Twenty miles north of Tucson, on a spectacular desert site nestled in the Catalina Mountains, a self-contained miniature Earth is about to be born. Just after passing the guard gate on the 2,500-acre SunSpace Ranch, an eye-popping glass terrarium the size of three football fields glimmers under the desert sun. The airtight, waterproof structure of Biosphere 2--built by the avant-garde Pearce Systems--is stunning in its scope and beauty.
Inside and around this saguaro-ringed Arizona complex near the town of Oracle, there's a mounting anticipation, expectation, almost a fervor--probably akin to the frisson that permeated Alamogordo 46 years ago--that all involved are on the verge of something Very Big.
When the few remaining glass plates are sealed in the coming months, Biosphere 2 will become home to an eight-person crew and 4,000 plant and animal species which--cut off from the Earth's atmosphere--will attempt to sustain themselves for two years. Eventually, they hope to do so for as much as a century.
I tingle as I enter this near-completed replicate world, as if I'd been transported onto the set of the cult classic Silent Running. In the lush swaddle of the tropical rain forest "biome," a fertile humidity caresses my lungs and the gentle babble of the human-made waterfall soothes and calms. Above me, a mechanical cloud generator spews a white puff that gathers and lingers underneath the sylvan canopy. From this, the highest vantage point inside the human aquarium, I can see the four other biomes--a savanna, a desert, an ocean, a marsh--stretched out below, four complete ecosystems each simultaneously autonomous and interdependent, each with a complex set of tasks in achieving a biological balance.
From the rain forest, a trail through a bamboo grove winds down past a lagoon, over a Caribbean coral reef, and skirts the "ocean," which is delicately stirred by a wave machine and teeming with fish. A white sand beach against a grayish rock cliff seems lifted from Acapulco.
To the left and upward, African grasslands form a verdant savanna (a primary source of oxygen), which eventually yields to the Biosphere's low point--a cactus-studded desert much like the one on the other side of the MD120glass. Beside the mosquelike structure that will be living quarters for the human crew, "intensive agriculture" plots will serve as the Biospherians' breadbasket. Organic "soil bed reactors"--composed of plants and special microbes--will purify the air, the Biospherians claim. At the bottom end of the intensive ag area, tanks of tilapia fish will not only provide protein for the humans but their waste will fertilize the adjacent rice crops. Algae to feed the fish will be fertilized by recycled human waste.
Conceived as a fusion of earth sciences and high technology, Biosphere 2's basement--the "Technosphere"--is crammed with tens of millions of dollars in electronic and mechanical systems. As I descend a winding staircase, I enter what looks like the innards of a battleship or, better yet, a submarine. Air movers and filters hum, mulchers and recyclers crunch and clang, banks of computers, sensors, and monitors blink and flash. On either side of the Biosphere, two humongous "lungs"--each the size of a high school gymnasium, each with an eight-ton rubber diaphragm--expand and contract as the glass dome's interior temperature rises and falls.
After six years of planning and construction costing $100 million--provided by Edward Bass, a member of America's fourth richest family--and after more than a year of postponements of its "launch date," the facility is now scheduled for "final enclosure" sometime this year. Some compare Biosphere to Noah's Ark. Discover magazine calls it "the most exciting scientific project to be undertaken in the U.S. since President Kennedy launched us toward the moon." Established as a for-profit venture-capital enterprise, the Biosphere intends to make scientific history while making money. Its stated research goals--in these ecologically minded times--are to teach us more about the intricate interaction of life systems of our own world, how they can be protected and restored. And, further, how we might extend life to other planets.
"It will teach us more about our natural world than we have learned in all the time we have worked as scientists on the natural world till now," says Dr. Walter Adey, whose Marine Systems Lab of the Smithsonian Institution has been contracted as a consultant by the Biosphere's parent company, Space Biospheres Venture Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 glazed-glass structure manned by red-suited Biospherians.
That the Biosphere basks in all these camera-friendly theatrics is hardly an accident. Because in all of this gee-whiz imagery of an ecologically balanced Earth-in-a-bottle, there's an ugly crack.
Indeed, the group that built, conceived and directs the biosphere project is not a group of high-tech researchers on the cutting edge of science but a claque of recycled theater performers that evolved out of an authoritarian--decidedly nonscientific--personality cult.
Based on dozens of interviews with current and former associates of both the Biosphere and the cult behind it, it is clear that the core group of the Arizona project has little loyalty either to honest and open scientific inquiry or to any ecological quest to save the Earth. Instead, its only allegiance is pledged to one individual: 61-year-old John P. Allen, whose eerie doomsday dogma makes him much more the Jim Jones than the Johnny Appleseed of the ecology movement.
The mountains of cash put at the disposal of the group by Texas millionaire and Allen follower Edward P. Bass have served to exorcise the organization's shadowy cultlike reputation, allowing it to achieve truly dazzling levels of respectability. The participation of highly respected universities and scientific institutions (some of them taxpayer-supported) and individual scientists in this project--in exchange for research funding from the Biosphere group--raises disturbing questions about the ethical standards of the U.S. scientific community. In short, the Biospherians may be talking science, but what they are doing is more akin to well-financed science fiction.
MDRVPrelude: Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
By most press accounts, the Biosphere project sprung up sometime in the 1980s as part of the global work of what the Los Angeles Times described as an "ecologically minded" think tank--the Institute of Ecotechnics. In fact, the idea was hatched more than twenty years ago--back in 1971, on a ramshackle desert commune on the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. As part of the research for his book titled The Communal Experience, University of California counterculture expert Professor Laurence Veysey spent five weeks that year living on the commune known as Synergia Ranch. In the Veysey's written record of his stay on the ranch describes an "awesome and chilling" regime marked by the "total hold and domination" of John Allen over the group. "The others all look to him constantly for their cues, for the subtle signals which tell them what to do and what not to do," Veysey recounted. "His chanting rhythms they imitate with their own voices, his instructions they seek to apply in the theater, his timetable they follow for planetary outreach . . . [Allen's] domination over the group is open and for the most part undisguised. . . . This entire social order is the tangible enactment of his own vision."
Visitors to the Synergia Ranch concur with Veysey's account that Allen's apocalyptic vision would be drummed into group members' heads during bizarre, rambling discourses over dinner. As part of their dining ritual, group members would first don theater masks. Then, after a round of primal howling and chanting, a rule of absolute silence would prevail during the meal. At least, until Allen would begin to speak. Allen's monologues would pound home the dangers of the "hydrogen bomb and the destruction of civilization," wrote Veysey. At one point, Geiger counters were purchased and passed out to his followers. Allen would reminisce about how, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, his response had been to board an airplane and head for a neutral location. In 1971 Allen told his group before Veysey, in words that could easily be applied to today's Biosphere, "The Builders of the New Age must always carry on somewhere in the world."
And there was a darker side to life at Synergia Ranch than nightly tales of nuclear holocaust. Basing his program on the rigidly authoritarian manner of early twentieth-century Greek-born cult mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, John Allen allowed no dissent, no independent thought and enforced a practice of systematic psychological confrontation. Allen would precede his dinnertime harangues with the simple, stomach-churning query, "Any confessions?" If there were no volunteers for abuse, Allen would select one.
"Suddenly it might be anywhere," Veysey wrote. "[Allen] will explode into MD120 wrath, usually directed at one person. Calmly in control of himself one minute, in the next he will be shouting the most hurtful words conceivable in a furious assault upon the ego of some trapped individual. . . . He will seize upon what appear to be innocent failures to follow precise instructions and transform them into calculated acts of sabotage. . . . He reiterates his accusations until no possible response is left. Then, all at once, his tirade comes to an end and everyone continues as if nothing had happened."
The synergists had actually come together for the first time in 1967 as a northern New Mexico avant-garde theater company with Johnny Dolphin--Allen's pseudonym--as its director. It then moved to Haight-Ashbury for a stint, then to New York, and in 1969 to the Synergia Ranch, where Veysey found them two years later. As the group evolved throughout the '70s and '80s, the theater company remained at its core.
Today's managerial and scientific elite of the Biosphere 2 project can all be traced directly back to John Allen's so-called "Theatre of All Possibilities":
John Allen himself, "Johnny Dolphin," is now "director of Scientific Development" and "leader" of the Biosphere project.
Margret Augustine, "CEO of Space Biospheres Ventures" and "co-architect" of the entire project, was known as "Firefly" in the theater group where she reportedly served as wardrobe mistress.
Mark Nelson, "chairman of the Institute of Ecotechnics," "director of space applications" for the Biosphere and second only to Allen in defining the group's philosophy, was known as "Green" in the theater troupe.
Kathelin Hoffman, "director of the Institute of Ecotechnics" and member of the Biosphere's "Scientific Review Committee," was known on the ranch and inside the theater as "Honey."
Deborah Parrish-Snyder, "director of Synergetic Press" and "information director" of the Institute for Ecotechnics, was known as "Tango."
In addition, at least five of the eight members of the Biosphere's crew--people chosen ostensibly to carry out history-making scientific research--are either long-standing members of Allen's disciplined inner circle or more recent recruits. Among the crew there is only one scientist of renown, UCLA's Dr. Roy Walford, who has for years orbited around Allen's projects.
The theater group flourished at Hooking the Big Fish
The cost of the court settlement posed no serious problem for Allen's group. A decade earlier, in 1973, he had recruited to his ensemble a key player: Edward P. Bass. Bass as in Bass Brothers, one of the richest families of Texas. Ed Bass is the man who has put up the $100 million behind the Biosphere and who sits as chairman of the holding company that manages it.
Compared to his stalwart, rock-ribbed brothers Robert and Sid, Ed Bass is known in the outside world as the reclusive, quirky--even flaky--younger brother. Inside Johnny Allen's theater group, he is known as "Sharkey" or "Boz." Ed Bass gives no press interviews. But sources close to the synergists say that Ed Bass was a disgruntled, dropout multimillionaire, who was passing his time dawdling with the ecology and "throwing pots" in New Mexico when Allen courted and then recruited him to the commune cum theater.
Allen's group probably would have faded into one more piece of '60s memorabilia if Ed Bass had not pumped money into it as quickly as his oil and real estate interests could generate it. Over the past seventeen years, the Bass millions have been used to establish an intricate network of enterprises and Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 eight Biosphere crew members prominently list association with IE as their principal scientific bona fides.
The Texas investigative articles, the CBC documentary, and intensive follow-up work demonstrate that in spite of its multimillion-dollar fronts, including the Biosphere, not only does the core group of Allen's theater troupe run all of the global projects--through the paper instrument of IE--but that it also operates with much the same methodology and philosophy of the original New Mexico commune.
MDRVDid Someone Say Mars?
California writer/lecturer Terrence McKenna, an expert on natural psychedelic substances, is one of the hundreds of authentic researchers and scientists who over the last two decades has been lured into collaborating on one of the synergist projects. In 1980 McKenna and his brother, a professional botanist, received an invitation on stationery from the French subsidiary of the Institute of Ecotechnics inviting him to make use of a research vessel--the Heraclitus--which would be stationed in the Amazon port city of Iquitos for the next two years.
"It was a trip we were planning anyway," McKenna says. "So we went down there to Iquitos with this great fantasy of drinking white wine while sitting in our pressed whites with our French colleagues on their research vessel."
Instead, McKenna found the oddball Heraclitus, a curious-looking concrete-hulled 82-foot replica of a Chinese junk captained by Bill Dempster--today the Biosphere's director of engineering systems. "It was a crazy scene," says McKenna. "And after five minutes it was clear they knew nothing, but nothing about science. They said they wanted to work with us but that we were barred from coming to the boat between two and three in the afternoon because that was time for theater exercises."
Theater wasn't the only holdover from the New Mexico ranch. "They invited us to dinner and it was really weird," McKenna continues. "First they all howled before eating. Then they had two rules. The first is that you never talk during dinner. The second, you never tell anyone from the outside what the first rule is. So we just sat here chattering until we caught on."
After about a week of such antics, McKenna told the Heraclitus crew that Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 were not. There was one person I would be the most critical of, one guy who was passing out cards in Iquitos saying he was a Ph.D. when he wasn't, Robert Hahn." Hahn is today director of marketing for the Biosphere project.
Since then, Gentry says, the synergists have twice tried to associate the Missouri Botanical Garden with their global projects. "They kind of wanted to use our name for a Puerto Rico project and when the Biosphere came along they were again trying to associate us. But no way. When I saw on TV that they were doing this space-dome thing, I just couldn't believe it."
The tactic of hustling up respected scientists to window-dress scientifically hollow projects has been refined since the synergists' origin. Professor Veysey's 1971 account of his stay on the Synergia Ranch describes John Allen's attempt to organize a conference on ecology. His followers were given stiff deadlines for pulling expert panels together and were sent on frenzied searches for information based on "milking local sources," Veysey wrote. "These forays sometimes led them to libraries . . . where in the span of a few hours they would try to become familiar with the scientific literature. An important part of the challenge was to be able to locate the most trustworthy information . . . proceeding from scratch."
Numerous researchers and academics have described similar attempts to be contracted or just straight-out used by the Biosphere core group as scientific cover for their science fiction. Physician and natural medicine researcher Dr. Andrew Weil described a twelve-year, on-and-off courtship by the synergists which, he says thankfully, was never consummated.
"I was first approached back in 1979 when I was at the Harvard Botanical Museum," Weil recalls. Kathelin "Honey" Hoffman, now of the Biosphere's "scientific research committee," came to him "like a ball of energy" about the Heraclitus project and--in Weil's words--"pumping me for a lot of information on plants." Weil was invited to the Synergia Ranch, witnessed one of the howling dinners, talked for hours with John Allen and was "pumped for more" of his expertise. Weil says for years he was enticed with grant offers from the synergists, exploited for his knowledge, and then left in the cold, mostly because he had made a public statement suggesting the group might be a cult. "I feel that I was just ripped off, constantly pumped, enticed with promises, and always left dangling. And as the years went by, I was really disgusted to see all these academics, who should know better, just jumping through hoops for them."
When the time came to build the Biosphere, the group realized that a mere university library of the sort used during the days of the Synergia Ranch conferences would be insufficient to fill in the scientific gaps of a $100 million project. John Allen needed bigger patsies. He found an entire university research lab--the Environmental Research Laboratory of Tucson's University of Arizona--at his disposal. Or at least, he found a lab management willing to compromise its honest scientists.
An estimated $5 million in Biosphere funding was thrown at the cash-starved ERL, which became chief scientific consultant to the dome project. At least $400,000 of that sum was routed through Oasis Systems, a private company that the University allowed ERL director Carl Hodges to establish for himself and select associates. Needless to say, Hodges--himself with no advanced scientific degrees, being much more an administrator than a scientist--became a zealous defender of the Biosphere. "They are visionaries and scientists, they have excellent science, they have in-house people trained in almost every field," Hodges says. "This is is an incredibly significant project."
At any given time, as many as forty ERL scientists were deployed on the Biosphere project, concentrating their work primarily in the areas of intensive agriculture and oxygen/carbon cycles.
But soon a number of ERL scientists found themselves aghast to be connected with scientific managers who knew nothing of science. Biosphere directors simply claimed credit for the real work done by the hired expert drones.
"It works like this," says one former ERL scientist who quit the project in disgust. "The SBV people came to us and showed us their original drawings for the Biosphere, probably done by Margret Augustine. Really, they were laughable, idiotic designs. No value of any kind. After they chose Pearce Systems as an engineering firm, I suppose Pearce gently moved Margret into accepting his own design to make it functional."
Another source, a key contractor with Pearce, confirms that "co-architect" Augustine's original draft plans were "primitive, a sketch." At least hundreds of thousands of dollars were given to Pearce to present several feasible options on the original sketch.
"About six highly efficient counterproposals were given to the Biosphere people," says the source, who sat in on the design meetings. "All I can say is that Margret and Allen, after spending all that money, quickly looked at Pearce Systems' drafts and said, `Thanks very much, but just do the original version we gave you.' They didn't really listen to Pearce's engineering arguments. So what Pearce Systems did was deftly translate Margret's sketch into something as performance-driven as possible, but certainly not all that it could or should be. For example, Augustine had this vision of a dramatically vaulted structure, a very complex one, for their intensive agriculture area. Pearce wanted to eliminate some of that complexity to make the agricultural area more efficient. But Allen and Augustine said no. They wanted it to look just like Margret's drawing."
MDRVNever Let Science
Get in Your Way
Other contract consultants soon sickened of having their best scientific opinions--the ones they were being paid to offer--be simply ignored or, in some cases, shouted down by John Allen. ERL scientists Merle Jensen and David Stumpf as well as ERL administrator Wayne Collins--all of whom resigned from the project--told the CBC that research review meetings were often marked by an atmosphere of "verbal violence" perpetrated by John Allen.
"Two instances stand out," Stumpf says. "Back in '85 at one of the introductory meetings at ERL, I presented some first-cut information about the human/plant oxygen/carbon dioxide interrelationship, indicating that carbon dioxide buildup could be a serious problem. John Allen vigorously interrupted, telling me, `I don't know why you're approaching the science this way . . . everything will balance properly.' It was apparent that conflicts between our traditional approach and the Biosphere 2 New Age approach was going to be a problem."
"Approximately a year and a half later," Stumpf continues, "during the yearly Biosphere 2 conference, I presented a poster on ERL's computer models. And the next day I gave a short presentation of our results to a gathering of approximately fifty staff and scientists. We had determined that our first computer modeling efforts indicated that seasonal variations in carbon dioxide could be dramatic and possibly too low in the summer for plant growth. I didn't get very far into the talk when Allen stood up and began to attack the model as ridiculous, unrealistic, unnecessary, and a waste of time. As his naive critique continued, I was given no opportunity to reply.
"Traditional science was not the correct approach for these people, it was not giving them the results they required. More ominously, ERL director Carl Hodges, instead of defending the efforts of his scientific staff, sided with John Allen."
One ERL scientist at the meeting says, "Let's put it this way: Allen and his people are driven by a vision and they don't let anything get in their way."
Indeed, Hodges apparently shares John Allen's disdain for open debate and criticism, which are pillars of scientific method. After Stumpf appeared on screen for the CBC, he was repeatedly threatened with legal action by Hodges, whose attorneys drafted several recantations to be signed. Stumpf steadfastly refused.
The CBC itself was threatened by legal action before it even aired its 1989 documentary. The CBC did go ahead with the program, even mentioned the threats in a coda, but has been scared out of circulating its documentary in the United States. Earlier that year, the Christian Science World Monitor Television magazine did a short segment questioning the scientific basis of Biosphere and also immediately came under threats--legal and otherwise--from Allen's group.
"The whole experience was marked by a feel of paranoia," says World Monitor producer Ed Fitzgerald. "The critics we talked to demanded meetings in open places, public parks. We had to ask ourselves several times if we just felt we were being followed or if we were." His reporter, Gloria Goodale, adds: "We were told once by letter and once in person [by Carl Hodges] that they had some kind of record of our confidential interviews and conversations with critics of the Biosphere. It was scary." As in the case of the CBC, World Monitor also received a flurry of legal threats prior to broadcast.
Jensen and Collins both signed disclaimers after their TV appearances, indicating they had no intention of doing any harm to Biosphere. When contacted to speak about his experience, Jensen said, "I'm a college professor with a limited income. I can't afford to talk to the press."
But a 1987 memo (obtained through independent sources) from Jensen--a Ph.D. from Rutgers with nineteen years of time spent on the ERL staff--written to ERL management that underlines the tension between authentic scientists and the Biosphere hustlers. In his memo, Jensen complains that "Safari"--one of Allen's core group members--called him in regard to his "recommending five books in horticulture which she can read in order for her to qualify for a degree in horticulture from the Institute of Ecotechnics. I personally will not be party to such a procedure." Jensen also wrote: "[It] is this mentality toward higher education and science that has given rise to a complete disregard to the fundamentals and principles of plant science. . . . ERL has indeed a challenge to not only pioneer the food-support systems for Biosphere 2 but [also to] maintain its credibility."
Next week: Some scientists discover they can breathe in the Biosphere's rarefied atmosphere--especially if the money's right. Also, response from Biosphere executives.
Above me, a mechanical cloud generator spews a white puff that gathers and lingers underneath the sylvan canopy.
Two humongous "lungs"--each the size of a high school gymnasium, each with an eight-ton rubber diaphragm--expand and contract.
The mountains of cash have allowed the Biospherians to achieve truly dazzling levels of respectability.
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Biospherians may be talking science, but what they are doing is more akin to well-financed science fiction.
John Allen would precede his dinnertime harangues with the simple, stomach-churning query, "Any confessions?"
"When I saw on TV that they were doing this space-dome thing, I just couldn't believe it."
"I was really disgusted to see all these academics, who should know better, just jumping through hoops for them.