Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Most Stupid Misadventure

Planet in a bottle - Biuosphere

"At 8:15 am on 26 September 1991, eight “bionauts,” as they called themselves, wearing identical red Star Trek–like jumpsuits (made for them by Marilyn Monroe’s former dressmaker) waved to the assembled crowd and climbed through an airlock door in the Arizona desert. They shut it behind them and opened another that led into a series of hermetically sealed greenhouses in which they would live for the next two years. The 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."

"Life inside the glass city was colored by its inventors’ countercultural idealism. They had all met on the Synergia Ranch, a commune they founded near Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the late 1960s and ran according to Wilhelm Reich’s idea of “work democracy”; they practiced improvisational theatre and made a fortune building developments of adobe condos, which helped pay for the Biosphere (the commune is described in Laurence Veysey’s 1971 ethnography, The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Communities in Twentieth-Century America). The Biosphere’s half-acre arable plot had been cultivated for three months in preparation for the crew’s arrival to what was supposed to be a high-tech Eden. However, the members of the chosen team lacked experience as farmers and, despite reading how-to manuals with titles such as How to Grow More Vegetables than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine, yields were disappointing and they began to starve.

The bionauts had to perform hard physical labor to produce their food, but there was only enough for them to consume a measly 1750 calories a day, and they found it difficult to sustain such active lives. On a diet of beans, porridge, beets, carrots, and sweet potatoes, their weight plummeted and their skin began to go orange as a result of the excess beta-carotene in their diet. “It was very stressful, especially with a crew like that,” recalled Sally Silverstone, the Agriculture and Food Systems Manager, “essentially white middle-class, upper-middle-class Western individuals who had never been short of food in their whole life—it was a tremendous shock.”

Silverstone would weigh out the day’s allotment of fresh food for whoever’s turn it was to cook, entering into a computer database the amount of nutrients to check that the crew was keeping above the recommended intake levels of calories, proteins, and fats. At first the meals were served buffet style but, as the crew got hungrier, the cooks scrupulously divided their offerings into equal portions. Leaving every meal still hungry, all the bionauts could think about was food, and their memoirs of the two-year project are full of references to their recurring dreams of McDonald’s hamburgers, lobster, sushi, Snickers-bar cheesecake, lox and bagels, croissants, and whiskey. They bartered most of their possessions, but food was too precious to trade. They became sluggish and irritable through lack of it, and were driven by hunger to acts of sabotage. Bananas were stolen from the basement storeroom; the freezer had to be locked."


"The rest of the time they were so famished they chewed on peanut shells, coffee grounds, and banana skins. Fennel leaves became known as “biospherian chewing gum.”

When the crew emerged from the experiment after two years, the project was judged by the media to be a failure. Early in the second year, carbon dioxide levels had risen so high (twelve times that of the outside) that the crew were growing faint and Walford asked for more oxygen to be pumped into the structure on two occasions. The Biosphere had proved not to be a self-sufficient, autonomous world as it would need to be if it were to become a base station on another planet. In 1999, by which time the Biosphere had been taken over by Columbia University as a research center into the effects of climate change,Time magazine judged it one of the hundred worst ideas of the twentieth century."


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