The Human Experiment

The Human Experiment: Two Years and 20 Minutes Inside Biosphere 2
© 2006 Jane Poynter
384 pages

From this patch of desert in sunny Oracle, Arizona, eight Americans are beginning the trip of a lifetime.  Divided into two tribes and locked into a 3-acre, hermetically sealed building, they must work together despite their differences to grow food, reintegrate their waste,  and overcome lethal challenges to survive.  Nothing goes in…nothing comes out! 730 days, eight people, One Survivor!

Well, not quite.  It’d make a heck of a TV show, though.  Jane Poynter  is one of eight people who took part in a two-year experiment, living in a self-contained project called ‘Biosphere 2’.    Designed to be a self-sustaining world,  the experiment set out to see if it was possible for humans to create an independent ecosystem that could sustain itself and them for a prolonged period time — something that would be necessary were we to move into space, or attempt to colonize other worlds. This was not an official government-created mission, but one that originated from the Ecotechnics Institute,  an…..interesting group of people who called themselves Synergists, and looked for ways to combine technological progress with natural systems of ecological maintenance.  Although that might sound like just a promising nonprofit, the Synergists were more complicated than that,living together on a ranch like a commune, and incorporating art heavily into their group projects. (“A hippy theater group” is one word used to described them: “Cult” is another.) Young Jane discovered this group while visiting an art gallery, and was soon sailing with them aboard the Heraclitus, conducting experiments at sea. Despite not having any formal training, when the Institute advanced the idea of creating a self-contained, self-sustaining Biosphere, she became one of its principal designers and a member of the two-year crew. The Human Experiment is her story of how she came to be involved, a history of the project and its creation, and then her recollection of those two troubled years themselves, when interior stress and outer drama created running conflict within the group.

I don’t know if there exists any experiment more interesting than this — a two year endeavor to see if humans could create a separate biosphere, in effect a self-contained world, and live in it for two years. I’m sure experiments performed at the Large Hadron Collider might reveal physics-changing information about life, the universe, and everything — but this is locking eight humans up for two years and seeing if they survive. The ambition of it is staggering, even thinking about the engineering required to maintain separate biomes, each with a distinct climate — nevermind the mountain of ecological variables, as a diverse array of animals , plants, soils, bacteria would need to be selected and integrated. In a sealed environment, the crew would need to be able to grow its own food, but not only that — they needed to be able to live off of the oxygen the project’s plants were creating, and find ways to recycle their urine and other waste projects to make the biosphere project a closed circuit. Although there were smaller-scaled experiments to see if a human in a sealed environment could live on the oxygen emitted by the plants sealed in with them, they always concluded in a matter of hours, at most a weekend. The jump to two years, and the added complication of having to grow food for a large crew, made things far more complicated. There was also the problem of the unknown. What ecological or environmental factors weren’t known about? What unforeseen problems might occur? Sure enough, there were: from El Niño oscillations drastically reducing the amount of sunlight the Biosphere received, to infections from a previously-unknown bacteria that destroyed the white potato crop, to the unexpectedly fecund soil bacteria that gobbled up far more oxygen than expected. (This lead to more C02, leading the crew to begin panic-modification of the vegetative environment, leading to additional problems.) This forced the crew to become subsistence farmers, who instead of reaping an easy boon and devoting free time to art, became fixated on finding enough food to get by. Those were merely the technical problems, to say nothing of the drama from outside the Biosphere — from the Institute’s internal politics — that split the increasingly malnourished and oxygen-starved crew into two fractious parties, who might enjoy one another’s company with booze on special occasions, but otherwise studiously avoided the others despite their mutual dependence. Part of the tension was dispute over how to proceed once they realized the Biosphere would become unlivable if the oxygen problem were not solved.

This is an absolutely fascinating story all around, from Poytner’s personal story — a well-heeled British young lady searching for purpose in her life, stumbling upon this group, sailing the world with them and then becoming a key member of an extraordinary project — to the challenges and sheer weirdness of life under glass that she documents. I’d seen clips of this on the news as a kid, and trailers for the Pauly Shore movie that used it as a backdrop, but never really dug into the project properly. Frankly, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m under a book-buying ban, I’d check out other crew memoirs — as it is, I’ll have to settle for watching Spaceship Earth, a recent documentary. If you’re at all interested in the Biosphere-2 project, this is definitely a solid read!

“Biosphere 2: The Once Infamous Live-in Terrarium is Transforming Climate Research“, Scientific American. Gives a history of the project and its challenges if you’re curious but don’t want to read a full book.
Eight Go Mad in Arizona“, The Guardian. A more in-depth history of the group and the project.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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11 Responses to The Human Experiment

  1. Marian says:

    This sounds almost as bad as solitary confinement. Did anyone “bail out” before the two years were up?

    • Surprisingly not, despite their misery — they were all committed to making the project a success. The author was BRIEFLY removed from the Biosphere after accidentally sticking her hand in a rice picker (she lost most of a finger), and the “Them” group was trying to push her out after she strained her back, but she was stubborn. One weird element of their stay that I didn’t mention was the fact that the outside grounds were open to paying tourists, so the eight were often like zoo animals — being watched while they worked outside. Poynter says she never banged on the glass at a zoo ever again.

  2. Marian says:

    (On Chrome now)… Hm… I don’t see any issues on the American Conservative site in Firefox, but then again I don’t have an ad blocker enabled. Perhaps it’s the combination of the two?

    I’m long overdue for a Linux upgrade so I will probably just use WP on Chrome until I’ve been able to do that. Hopefully by that time these oddities with Firefox will be fixed!

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