Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rebecca Reider: Dreaming the Biosphere (2009)

We were in Tucson a couple of months ago, visiting the 'rents.  Every time we go, we visit a few more of the places listed in our guidebook.  This time we hit Bisbee, Tombstone, and some of the historic spots in downtown Tucson.

We also drove out to Biosphere 2.  I had a vague memory of this from news reports in the early '90s, as many do:  it's a totally sealed manmade ecosystem, a kind of earthbound spaceship out in the desert.  A bunch of scientists locked themselves inside for a couple of years to see if they could survive on nothing but what they could grow inside the facility.  If you remember this much, you probably remember something of the media narrative, as well:  what had started out with such high hopes and idealism ended in failure and ignominy.

First, the place.  In purely architectural terms, it's fascinating.  We have a colleague, an architectural historian, who specializes in utopias, and this is one.  It looks like a spaceship out in the desert - between the geodesic domes and the greenhouses, the airlock through which you enter and the sky-reaching towers, it makes you think of Star Trek more than anything.  Not a ludicrous comparison, either:  remember that certain iterations of the Star Trek myth involve things like hydroponics bays, spaceship gardens - manmade ecosystems.  Biosphere 2 was meant to experiment with the idea that humankind might be able to engineer its way away from dependence on the planet, by recreating it under controlled conditions.  Utopian.

And, it's beautiful.  From a scientific standpoint this is irrelevant, but from a Utopian one it's not:  from the outside, from the inside, the facility appeals to the dreamer, the aspirer, in the viewer.  It makes you want to believe.

In the gift shop they had a number of books, and this looked like the best, so I bought it.  Rebecca Reider's 2009 Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities.  It's an amazing book, doing so much more than it promises.

One thing the book is:  a media critique, specifically a coruscating look at how the US mass media (mis)reports on science.  Her critique here echoes, intentionally or not, a lot of what has been pointed out about the way the media treats politics:  shoehorning everything into a narrative, a simplistic storyline with heroes and villains, winners and losers.  In the case of Biosphere 2, what that means is that science reporters wrote positively of the project as long as it fit easily into the mold of exploration, pioneers, heroic experimenters - but when it became easier to fit the project into a different mold, one of cheats and miscreants, the media tore down the Biospherians as quickly and eagerly as they had built them up.  All of this without much effort at presenting to the public the complexity of what was really being done at the facility.

Consider:  if you, like me, have only the vaguest notion of this project, but still have the general impression that it was a failure, what does that mean?  That the Biospherians ended up not being able to survive their two years completely without outside help?  But if this is science, if it's an experiment, how is that a failure?  It produced results.  It generated data.  That's no failure - but popular science reporting isn't interested in that.  It wants triumphs.  It wants the money shot of happy plump bionauts waving and beaming as they bound out of the airlock - not emaciated, older-but-wiser people stepping hesitantly out into a world their bodies have learned to cope largely without...

The media wants telegenic alphas, not weirdos.  And the Biospherians were weirdos.  (More on that below.)

Another thing this book is:  a critique of the way science is conducted, and most importantly funded, in contemporary academic America.  Biosphere 2 was constructed with private money by a private group, but when the plug was pulled it went on the market to anybody who might be interested in doing something with it.  It's a weird facility, but utterly sui generis;  surely somebody can do something with it.  Reider, writing in 2009, extends her story past the end of the original Biosphere project through the years when the place was leased and managed by Columbia University, and this is as fascinating a story as anything else in the book.  It seems the Biosphere was always either too controlled or not controlled enough for the kind of experiments Columbia's science faculty wanted to do.  It either simulated the real biosphere too closely - with too much complexity, too many natural systems interacting too unpredictably - or not closely enough, with too few variables.  That's bad luck, but what Reider also manages to suggest is that Columbia wasn't willing to look at what Biosphere 2 could do.  It wasn't designed as a laboratory, but as a living thing - but the kind of science that might be able to effectively utilize such a thing, she argues, doesn't fit into the small-ball, results-oriented, grant-proposal-friendly science that the current American system rewards.  Not being a scientist myself I have no idea if she's right, but it sounds right - it squares with what I see in my very different corner of academia.  (In this connection, I'd love to see her carry the story foreward someday.  After Columbia gave up, the University of Arizona, in Tucson, leased the place, and the day we visited happened, just happened, to be the day that it was announced that Biosphere 2 had been given outright to UA.  Are they doing any better?  They're well placed to, not just because they're local and Columbia wasn't, but because UA people have been involved with the project for a very long time...)

What this book mostly is, to my surprise and delight:  a counterculture chronicle.  And this made everything else make sense.  Biosphere 2 was conceived, funded, built, and inhabited by people who had been living together on a New Mexico commune called Synergia Ranch since 1969.  In her telling it sounds almost like a cult, centered around the charismatic John Allen - but if Reider had used that narrative her book would have been as useless as the pop science that gave you the "Biosphere failed" narrative.  She's quite sympathetic to the Synergians/Biospherians - which is not the same as saying she's "on their side."  She's open to their point of view, interested in their aspirations and achievements.

So.  The Biosphere was, like the Oregon Country Fair and the latter-day Grateful Dead, one of the ways in which the '60s counterculture managed to plant itself in the distinctly inhospitable soil of the '80s and '90s.  It was a hippie thing.

What's the Synergian deal?  It's very un-hippie - that is, not at all like what the mass media would have you think hippies were. They were Gurdjieffian rather than Learian, dedicated to a mysticism of self-improvement rather than worship or the pursuit of religious ecstasy.  They taught themselves how to be architects, builders, shipwrights, scientists.  Action was their thing - get out and do, then get out and do more.

Very Horatio Alger in some ways.  But they were doing this in a context of communal living outside of Santa Fe - and in many ways they kept up the communal arrangement all the way up through the Biosphere years.  Cooking and eating together, and performing regular group theatricals.  Theater as ritual, though, as Jungian group self-analysis or therapy.  Putting on masks to reveal the true face.  They were, like other communes of their time and place, rejecting straight society by withdrawing from it.

So, to put it crudely, they were science hippies rather than art hippies, I guess you could say.  But it was a different kind of science.  It has to be admitted that if they were presenting Biosphere 2 to the media as a wholly straight-science, experimental-data-gathering sort of thing, they were being a bit disingenuous themselves, because the philosophical roots of the project were in the '70s counterculture's sense of crisis.  The belief that humankind was rapidly making this biosphere, the real one, the first one, uninhabitable - polluting and destroying its systems, so that human life would one day become physically unsustainable here - not to mention cultivating political and social systems that have already made human life nearly unpalatable here...

(Well, they're not wrong.)

...and that therefore, forward-looking people needed to think about a way to get out.  The "2" in Biosphere 2 means just that:  the facility was designed to be humanity's second habitat, a prototype for what we'll need to build to escape the charred embers of Biosphere 1.

You can see this impulse, this vision of the future so strangely utopian and dystopian at the same time, in much of the science fiction and counterculture pop culture of the day.  What is Star Trek but an acknowledgment that the situation on Earth is going to get worse before it gets better (Star Trek is a utopia that takes place after a dystopia), and that for it to get truly better we're going to need to reach beyond our own planet?  Some of the better examples are more obscure - Jefferson Airplane songwriter Paul Kantner's recurring vision (in "Wooden Ships" and Blows Against The Empire) of hippies escaping straight society to literally found a new world somewhere, Neil Young's image of spaceships "flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home in the sun."

And once the media discovered that, it was all over, really.  Hippies?  With a bank account, and machines?  God forbid.

But:  as Reider notes, it may have been weird science, but that doesn't mean it wasn't science at all.  She makes a case for Biosphere 2 as swashbuckling exploratory science.  Build the thing and try the thing and learn what you can from that, rather than measuring every inch of ground.  It's not a kind of science, again, that plays real well in grant committee deliberations, but then again, maybe Magellan's wouldn't have, either...

If there was a failure in the Biosphere project, it wasn't a scientific one, per se, at least not a biological one.  The biosphere inside the facility did develop in unexpected ways, the systems did go a bit haywire, but again, all of that generates data.  What went wrong in less useful ways was the social system.  Reider does an excellent job of explaining how the crew locked inside the facility very quickly split into opposing factions.  Real Survivor stuff.  And she marshals all kinds of sociological studies to suggest that this was inevitable.  Small groups will always split into factions.  That, coupled with the fact that Allen was an autocrat, and the Synergians insisted on maintaining their separateness within any group of collaborators, meant that the social utopia that they had assumed would follow upon the physical one decayed even more rapidly than the physical one.

And that's what I found most interesting, even moving, about this book.  I'm fascinated by the idea of idealistic groups withdrawing from mainstream society and setting up on their own.  Of course in some ways it's the age-old American pattern, right?  If you think England, or Boston, or St. Louis, is screwed up, don't fix it, leave.  And in some ways it's the Mormon heritage to which I'm heir:  the people who set up Salt Lake weren't hippies, but they were radical idealists living in a commune.

I'm fascinated, but not very hopeful, because as near as I can tell what happens when you set up on your own is that, at best, you end up more or less replicating what you left behind, just with you on top.  As Euro-American society spreads across the continent it ends up not really improving on what it left behind, right?  Just replicating it - if anything, with more McDonald's.   Or, at worst, the community apart shades off into autocracy, cultlike organization, craziness. 

But it doesnn't have to be that way.  Sometimes, in a limited situation, it can work, for a while, or at least I like to think it can.  It did in the parking lots of some Grateful Dead shows.  It does at the OCF.  And by Reider's account, it did at Synergia Ranch.  Not that I'd want to live in any of those places - but the beauties you can glimpse in those times and places are things I wouldn't want to live without having available to think about.

(But I may change my mind tomorrow.)

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