Reinventing the World

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

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.

Synergia Ranch, Santa Fe

By John Allen

—excerpted, with permission, from Me and the Biospheres: A Memoir by the Inventor of Biosphere 2 by John Allen, Synergetic Press, 2009

In 1966, while consulting to a gold and palladium outfit in the Cerrillos Hills near Santa Fe, New Mexico (whose flamboyant owner combined work with Interpol checking out promoters with promoting his own mining claims), I identified a nearby ranch as a high-energy, life giving place. In the spring of 1969, Marie Harding put all her capital, $14,500, into a down payment on the last quarter section of that small ranch while I raised $7,000 in capital from several partners, also anteing up my last $500 to buy tools to get materials (by taking down old houses doomed to fall under a “developer’s” bulldozers) to build housing, animal areas, and carpentry, pottery, iron-work, and architectural shops. We started our project adventures.

Cerrillos, our bioregion, presented us with a very interesting combination of geology, ecosystems, and cultures. A transition zone between the Chihuahuan desert, high plains grasslands, and piñon and juniper biomes, where all these life forms mingle and compete, the Cerrillos Hills is a place where only the sturdiest individuals had survived. Culturally, the Cerrillos Hills had been an old mining district, perhaps the oldest in the United States, its turquoise having been highly desired by the Aztecs whose empire extended to Mount Chalchihuitl, a mile and a half from the ranch. The northwestern edge of its juniper-and piñon-studded slopes marked the boundary of the Santo Domingo reservation; its hills had filled with mining claims and a few value-laden mines, its slopes been staked out by several ranches. The Hispanic culture interacted with the ranches and mines. Occasional Indian hunting parties sought its rabbits and some of its few deer.

The Cerrillos area fell into the ambit of Santa Fe’s complex life after most of the town of Cerrillos was washed away by flash floods caused by miners cutting down too many trees for their small smelters and most of the mines had been exhausted. Los Alamos and Sandia Laboratories, each located an hour away, ensured access to the cutting edge of the scientific milieu. Santa Fe also has served for generations as a favorite hideout for outstanding anthropologists and as an inspiration for certain artists and writers.

Marie and I named our find Synergia Ranch and found two other co-founders, Kathelin Hoffman Gray, theater director, and Bill Dempster, systems engineer, who are still operating it with us. I envisioned it as a complex, dynamic, adaptable system with many component parts, all interacting in a self-organizing (non-planned) way.

At the ranch, various entrepreneurs set up various studios; Marie in pottery, along with her painter’s studio and her horses; the brilliant young dancer and director, Kathelin Hoffman Gray, in theater; the dancer-musician Celia Davis in a clothing-costume shop; the versatile Joel Isaacson in metal works; avant-garde dancer Annette Longuevan in leatherworks; Robert Hahn in the laboratory making our cure for plant ailments; Phil Hawes (AIA) in plumbing; and Chili Hawes (a key advocate of natural childbirth in the Santa Fe community and active member of the La Leche League which encouraged breast-feeding) in health works. Bill Dempster, a mathematician and physics graduate from Berkeley who had been working at Lawrence Radiation Laboratories, took primary responsibility for the engineering systems, and quickly became a versatile actor and my long-term merciless antagonist in our rapid games of Go. Dick Brown, a master technician, and an artist whom I had met on the Hrvatskawhen sailing for Tangiers, co-founded the woodworks shop with me.

This profitable and productive woodshop, at its height run by four partners including Mark Nelson and Argos MacCallum, played a vital role in building our ranch facilities and furniture, its doors and windows, and also provided cash flow for the owners from the sales of hundreds of our unique tables, doors, and chairs.

Besides a number of diverse enterprises run by the above individuals for their economic livelihood, people at the ranch participated to varying degrees in theater productions and the evolving line of work on ecotechnics. My special fields were basic building design, construction and theater. I set up our overall marketing system, called Biotechnic Bazaars, which became quite popular, and thus we financed the start of our fascinating and enlightening adventures. Each enterprise put in ten percent of its income to building and maintaining the infrastructure. We governed the ranch on Wilhelm Reich’s “work democracy” principle: you got to speak on any area where you did responsible work. No one could pop off about something where they did no work, and no one could be excluded from decisions in areas in which they worked.

For agricultural experiments, after major discussion with two remarkable local innovators, Steve Baer and Steve Durkee, on growing food cheaply year round in high cold New Mexico, I constructed two semi-enclosed “grow-holes.” Besides the cheap good vegetables, I tested hydroponic methods against soil-based methods of growing and found soil by far the best and most economical for complex, sustainable, recyclable agriculture. If they are properly worked, soils can increase their productivity. This work on soils and temperature, commenced in 1970 (and which continues today at Synergia Ranch), was to provide guidelines for the extraordinarily productive agriculture in Biosphere 2.

We ran the kitchen at the ranch on the efficient style of a kibbutz near the Lake of Galilee at which I worked for a brief time in late 1968. I called it Synesthesia because we all agreed that the entire, differentiated, aesthetic continuum was needed to complete the protein, carbohydrate, fats, and vitamin calculations. Each dinner, therefore, had not only a chef or chefs, but also a person who did the environment, or ambiance; each kitchen team, rotated daily, put on a skit based on our theater exercises that aimed to highlight the mood of the day and increase the actors’ ability. We treated each dinner as a feast, each Sunday night as special, and each equinox and solstice as a celebration of cosmic-solar-geo-bio-ethno harmony.

Convinced that no enterprise can succeed without its players being able to speak well, we made Sunday night dinners into “free speech nights,” which constituted part of the training for our actors and built vital entrepreneurial skills. Each ranch member made a three to five minute speech on a self-chosen topic. No one could argue about what anyone said; it had to be listened to. Some plunged us into deep thought, some cracked us up in laughter, some produced silent but effective audience feedback that resulted in improved performance.

In 1980 we integrated our architectural and design work into a new corporation called Biospheric Design, whose primary mission consisted of designing and building projects initiated by the Institute of Ecotechnics. Margaret was CEO and she, Phil Hawes, Marie Harding, Bill Dempster, Ed Bass, Kathelin Hoffman and Robert Hahn all bought stock to start up the new company. No one owned more than twenty percent. Biospheric Design became possible because we had completed our initial learning curve building Synergia Ranch and its various artisan shops and labs, followed by Synopco’s Project Llano in Santa Fe.

The Hispanic family that owned the llano, now comprising over three hundred individuals, had deliberately spread the ownership in order not to lose the land to a fast-talking Anglo. However, their leaders liked our style, as seen at Camino Manzano and Synergia Ranch, where we made thousands of adobe bricks by hand in the old wooden forms. They volunteered to get all of those relatives’ signatures, thus enabling the land to be sold to us. At last, I could build the thick-walled adobe paradise I had dreamed of, with efficient plumbing and electricity, with the best trees preserved, the occasional fruit tree planted, and paths and certain areas to remain common property. Our Hispanic friends said, “It will improve Santa Fe for all of us.”

In addition to the two tour de force houses on Camino Manzano and thirty-one houses at Llano Compound, we also built five new buildings to make the base for Project Tibet on Canyon Road, and Plaza Alegre on the road to Taos. The success of Synergia Ranch and the Santa Fe projects inspired and created the intellectual and technical capital for expanding into the more demanding type projects that would take the next step toward building Biosphere 2. Our toast: “Step by lucky step.” Our motto: “We deliver.”

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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