Coming Unglued Aboard the Spaceship Earth

What if we kissed at the intersection of art and technocratic fascistic ideal? Jk. Unless...

In the 2020 documentary Spaceship Earth, the story of Biosphere 2, a closed-system experiment in ecology and the study of human impact on the Earth, is told, and as with most things applying technology, perhaps arrogantly, to the problems of the earth sciences, the equation grows murkier the further into the weeds one gets in service of identifying the variables past the point of productive observation. The plan seemed straight-forward enough; the concept’s creator John Allen believed it would likely take multiple attempts to create a successful biosphere (they would, ultimately, only get two, both with a similar failure requiring intervention that would violate the parameters of the experiment), and the investor, Ed Bass, would forgo a short-term return on his massive infusions of cash for the rights to license the successful output to organizations seeking to colonize space in the future using these concepts.

If you’re a reader of this newsletter, you might recall I have some problem with this approach to the sciences, capitalism, and the presumption that this framework can meaningfully prioritize human life appropriately against that of the environment (the former usually coming at the expense of the latter, if the latter is a consideration at all). This, however, will be not solely about capitalism’s corrupting influence on yet another facet of the life sciences, but one of ecology and architectural legacy.

The primary consideration here is the sheer magnitude of what constitutes a functioning biome; that Allen concluded it would take several attempts to successfully complete a mission, in my opinion, makes it less important that they did not complete the full two years (and there were multiple incursions into the sphere that constituted, by definition, failure, but did not terminate the experiment), but what doesn’t find itself mitigated is the presumption that anything could be concluded at all given this, and the science, even amongst its designers, is very much left in dispute. "[I joined] because funds for research were being cut and the institute seemed to have a lot of money which it was willing to spend freely. Along with others, I was ill-used. Their interest in science is not genuine. They seem to have some sort of secret agenda, they seem to be guided by some sort of religious or philosophical system." says Dr. Ghillean Prance, the designer of the rainforst biome inside the sphere. I think it’s, because of this, fair to assess Biosphere 2 philosophically, rather than scientifically.

In a chaotic system, there will always be another variable to consider, and typically one that, over enough time, and with enough additional complexity (either entropy increasing, or the amount unobserved being unaccounted for in such a calculation), the ability to resolve this system, or effectively replicate and deploy it modularly inside a self-sustaining space, makes a project like Biosphere 2 a particularly ambitious, and again, arrogant scientific endeavor, especially given that all of the failures could have been predicted, but occurred under somewhat unpredictible circumstances (O2 saturation, crop failure, use of emergency rations, injury, etc.) The philosophical question, instead, becomes: Before we conclude that terraforming—the most extreme example of adapting an unhospitable environment for a new ecology-, or at least a self-sustaining biosphere, is not possible, we have to ask ourselves what else could be done to achieve parity with the natural development of an ecology? Must function follow form, ironically, in order to maximally impact functionality?

Henry Adams once said "Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.”; what does this potentially imply for new inhabitants of a new ecology? Well, primarily, that imposing humanity’s will to direct nature will usually serve the goals of, neither, the ecology, nor its lifeforms, and that the productive outcomes may, likewise, neither be familiar, nor proportional. “The materials of city planning are: sky, space, trees, steel and cement; in that order and that hierarchy” said Le Corbusier, and perhaps this is sage advice when adapting to a new environment with which to create a biome; you consider the space, before considering your materials, and this is how you maximize the utility of all of it harmoniously.

Let us assume for a moment that this is something Allen and the other Biospherians were well aware of; they were, after all, speaking of climate change, and other material concerns for the ecosystem globally for decades, and this was far from a self-serving vanity project. The issue, of course, that sets Biosphere 2 as an organization apart from its mission and history as a hippe endeavor for giving humanity a new path forward, despite ideological and philosophical flaws in their logic towards a hard science of a known deep-well of complexity: It was, of course, partly the fault of enterprise.

By 1993, costs for the project were running out of control, and Ed Bass, whose family was enriched by oil interests in Texas, hired Steve Bannon (yes, that Steve Bannon) to correct this course, and bring the company back under control. At the time, Bannon expressed superficial concern for the climate change concerns shared by Allen, etc. (by all accounts, his politics and attitudes were no secret amongst even casual acquaintances, which is why this is performative, at best), but even his appointment by Bass spoke to a very real, very predictible, and very problematic set of competing motives for this effort to fail in its primary goal, and succeed only in its secondary goal of cashing Bass out. The short answer is that he probably was simply tired of waiting on a success that would yield an ROI, the longer answer is, again, cultural.

The oil and gas industry in the United States has a fraught relationship with renewable energy sources, anything approaching eco-friendliness is a threat cast as snake oil to a propagandized public, however, many oil conglomerates maintain interests in alternative energy on the off-chance they can profit as immensely in the meantime. The issue, however, is that this also requires facilitating the need for alternative energy while also profiting from denying it to the public while also insisting they do not need it, the cost is a healthy ecosystem, and one that, in 2020, is actively killing and being killed as a result of this ouroboros the embodies the relationship with the oil industry. This is a built-in sustainability issue for the planet, but more to this specific point, one for Biosphere 2; the mission could never succeed while this is a meta-goal for people like Bass. Consider the goal of a corporation who has a fundamental interest in making an alternative seem ridiculous, while it, itself, demonstrably causes the problem the alternative is seeking to solve; it’s a conflict unlikely to see a resolution—and this engineered failure is by careful design- when they, themselves, are awarding token funding to the alternatives to prove their efficacy.

This incongruity, one could takeaway, is the cause of by Biosphere 2 was destined for failure; the competing motives of its principals for the successful completion of its mission. However, the more real failure were the other factors; a willful arrogance of the complexities of the system they were seeking to replicate (not merely supplement or co-exist with, but completely remain discrete from), and the influence of the marketing required to make it a worthwhile commercial venture put the appearance of success on a higher tier than the actual scientific successes of the research being done. This, on some levels, mirrors the relationship I describe SpaceX as having with the government, albeit aspirationally in this case, two decades prior; an ability to sell to the government, while remaining the face of the work and, thus, the holders of the accomplishment on the taxpayer dime, rather than being contracted by the state to perform work in service of the larger public goal.

Looking at examples like BIOS-3 in the former USSR for similar closed-system experiments, and through the present for smaller-scale food experiments in closed-systems, yield smaller scale results, but reliably reproducible results as time goes on via work with the European Space Agency; a mirror of the idea that the competitive nature of pro-corporate capitalism makes these private entities make riskier life factor propositions for potentially larger financial returns, but taking the risk with very real consequences to the ecosystem, and the life within it, where the failures typically represent catastrophe— imagine Biosphere were successful on its first run in a highly-improbable scenario, and Bass’ vision came to fruition against the guidance of his scientific advisors, and only then did it fail upon deployment in a new, live environment? What was lost, and what could have been gained by determining the rightful place for humanity in a new ecology rather than imposing itself on that ecology? The pieces may never have been intended to fit, but even if they had, it’s a complex, and perhaps infinitely so (as we would be able to reason it, anyway), puzzle to guide through construction. It’s not merely hard, it’s complex, and it won’t be solved with the velocity required by the, even in the early 1990’s, entreprenurial culture we see today in ventures like Theranos, and other supposed breakthroughs that take liberties with the public interest.

A singularly human problem about architecture is that everything is, today, designed as if a single-family home is being built; this is true of everything from our actual homes, to our automobiles, to the way groups behave in public places like parks and grocery stores. This is doubly true where it would be inappropriate; the design of high-density housing like apartment complexes, a design inviting the constant overrunning of these interests, almost the antithesis of Charles Fourier’s phalanstery, making everyone’s solitude everyone else’s problem. The solution, it seems, both, to our modern condition, and to the problems of how to plan for successful human integration into new ecologies is, again, the wisdom of urban planners: “Our world, like a charnel-house, is strewn with the detritus of dead epochs” again said Le Corbusier. The mindset one could approach a solution is from respecting the enormity of the past; billions of years of geology, for example, is just one thing larger than ourselves to consider.

The flaw in the reasoning between Biosphere, and even today’s innovators in this space, is that we also, in imposing our will on nature, while trying to understand its inner-workings for replication and reproducibility in an otherwise hostile ecology, is an eurocentric one as well: the colonists in the Americas, for example, experienced almost unheard of levels of near-famine and crop failure upon planting in the so-called New World, while native crops thrived, and other factors aside, a huge reason why this was the same was, actually, pretty simple— native populations planted with the natural inclinations of the land, rather than the aesthetics one associated with well-organized fields of corn, etc. cities and villages built into the geography of the landscape in South and Central America, and so were the crops; these supplement, rather than supplant, the unopinionated sprawling of a natural ecology.

Zooming out, however, back to theory from which we can attempt to conceptualize much of these problem scopes and potential thought paths for proceeding forward, I mention Charles Fourier a moment ago, and I won’t apply too much of his thinking (there is much to criticize about Fourier, his theories, and utopian socialism as a whole as a philosophical exercise and practical agenda) here, but one piece of wisdom about how we build applies to this entire endeavor that I think is worth sharing: “The method of doubt must be applied to civilization; we must doubt its necessity, its excellence, and its permanence.” On the surface, this seems regressive—perhaps even antithetical to the idea of societal growth and cooperation-, but taken conceptually, it’s an indictment of grand pursuit for its own sake, against the interests of the whole, building a civilization, but to whom the benefits go is an important matter to clarify and understand for planning something like a city, to say nothing of a biome, or fully-sustainable biosphere.

The concept of the phalanstery that Fourier envisions in utopian socialism is one of a barracks in volume, but of a monastary in spirituality; minimal without being bare, but with space for individual expression within a community working towards a common sustenance. While the attempts at self-sustaining utopias have, largely, failed, there is a successful scale that, again, precludes the notion one might aim high for it to be worth aiming at all (i.e. Biosphere 2 running at full-scale planning on repeated, full-scale, full-length failure), that intentional pockets of agrarianism can be meaningfully self-sustaining (consider the example of the kibbutzim), and thrive amongst its ecosystem. Much broader, and you risk shifting the balance against yourself.



Recent things I’ve read, listened to, or watched that I am now recommending:

"Utopias and Architecture" by Nathaniel Coleman

The Lost History of One of the World’s Strangest Science Experiments

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Data & Reality