troupe in Fort Worth, Texas. And in the mid ’70s, they used recycled materials to build Synergia Ranch just outside Santa Fe.
By 1984, Allen was ready to launch concrete plans on Biosphere 2. By 1991, the facility—which was partially funded by sustainable building projects he had overseen in Santa Fe, including the Llano Compound on Palace Avenue—was built in southern Arizona. Eight “bio-spherians” were selected, a top-notch scientific staff was assembled, and all systems were go.
The two-year mission, which concluded in September 1993, was viewed as a complete success by some, a mixed bag by others and a complete farce by its harshest critics.
While medical consultants proclaimed that the biospherians “de-aged” during their two years locked in the bubble, others cited some biospherians’ claims of hunger and weight loss as a sign of systems failure. Some people couldn’t see the scientific merit of these experiments and called the whole enterprise a very expensive toy for new-age, pseudo-scientific games. There will never be a consensus on the true outcome of Biosphere 2. Today, Biosphere 2 is run by the University of Arizona, which describes the facility as “part laboratory, part tourist attraction, part sustainability demo site, part conference center, part public-education facility.” It has become a tourist destination and a favorite spot for school field trips.
Fifteen years after his retirement from direct involvement with the Biosphere, Allen has recently published Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir by the Inventor of Biosphere 2—a memoir of just about everything that went into the Biosphere’s creation, from construction of adobe houses on Palace Avenue to relationships with Russian scientists for scientific research.
Allen’s office, as well as the offices of the publishing company Synergetic Press, is still housed at Synergia Ranch, the complex that he and a group of almost 20 like-minded conservationists built by hand in the ’70s from adobe and recycled materials. The land is surrounded by some of the most beautiful views northern New Mexico has to offer: the purple outline of the Ortiz, the Sangre de Cristos glowing pink in the sunset, windows along Route 14 glinting in the sun.
This week, SFR presents a chapter excerpt from Me and the Biospheres and an interview with Allen from his office in the Cerrillos Hills.
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