Biosphere 2's highly productive farm system, a rebuke to industrial agriculture, went beyond organic standards; there was no car inside Biosphere 2, and its non-polluting technosphere called into question our tolerance of pollution.
In 1991, eight men and women entered Biosphere 2 to start its first two-year experiment.
Their miniature world included rainforest, savannah, desert, marsh, coral reef ocean, an organic farm, laboratories and living quarters. The goal was to study how these ecosystems developed, and to learn how humans and our technologies can harmonise with the rest of nature. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before.
Biosphere 2 caught the world's imagination. But few people understood the historical and scientific context from which the project emerged. This contributed to widespread media misunderstanding of the goals and achievements of Biosphere 2.
The sciences which Biosphere 2 drew on included the Vernadsky biospheric school, the discipline of ecotechnics, bioregenerative life support for space travel, and ecological engineering.
V. I. Vernadsky pioneered our modern understanding of Earth’s biosphere. Life is not merely a passenger on the surface of our planet: it has profoundly transformed it over billions of years.
Vernadsky also foresaw the growing conflict between the human technosphere, and the biosphere. He believed as humanity gained scientific understanding of the Earth and became more cognizant of the consequences of our actions, a noosphere (sphere of intelligence) would eventually arise.
In the 1960s work in laboratory closed ecological systems began. These experiments built on earlier investigations of microcosms and mesocosms, which studied open ecosystems at small scale to gain insights into larger scale natural processes.
Spaceflight brought the challenge of how to sustain humans outside our biospheric life support system. Bioregenerative systems use natural biological processes to grow food, and clean and recycle air and water reducing the need for consumables launched from Earth. It will be necessary for long-term habitation off-planet.
Soviet scientists made the greatest progress in this field. Regeneration of air and water was achieved using algae at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow At the Bios-3 facility of the Institute of Biophysics in Krasnoyarsk, six-month experiments supported 2-3 people using a variety of food crops.
As ecologists began to expand their scope to include the impact of cities, industry, and agriculture, the discipline of ecological engineering emerged. This approach uses natural mechanisms to mitigate and prevent environmental degradation.
The seeds for Biosphere 2 were planted in 1969, when John P. Allen, its inventor, and colleagues, including myself, founded the Institute of Ecotechnics. The discipline of ecotechnics, which has parallels in the "appropriate technology” movement, seeks to meet human needs using technologies that enhance local ecosystems.
To gain practical experience, we set up field projects in different biomes. We also organized a series of international conferences, bringing together the world-class scientists and engineers needed to build Biosphere 2.
Most ecological studies cover very small areas, last less than 5 years, and rarely include a dozen species. Biosphere 2 was designed for a hundred years of operation and - radically for an ecological experiment - included humans and their technologies.
Scales of complexity
Biosphere 2 was not intended to be a “space colony”, nor to be absolutely self-sufficient, nor to function perfectly on the first try. Biosphere 2’s goals were to study fundamental properties and processes of biospheres, to develop eco-technologies, and to contribute to the new discipline of biospherics.
Much of the media misunderstood that these were the goals, forgetting that Biosphere 2 was an experimental facility to learn as much from what went “wrong” (surprises) as what went according to plan. Though small experiments can reveal fundamental mechanisms within ecosystems, several scales of complexity are needed to give insights into how the biosphere as a whole supports life.
Ensuring that Biosphere 2 could purify its air, water and waste water led to advances in ecologically sound technologies. Because of the tightly sealed structure, all technologies and materials had to be non-injurious to the life inside.
Biosphere 2’s technosphere’s prime criterion was to support and enhance life. For this reason, cooperating Russian scientists from Moscow and Siberia (who appreciated we’d moved closed systems science to a Vernadskian, biospheric level) joked that Biosphere 2 should have been named “Noosphere 1”.
What would happen if we placed similar demands on Earth's technosphere?
Business as usual
In retrospect, it’s clear how this mini-biosphere threatened the status quo.
Biosphere 2's highly productive farm system, a rebuke to industrial agriculture, went beyond organic standards; there was no car inside Biosphere 2, and its non-polluting technosphere called into question our tolerance of pollution; its reverence for and maintenance of wilderness biomes contrasted with destruction of Earth’s natural wonders.
The project expanded ecological science beyond its usual small-scale focus to include studying how humans live with a biospheric system. Perhaps then it should not be so surprising that the media outlets who serve that industrial society, many of them owned by corporations benefiting from business as usual, obscured Biosphere 2’s significance with sensationalism and focus on personalities.
Biosphere 2's importance went well beyond the technologies that enabled it to function and reveal profound implications for the society outside its walls. We humans inside had to alter our behavior and learn to be “biospherians.”
The exigencies of creating and maintaining a small world parallel what we need to do to survive as biospherians of Earth: manage the atmosphere, protect biodiversity, synergize with the ecological development of our biomes.
This profoundly changing experience moved all eight of us to celebrate in art, music, poetry and film the life of our mini-biosphere. The state of mindfulness necessary to understand viscerally our dependence on and connection to a living world runs deep and is full of joy.
We envisioned that Biosphere 2 would be the first of many mini-biospheres of varying scale and complexity to advance the study of “comparative biospheres.” Biosphere 2’s biomes have contributed to landmark studies: for example, on the response of coral reefs and rainforests to global climate change. It is now owned and operated by the University of Arizona.
Biosphere 2 was a visionary project. The endeavor’s significance is deepened by recognition that we live in the Anthropocene era marked by unprecedented human planetary impacts.
For many, the profound connection and dependence of humans on our biosphere remain abstractions. But when we lived and worked inside Biosphere 2, that connection became an ever-present experience.
Biosphere 2 underlined that humanity needs to learn: taking care of our global biosphere is, for us humans and indeed all of life, our most urgent priority.
Mark Nelson, Ph.D., is the chairman of the Institute of Ecotechnics (US/UK) and associate editor of Life Sciences in Space Research. He was a member of the biospherian crew inside Biosphere 2 for its first two-year closure experiment (1991-1993) and has just published “Pushing our Limits: Insights from Biosphere 2” (2018, University of Arizona Press).
10 September (1pm), Kew Science Seminar, Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew: “Biosphere 2’s Bold Experiment in Global Ecology". Places are limited: if you would like to attend please contact KewScience@Kew.org.
11 September (12.30pm), The Linnean Society of London, with Sir Ghillean Prance.
13 September (5pm), Eden Project, Cornwall.
18 September (6.30pm), October Gallery, London.