THE PROFITS OF DOOMTHE BIOSPHERIANS LURE SCIENTISTS TO A HIGH-PRICED FEAST UNDER GLASS | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona



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...
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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?"

"There is no group of people, is the problem," Nelson begins a lengthy, rambling answer. "I think, well, there is a group of people and some of them involved with the Institute of Ecotechnics and indeed some of them go back--we founded that institute in 1973. In fact, we started working together some years before that. Margret and [co-architect] Phil Hawes have an independent architectural group--no, but the thing is that there a number of different organizations and a lot of them have parallel interests. For example, we contracted with Margret and Phil--fantastic architects--to do some of the architecture we have developed in projects in Australia and around the world. So there is an association that goes way back. One thing about the Institute of Ecotechnics is that we trying to break down the differences between science and art. . . . The artists are a very important part of the life of humanity . . . they tap into our dreams of the future. So what are the other questions on your hit list?"

I reply: "I'm just trying to have you answer whether or not this is indeed the same group that was together in New Mexico."

He says: "There are some people like me, Margret, Bill Dempster, that track back 20 years. Other people got involved in another project five or 10 years ago. Now if there's a group--it's really a sort of iffy-iffy thing. I guess you are only interested if you are going to do a hatchet job on SBV--you know trying to find a mysterious agenda that's behind the project."

Lip service is paid in every press interview to save-the-Earth ecology, and the theme is hammered home by hired earthly consultants like Carl Hodges of the University of Arizona's Environmental Research Laboratory or the Smithsonian's Walter Adey. But there can be no question that Biosphere 2 has been conceived in full accordance with the same febrile survivalist notions that powered John Allen's dinner-time harangues on the Synergia Ranch: escape from a dead Earth and colonization of Mars. If in "poking through the ruins" of a dead civilization Allen can find a few hungry scientists and a gaggle of complacent reporters to construct a facade of concern for the Earth, so much the better.

But every one of those same reporters who have written such humdinger accounts of valiant efforts to better understand our own planet have been given the same booklet I was-- Space Biospheres--the same publication that is aggressively hawked to the thousands of tourists who tramp through the Biosphere Gift Center each month.

Within its 90 pages, penned by John Allen and Mark Nelson, repose some of the most crackpot doggerel that has ever passed itself off as serious science or philosophy. "I read that booklet," says University of Texas researcher Dr. Basset Mcguire, who has been working with enclosed life systems for 35 years, "and I found no science at all. What I found looked like a religious tract."

And it is a dark religion. In its introductory chapter, the pamphlet openly declares: "The major motivation behind creating Biosphere 2 and developing the capacity to create other microscale viable biospheric systems is to assist the Biosphere [i.e., our current life system] to evolve off planet Earth into potential life regions of our solar system."

The last third of the book emphasizes the "historic imperative" of specifically colonizing Mars, given the "inevitable doom" of the Earth, which is described as a "local blind alley." So much for the ecologists.

And, for those honest space enthusiasts who might agree that Earth, after all, will disappear one day, and mass migration to Mars might save humanity, they would be well-advised to not start packing their bags quite yet--even though the booklet assures us that the first Mars colony can be established by 1995. Though a minute description of how the first settlement will function is included ("Strategic command . . . meetings will operate under Roberts Rules of Order"), it is made clear that the "first Mars Base . . . will be corporate in form . . . [and] the population can range from 64 to 80 people. If more population arrives, they will have to begin their own communities." In other words, they will have to find their own Texas billionaire and build their own Biosphere.

MDRVWhy Big Goldfish Bowls Are Right-Wing

Before liftoff, however, important earthly science is presumably to be done under the Arizona sun. Mark Nelson, co-author of the Mars tract, assures me that Biosphere 2 is "real science," albeit mixed with the "new discipline called Biospherics."

But experts in related fields see little if any scientific value in the endeavor. From Texas, Dr. Basset Mcguire says the current state of the art in enclosed systems is more or less on the scale of "goldfish bowls." Standard scientific method requires, he says, "that you run replicates. You don't run just one experiment because that way you have no way of knowing what the variability of the experiment is. How can you learn if you have no control? The real pity is that this will be taken by the public at large as real when it isn't. It could impact funding for real research."

Forest ecologist Dr. Donald Dahlsten at the University of California at Berkeley agrees that the lack of control models renders Biosphere's scientific value "trivial."

"If they came to me and asked me to do this project I would say, `Are you kidding?'" Dahlsten says. "I'd ask, `What is your background on this? What have you done to bring you to the conclusions you are about to test?' I mean all that scientific background is not there."

Defenders of the Biosphere, Mark Nelson among them, answer that traditional science is too narrow in its criteria. They refer constantly to the Gaia Hypothesis, developed by a British researcher in the 1970s, that posits a sort of macrohomeostasis--a notion that natural life systems find their own balances. Such thinking underlies much of the Biosphere's "scientific" recipe: Take three or four thousand variables, enclose them in a glass container, throw in eight humans, shake 'em up like a margarita for two years, and in the end you'll get a nice, smooth blend.

Admittedly this is a gross simplification of the Gaia Hypothesis as applied to the Biosphere. But science historian David Kubrin, author of the pro-Gaia book EarthMind and a sworn enemy of traditional scientists, claims it is "ridiculous" to affirm that the Biosphere is a productive application of Gaia.

"The Gaia hypothesis applies to an entire atmosphere and really beyond that," Kubrin says. "How our atmosphere as a whole seeks and achieves a natural balance with surrounding elements, like an ever-hotter sun." But the hypothesis has no applicability, Kubrin argues, in the confined, limited space of Biosphere 2, where each individual ecosystem is allotted no more than a couple hundred square feet. "In any case I would approach with great suspicion," Kubrin adds, "any supposed ecological experiment that relies so heavily on technology, computer models and software systems."

Former University of California researcher Laurence Veysey, who lived with the group in 1971, concluded recently that the Biosphere project "has all kinds of implications . . . the Biosphere is a demonstration project that fits in with the political thinking of the right wing. A more liberal kind of person might wonder why you should sink all that money into something for the survival of only a few people."

Who, then, in the American scientific community was willing to sign on to such a scientifically questionable project motivated by apocalyptic visions? Who was willing to have his or her name listed in promotional brochures alongside the pseudoscientific shell companies and institutes run by John Allen's followers? Apart from the University of Arizona's Environmental Research Laboratory, there are at least a dozen other reputable scientific institutions that have willingly suited up with John Allen, in exchange, of course, for paid consultancies or research grants. For the right amount of money, or at least for the illusion of being provided with the freedom to conduct essential research, otherwise credible scientists, including many who should and actually do know better, have closed their eyes to who their real funders are. The most prominent among the scientists:

* Dr. Ghillean Prance, director, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, England: Truly one of the jewels in John Allen's crown of consultants, Prance is a world-class scientist who has designed the Biosphere's Rainforest Biome. Having had a brush with the synergists' bizarre concrete-hulled Heraclitus "research vessel" a decade ago on the Amazon, Prance wrote to a Peruvian biologist, in reference to the Institute of Ecotechnics: "I hope you will disassociate my name from the operation."

In a 1983 press interview Prance went on to say: "I was attracted to the Institute of Ecotechnics 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 many 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 MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.05 I9.07 system."

When I spoke with Prance by telephone in late winter for this article, he didn't seem to have as much a change of heart as he did a change of ethical standards. "They are visionaries," Prance said referring to the Biosphere management. "And maybe to fulfill their vision they have become somewhat cultlike. But they are not a cult, per se."

"And is that vision a doomsday scenario?" I ask.
"I'd say the core group still does have that vision. I think they have expanded into other areas, but I don't think they have lost that original vision. But, you see, I am interested in ecological restoration systems. And I think all sorts of scientific things can come of this experiment, far beyond the space goal that's behind it. When they came to me with this new project, they seemed so well organized, so inspired, I simply decided to forget the past. You shouldn't hold their past against them."

* Yale University: After Mark Nelson told me the Biosphere was involved in a joint project with the Yale School of Forestry and Ecological Science, I phoned Dr. Gordon Geballe, the school's assistant dean. "I want to say this up-front," Dr. Geballe began, "Yale University is connected to the Biosphere Project in two ways. One direct way which is the research project you ask about. The indirect way, which I want to communicate to you that is entirely separate, is that we got a major gift of $20 million from Edward Bass of Fort Worth, Texas, a Yale graduate, who is also a major funder of the Biosphere. And both things are completely separate."

Is it a research chair that Bass has endowed with the $20 million, I ask?
"Frankly, we are not quite sure how we are going to utilize the gift," Geballe replies. "Right now it's something called the Yale Institute of Biospheric Studies. And it is something that we are in the process of discussing."

Meanwhile, the Yale School of Forestry has at least three faculty members and six students working with Biosphere 2 in a joint $40,000 project on "carbon budgeting." I asked Geballe if there was concern from Yale that it might have associated itself with a group that some say is a cult of nonscientists.

"It's certainly not a cult," he answers. "They are sort of . . . um . . . um . . . let's see . . . they are not organized typically the way scientists are Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 The Smithsonian is being paid up to $400,000 in exchange for the services of its Marine Systems Lab director, Dr. Walter Adey--and, of course, the use of the prestigious Smithsonian name. Further, Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, the Smithsonian's assistant secretary for external affairs, sits on the Biosphere Project Review Committee and chairs its newly created Research Review Committee.

Smithsonian spokesperson Bill Schulz says he has "heard what's been passed around" regarding the possible cult connections of the Biosphere group but that "even if it were a cult it would not be damaging to the Smithsonian. What Dr. Adey does is legitimate science and that's what the Smithsonian endorses. We got involved with Space Biospheres Ventures because, I understood, Dr. Adey thought it was a worthy scientific venture and we were joining other well-respected scientists."

The Smithsonian's Tom Lovejoy, a tropical ecologist, sits on the Biosphere Scientific Review Committee not only with Dr. Prance, former astronaut Rusty Schweikert and a sprinkling of other consultants, but also with John Allen himself and several of his nonscientific groupies: Mark Nelson, Marie Allen, Kathelin Hoffmann, and Ed Bass. "There's more than one way to do science and I believe that this is a legitimate exercise in learning by doing," Lovejoy says.

"And is it a concern they might be a cult?" I ask.
"All I can say is they listen to me," says the assistant secretary for external affairs of the Smithsonian. "What they did before doesn't really bother me. As long as there is something orderly and valuable in what they are doing now."

And how did Lovejoy get involved with the Biosphere?
"Ed Bass asked me to join," he answers. "I have a longstanding relationship, a friendship with him."

MDRVSo What?

"I'm not surprised that the Smithsonian is involved in this project--the whole place is one big whorehouse," says Drexel University professor David Noble. "I worked there 10 years as a curator and the thing they got most excited about was when I got Lucasfilms to donate R2D2 and C3PO to an exhibit. I mean here was Lucasfilms, just so honored to be asked to participate in such a prestigious forum. That is until they became horrified to see with what frenzy the Smithsonian Col 2, Depth P54.02 I9.03 Dozens, probably hundreds, of young, often desperate researchers, have been attracted to the project. Documents show that some have been asked to sign contracts that cede to the Biosphere parent company "worldwide, royalty-free irrevocable" rights to any preexisting "idea, concept, invention, patent or discovery" of theirs or their employees that might relate to the work of the Biosphere--i.e., to the universe.

"Imagine, Ed Bass has plunked down $100 million into a for-profit corporation," says just one of those ex-consultants who rejected the buy-out contract language. "What's he looking for? He has created a sort of magnet, one that he hopes will attract a bunch of new young Einsteins from all over the world who will give up their innermost secrets, knowledge and talents. You've got to figure that once in a while he'll hit pay dirt. It's the law of probabilities."

As many as 10,000 people a month are already paying up to $80 per head to visit the Biosphere, which is now touted in local hotel guides as one of the not-to-miss attractions of the Tucson area--a sort of eighth wonder of the world. Around the Biosphere there is open discussion of heightening its theme-park attributes, and discussions have been held with the same firm that promoted Disney World. There is already a whole line of Biosphere tee shirts, mugs, pencils and pamphlets overflowing the gift-shop shelves.

And whether the first crew of Biospherians stays inside the enclosure the full two years or even only two weeks, it matters very little. The structure itself is so spectacular that it promises to be a tourist and press draw for years to come. And in the case that the human crew has to prematurely bail out, one can already expect the "scientific" justifications being made for how much has already been learned and how much more successful the following enclosure will be the following month or the coming year.

Linda Leigh, one of the eight Biosphere crew members, already tried out the future party line when she said: "If it lasts 100 years and we learned nothing, it is a failure. But if we learn anything at all after any period of time, it will be a success."

John Allen and his followers, in any case, have already achieved their vision quest. No longer anonymous drifters on a New Mexico ranch no one ever heard of, today they are the captains, commanders, architects and directors of their fantasy-come-true. Whether they Col 1, Depth P16.00 I2.67 "We are an action-oriented bunch."

"I read that booklet, and I found no science at all. What I found looked like a religious tract."

Defenders of the Biosphere project say traditional science is too narrow in its criteria.

"A more liberal kind of person might wonder why you should sink all that money into something for the survival of only a few people."

"They are visionaries. And maybe to fulfill their vision they have become somewhat cultlike. But they are not a cult, per se.

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