Longform

THE PROFITS OF DOOMTHE BIOSPHERIANS LURE SCIENTISTS TO A HIGH-PRICED FEAST UNDER GLASS

It is no accident that of the dozens of published accounts on the Biosphere 2 project--practically all sympathetic--not one describes the family, friends or homes of the crew or management.

An atmosphere of secrecy, almost of paranoia, begins right over the telephone. Routine press inquiries about the ballyhooed project outside Oracle, Arizona, may go weeks, months without answer. Phone receptionists are trained to put no calls through to any of the Biosphere managers--even calls to the PR department are shunted off to message takers and not returned for days, if ever.

Sometime this year, the Biosphere 2, a huge glass dome the size of three football fields, is to be sealed for an eight-person experiment in living and surviving while cut off from the atmosphere of the Earth--a planet referred to in the project as "Biosphere 1." Six years of planning and construction costing $100 million (from Texas billionaire Edward Bass) have produced the eye-popping dome north of Tucson; the business and scientific offices of Space Biospheres Ventures (SBV) are dramatically less impressive. All Southwestern stucco and wood trim, they have the tacky feel of a southern California automobile club office. And, predictably, the people of the Biosphere are also markedly less spectacular than what you might expect to find at the site of what is supposedly a world-class scientific experiment.

I will admit that I toured the facility after reading Texas newspaper exposes of the project, and therefore was predisposed to find an eccentric group of goofballs. But after two visits to the Biosphere, I find it almost impossible to imagine how other journalists wouldn't have suspected something awry after the most superficial brush with the Biospherians.

Once a visit to the dome has been secured, you might as well be in Baghdad. Journalists are forced to sign lengthy liability releases. Photographers and cameramen sign complicated release forms guaranteeing that footage outtakes will not be used other than for specifically stated purposes. The list of whom a reporter can actually speak to is highly restricted. All interviews are conducted in the presence of a PR "minder," who, with watch and walkie-talkie in hand, makes sure no chat becomes too intimate or probes too closely about who these people are in their off hours. In fact, all questions about the personal lives of the Biospherians are taboo.

The few Biospherians who are authorized to speak to the press are almost all members of 61-year-old leader John Allen's core group, which started in the Seventies as a theater group at a place in New Mexico they call Synergia Ranch. With no attempt at exaggeration or interpretation, let it be said they are almost uniformly humorless. As cold as the fish in their artificial ocean. Not a crack of human frailty or emotion is revealed. The answers that are given are rote and flat in tone, worlds away from the hyperpoetry of their promotional brochures.

On my second visit to the facility I'm told I will have a special treat--an interview with none other than Mark "Green" Nelson. Now director of space applications for the project, Nelson is, next to John Allen, the group's top ideologue. Tightly wound but coolly controlled, Nelson appears to be in the habit of conducting one-way interviews. In his early forties, wearing jeans, a plaid shirt and a brown corduroy jacket, Nelson speaks in a rapid near-monologue, spiced with technical terms, that melds into a volley of scientific name-dropping: "top level visits from NASA . . . our NASA colleagues . . . joint projects with Yale School of Forestry . . . collaboration with the National Center for Atmospheric Research . . . our consultants from Smithsonian," and so on.

I ask about the scientific underpinnings of his own group--how he responds to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's charge that his own Institute of Ecotechnics is nothing more than a London letter drop.

"I have no contradiction with the facts [of the CBC piece], only the interpretation," he answers. "So you go to some professor somewhere and he says, `I've never heard of the Institute of Ecotechnics.' That's what's wrong. You go looking for something expecting it to be one way when it's really another. It's designed to be more of a think tank . . . it helps conceive projects . . . bringing together leading artists, scientists, researchers, breaking down the cubicles. It's a brainstorming institute. No paid employees, a minimal existence. We started in New Mexico and moved to London. We are an action-oriented bunch."

I say to him: "It's been reported that you, Johnny Allen, Margret Augustine, and the core group here indeed goes back to a certain ranch in New Mexico. And that you are a small group, not really scientists. My question is: Who is this small group of people and what is their relationship to Biosphere 2? You and Johnny Allen and Margret Augustine do go back to the [Synergia Ranch], don't you?"

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Marc Cooper