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Reinventing the World

The inventor of Biosphere 2 looks back at his original—and controversial—life experiment

February 18, 2009, 12:00 am

The Poetics of Science: An Interview with John Allen

Biosphere 2 inventor John Allen, nearly 80 now, has an easy laugh. He loves his own stories and, despite the hundreds of times he must have told them over the years, he still doubles over in his chair at some of his recollections. He doesn’t seem to regret a moment of the decades of his life he dedicated to a controversial experiment that he willingly—perhaps eagerly—abandoned shortly after its first mission. In the years since Biosphere 2, he has published a number of books of poetry and fiction under the name Johnny Dolphin, and continues his quest to enlighten the world about total systems science—the study of interconnectedness.

It didn’t come without preparations. While Allen didn’t train specifically in total systems science—which was taught occasionally in the mid-20th century and is hardly taught today—he believes his range of educational experiences equipped him for attempting Biosphere 2. In 1946, he first went to Northwestern University, where he studied anthropology for a year. From there he organized union laborers in San Francisco and attended Stanford University for a quarter to study writing.

Allen attended the Colorado School of Mines from 1953 to 1957 and studied more about engineering, infrastructure and raw materials; after the School of Mines, he worked both at uranium mines and at Allegheny Ludlum, a metal company, honing his knowledge of rare metals and potentially harmful chemicals. The last component of his education was two years at Harvard Business School, where he learned the finer points of financing (a skill that came in handy while building Biosphere 2—the building alone cost $150 million).

Some might argue that Allen isn’t a trained scientist and, therefore, didn’t have the credentials to envision, much less carry out, such a massive undertaking as Biosphere 2. Allen is ready to set them straight.

SFR: You were making green buildings before it was cool. What are your thoughts on the current green-building craze?
JA: Well, parts of it are very good, and parts of it are just a way to make money. In America, you always have to distinguish the two. You can have a good idea, then someone says, ‘Now, you know if we do this to it, we can make some money off it.’
For example, a very simple thing is using adobe. But you don’t see hardly
anybody using it. You know why? You can’t make any money off it. It’s very time-consuming. Once you can make a product, you have to put the whole thing together, then you can charge a profit on it.
At Synergia, we knew adobe because we—about 16 of us—made all these adobe buildings here. If these buildings fall down, they more or less return to exactly where they came from.

There has been a lot of criticism of Biosphere 2—what is your response to some of those criticisms?
Some critics said, ‘Well, there was a weight loss.’ Well yes, there was a weight loss. But most Americans are overweight. One of the biospherians, she’d been a peace corps volunteer in Nepal for a year, and she lost three pounds less in Biosphere 2 than she did working for a year in the Nepalese village. Another participant really suffered—well, she said she did and I’m sure she did—but she had been raised in five-star hotels. Everybody went up in health. In fact, most people, by Western medical standards, actually de-aged.

There are also some rumors that the participants weren’t getting along by the end.
I learned from NASA that, as long as people still eat together, we consider it a high-morale mission. So we did our best to make a really good kitchen. They all did their job and they all kept eating together. According to NASA, that shows it was a good work crew. I think there was a split in the American scientific community, and four of them took the side of the reductionist scientists and four of them took the side of systems scientists.

Can you speak a little more about that split?
In today’s America, there’s been such a reductionist approach to everything. And the part of science that is most profitable is reductionist hypothesis-driven science because you can get a patent for any discovery there. Naturalist observation was downplayed and systems science was practically forbidden…
You’re not going to have a real approach to working with the biosphere ’til it’s looked at from a biospheric standpoint. What that means is you look at the total impact. The big breakthrough of any established power pushing biospheric thinking hasn’t occurred. There’s not any sign that the new administration has any more idea of biospherics than the old one. It’s not through any fault or lack of intellectual curiosity on the part of somebody like Obama, but it’s verboten. You don’t even see a subject called biospherics.

Why not?
If you were sitting like these people, giving themselves bonuses of $500 million here and there, would you want to be examined from a total systems standpoint to see why you’re worth that much? No, you wouldn’t.

Biospherics, then, has much larger implications than just a glass structure in southern Arizona.
Yes. For example, say if the Iraq War was analyzed in terms of who made money and how much money out of it. If you studied biospherics, you’d understand total systems. If you understood total systems, you’d probably apply it to the technosphere, the ethnosphere; you’d start looking at total systems everywhere. If people looked at total systems, they’d cease being helplessly pushed around by propaganda that is aimed at maximizing profits or power or prestige.

What does this mean, then, for the physical structure of Biosphere 2?
Biosphere 2 was a symbol. It was a symbol of comprehensive thinking. That’s not taught—the schools, even Oxford and Harvard, have become more and more specialized. If you specialize, it’s easier, you don’t have to study so hard, and you get a job. And if that particular specialist job doesn’t exist, a classical education, an education in complexity, would have produced people who could perceive their way out of any situation they found themselves in. That was the idea. It was the old frontier idea. No matter how they got twisted around or thrown, they would land on their intellectual feet.
Anyhow, Biosphere 2 exists as a symbol and, as long as the structure stays there, it can remind us of the fact that humans could look at this life system around the planet as a total system and start working top-down, and see whether or not it should be modified.

On the green-building front, land around Biosphere 2 was recently sold to developers. Couldn’t some people say development is counter to what the Biosphere is trying to accomplish?
Actually, we worked with the county. That particular county between Phoenix and Tucson had no ecological committee. So we donated ecological consulting, and they wrote up a whole ecological development plan for that county. And so any development that comes in there has to go with that.

Was it sad when Biosphere 2 was out of your hands?
It was sad and it was a great relief. I designed it and the team working with me designed it on the basis that it was a 100-year human experiment. Now, it was a human experiment on two levels. Most people thought that meant the humans inside. But I meant humans inside and outside, an experiment on what humanity would do with a biosphere. We’ve had, for example, Biosphere 2 broken down, some ecosystems exploited, other ecosystems destroyed; you get a diminution of species variety, you get a real estate development. So basically the history of Biosphere 2 still has 82 years to go! So the 100-year experiment is still underway with very interesting data still coming in.  SFR

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