By Donella Meadows
–October 28, 1993–
The managers at Space Biospheres Ventures probably wanted a welcome for their returning bionauts similar to the front-page headlines and parades we used to put on for astronauts.
What they got, when the eight residents of Biosphere 2 walked out after two years inside their oversized greenhouse, was soundbites and cruel cartoons. One cartoon showed Dopey, Doc, Happy, and company emerging from the biosphere, with the caption “Snow Job and the Several Dwarfs.”
That’s too bad, in one sense, and richly deserved in another.
The biospherians had an experience as extraordinary as a journey into space. They faced dangers, endured hardships, did research, wrote books, grew nearly every bite of food they ate, recycled all their water and most of their air. They tested the eco-savvy life that will be necessary if humans are to live for long periods in space — or on Biosphere l, the Earth.
Biosphere 2 is a stunning glass-covered building, five stories high at its peak, containing a miniature rainforest, ocean, prairie, swamp, desert, and farm. It is Arizona’s second most popular tourist attraction, surpassed only by the Grand Canyon. It combines the appeal of a lush resort (you can stay in air-conditioned rooms in an artificial oasis) and a zoo (through the glass you can watch Biospherians harvest rice, measure litter in the forest, or dive in the ocean to clean algae off the coral).
Environmentalists are fascinated with the scientific potential of this model earth. Biologists stocked it with 4000 species of plants and animals (plus volunteers, from sparrows to cockroaches to wild morning glories). Scientists analyze its nutrient and water flows, its atmospheric chemistry, and the way it handles pollutants. In the several-month period between the exit of the first resident crew and the entrance of the next one, researchers can go inside to do population counts, test soils, and take tissue samples.
But many of the scientists once associated with Biosphere 2 have distanced themselves from it. The press showers the project with ridicule, in spite of its $150 million price tag and its human interest. (Inside for TWO YEARS? With nothing going in or out? What do they breathe? What do they use for toilet paper?)
Why the disrespect? Why does the atmosphere surrounding Biosphere 2 always seem to have a toxic tinge?
The answer I get when I ask this question of people inside and outside Space Biospheres Ventures is: management. At the top of this privately owned project are a few people exerting too many controls of the wrong kind.
Every communication from and about Biosphere 2 must run through headquarters. Headquarters shows a consistent preference for image over truth. When the atmosphere of Biosphere 2 started going wrong, when a few tools and sundry items were smuggled through the seal, when the food supply proved inadequate, Space Biospheres Ventures admitted each problem too late, reluctantly, sometimes only after reporters had already found it out.
The managers had trouble admitting problems, because they had built up an absurd expectation that there should be no problems — on the maiden voyage of a “spaceship” that had millions of living parts, all of which had to be kept in balance for the whole to work. Every scientist I know expected problems with Biosphere 2. But in science experiments that don’t work are nothing to hide. They’re the source of learning.
Space Biospheres Ventures tries to look scientific, but it has a history of not listening to its scientists.
Don’t seal people in right away, the scientists said. Let us study the natural equilibrium of the biosphere for a year, before we let humans affect it — or be affected by it. But the public relations side of the project depended on the bionauts, so that advice was ignored. And almost immediately after closure the oxygen in the biosphere’s air started dropping. From a normal concentration of 21 percent it went down over the first year to 14 percent. The air was so thin the crew was living at the equivalent of an altitude of 14,000 feet. They had no energy, they had trouble sleeping. Finally a fleet of trucks was ordered to bring oxygen from Tucson.
The oxygen concentration dropped, it turned out, because of another instance of managerial overkill. A typical soil on earth contains about 4 percent organic matter. To ensure rapid food production in Biosphere 2, the farm soil was jazzed up with 15 percent compost and 15 percent peat. Thirty percent organic matter! That’s the equivalent of pre-stocking a hundred-year supply of fertilizer!
Instead of producing extra food (which in fact was limited by light, not organic nutrients), the rich soil oxidized, using up oxygen and turning out carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide then reacted with the abundant concrete in the building, turning it to flaky calcium carbonate.
To protect the immediate atmospheric balance and the ultimate structural integrity of the building, the scientists now advise a change of soil. That would involve replanting and a long delay before the next crew could be enclosed. So SBV is inclined just to pump in more oxygen.
That’s too bad. All the hype and hurry is too bad. There’s no need to turn Biosphere 2 into a snow job. Both the scientific and the human sides of its story are worth telling straight. The most important lessons from the experiment so far seem to be: slow down, quit trying to control the uncontrollable, listen to what the biosphere is telling you, go at its pace, not yours, and tell the truth.
Those are lessons that could be useful not just for Biosphere 2, but for Biosphere 1 as well.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993