Reinventing The Biosphere: The Future of The Research Jewel of the Arizona Desert Reinventing The Biosphere: The Future of The Research Jewel of the Arizona Desert
The Planet

Reinventing The Biosphere: The Future of The Research Jewel of the Arizona Desert

by Ari Phillips

August 5, 2012

I approach Biosphere 2, couched in the cacti-ornamented hills of the Sonoran Desert and surrounded by mountain peaks. I’m enamored with the unusual tale of this larger-than-life science project, but have come to terms with the fact that for the generation that came of age in the 1990s, the memory of Biosphere 2 will likely forever be held captive by the Pauly Shore vehicle, Biodome, which was filmed on this location and which “put the mental in environmental.” 

As I meet the current researchers whose offices occupy Biospherian’s prior living quarters, I begin to think that perhaps Biosphere 2 is on the verge of shedding its colorful past and reinventing itself as just another research facility at a tier one university, albeit an emblematic, highly interdisciplinary one. Allen himself knew little about the place before visiting his first time for a job interview, and as we walk the halls I notice they’re conspicuously devoid of homages to the past. 

Meystre emphasizes the large role that public outreach and education will play going forward. “You can’t just go and tell people it’s no longer what it was because nobody will believe it,” he says before rushing off to a meeting about an upcoming event. “Actions speak louder than words.” 

Left to my own devices, I admire the architecture until the next tour starts. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome had a powerful influence on inventor John Allen and his colleagues—their ranch outside Santa Fe has its own dome. The white lattice structure of Biosphere 2 seems both simple and elegant with its triangular pattern and reinforced glass barrier, but I know this appearance is deceiving, just like the appearance of the original biosphere—the Earth and its ecosystems, Biosphere 2’s namesake—can also appear divinely simple when in fact it’s infinitely complicated.

I survey the five biomes, still mostly intact but definitely worse for the wear, before heading underground to glimpse the engineering feat below, a maze of pipes within a concrete and steel framework. While the original intent of Biosphere 2 didn’t pan out, the underlying focus, just like the underlying structure, was made to last. No longer an airtight system, but still a place where ambitious scientific research can take place with a nod to human impact and import. How are we changing the biosphere? And what can we do to better survive?

On my way out I encounter a teenage boy in army fatigues gesturing loudly to his friend to look at a banana growing in the rainforest biome. I think of a meal I had with John Allen, a force of nature even in his mid-80s, at Synergia Ranch a few weeks ago in which he touched on some of the themes of Biosphere 2.

“The culture in America is that people don’t look at things from a planetary point of view,” he said staring intently at me but lost deep in thought. “The Indians couldn’t even make it during the dry season in the Southwest. But they adapted somehow. However they were tribal, not capitalist. So they didn’t calculate how a handful of people could maximize profits—they asked how the tribe could survive.”

He pauses to build the suspense. “How are people going to survive and prosper? That question doesn’t arise now in the U.S.” 

This is the fourth piece in a series exploring energy and the environment in the American Southwest.  Read the third in the series

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Reinventing The Biosphere: The Future of The Research Jewel of the Arizona Desert