Zonies, Part 3: Utopia


Our Correspondents

Mike Powell’s column is about living in Arizona.

Biosphere 2.


One morning, in early 2011, my friend Ray took a few friends and me up to a place about an hour north of Tucson called Biosphere 2. Ray was working or volunteering there in some capacity and suggested that we follow him around. We drove up Oracle Road, which turns into Route 77, which I mention because you know that when a road turns into a route that you are leaving something. Strip malls and sprawl thinned out into empty desert. We made a few turns and rumbled over some cattle guards and that’s when I saw it, like a young boy’s crayon drawing of a space station rising majestically out of the dust.

“We’re here,” Ray said, as though that wasn’t already clear.

At the time, all I understood about Biosphere 2 was that it was a scientific research facility filled with re-creations of real-world environments: jungle, desert, ocean, et cetera. That, and that a group of scientists voluntarily locked themselves in there for two years during the early 1990s, where they strived, studied, bickered, lost a lot of weight, and eventually became the butt of a cultural joke. I admired them already. 

We collected ourselves and went in. We saw the desert, the rainforest, the little dorms where the researchers slept. We went underground into a labyrinth of pipes—where massive ventilation systems circulated air through the biomes—down a long, narrow corridor that opened into a chamber about the size and shape of an ice rink, with a domed ceiling made out of a rubbery synthetic material anchored by a steel platform weighing several hundred tons. This, Ray explained, was the Biosphere’s lung, and in the days when the building was sealed off, it would rise and fall to regulate air pressure. Our voices echoed for what felt like minutes.

Ray said he had some work to do in the ocean and brought us into a changing area where he suited up in neoprene and led us out to a fake beach. It was sandy and quiet, with a huge glass wall to our left and a vacuum at the far end of the water designed to generate waves. A kids’ tour group stopped at the window and pointed at us as though we were part of the exhibit. We unwrapped our sandwiches and had lunch.


Biosphere 2 was conceived of by a man named John Allen. The goal was to develop an ecosystem that could be sealed off from the rest of the world and still support human life. The hope was that we could take such a system to Mars. I have never understood why living on Mars, or anywhere else in space, matters, especially given our continued struggle with life on Earth, though I assume there must be a good reason if there’s math involved.

Plans took root during the late 1960s in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at a so-called ecovillage and communal-living experiment called Synergia Ranch, founded by Allen. One of Synergia’s more frequent and interested visitors was a man named Ed Bass, introduced by Allen in his autobiography, Me and the Biospheres, as “a lean, ponytailed Navajo rug trader” with no mention of the fact that Bass also belonged to a Texas family whose fortune entitled Bass to hundreds of millions of dollars, most of it from oil. Intrigued by Allen’s ideas and possibly suffering from generational guilt, Bass ended up furnishing Biosphere 2 with about two hundred million dollars, without which the project would have never existed.

Biosphere 2 in 1991. Photo: AP.

Biosphere’s first experiment in human habitation started in September 1991. By “human habitation” I mean that eight researchers entered the facility and were then sealed off from Earth, connected only by phone to a mission-control center nearby. The researchers maintained the system, farmed food and managed various experiments, but the hours were long and the work was hard and the crops weren’t doing as well as they’d hoped, and if you’ve ever spent any time with human beings it isn’t hard to imagine what happened next.

The researchers emerged two years later, skinny and embattled. That the facility didn’t turn into a vat of sludge when sealed off from Earth’s atmosphere continues to astound me, but the people have high standards and Biosphere was stamped—relentlessly—as a failure. Eventually, Ed Bass took control of the project from Allen and his acolytes in a hostile takeover led by a man named Stephen Bannon. A former Naval-officer-cum-banker and now chief strategist to President-elect Trump, Bannon was appointed by Bass to stem financial bleeding and restore Biosphere to more conventional forms of management. Bannon did swift work, wresting paradise from the hippies, but like Trump was considered mostly as a ridiculous person in a ridiculous situation.


I recently went back to Biosphere, where I met with its deputy director, John Adams. Adams has worked here for about twenty years and has likely suffered poets like me before. We walk upstairs to a small room with a single internal window overlooking a section of the Biosphere that now functions as a museum. The room has a desk and a computer and a bookshelf, but the bookshelf is mostly empty.

Adams arrived in the wake of Bannon, around 1996, when Biosphere was trying to shake bad PR and reposition itself as an institution of hard, reputable science. They moved away from what Adams calls “the human side of the equation” and knuckled down on good but unromantic questions about things like the effect of CO2 on coral’s ability to calcify and how life changes in arid environments.

Adams puts Biosphere on a spectrum between a lab, where there is infinite control but no complexity, and the real world, where there is infinite complexity and no control. “Idealistically they wanted it to be an analog,” he says, reflecting on Biosphere’s beginnings. “But realistically there’s no way to replicate Earth.” Of course, Adams remains glad that they tried, because it is hard to imagine who or what would have ponied up two hundred million dollars in Ed Bass’s stead.

Inside Biosphere 2.

Toward the end of our conversation, I find myself nagged by the question of whether or not the bananas grown in Biosphere 2 taste different than bananas you can get at the store. They’re a little more tart, Adams says. This excites me, but only because I am a slave to fantasy and imagine him to mean that the bananas that grow in Biosphere 2 don’t exist anywhere else in the world. He hastens to correct me and seems pained to have to do so.

“You can probably get bananas like this in Brazil,” he says.

“So I take it you prefer the store-bought ones?” I ask.

“No,” he says. “They’re just different.”

I leave and walk around the campus, up by the dorms Columbia University built when it took over the project at the end of 1995, stopping at a small viewing telescope to look out into a formerly empty patch of the Tucson Basin where there is now a large “active adult community” called SaddleBrooke, built by a real-estate developer who bought Biosphere 2 in 2007 after Columbia bowed out. A series of Spanish-style rooftops disappears into the horizon. It is in the desert where the Jews were sent in persecution and then to begin again, where the buffalo roamed, and where people still carry guns and ride motorcycles without a helmet. But if my little telescope breaks, I know it will be fixed with government money, so I can continue to look at this active adult community and go home to a place whose largest employers are a public university and a defense contractor, where Air Force exercises roar across an endless sky, here, on the fully subsidized frontier.


In Rebecca Reider’s book Dreaming the Biospheres, she quotes this note from John Allen:

Say that John Allen believes Utopias are impossible and that it’s ridiculous to use an idea of Utopia in design, that he considers Communes a snare and a delusion. The history of Communes show how limited (in time and space) the Utopian approach is … That’s why I had and have nothing to do with them; they don’t work well or long. I believe individual and corporate enterprise are the highest forms of human organization.

Well, of course. If the pretense of hippies was equality, communality, and the dismantling of hierarchy, the backdrop—the real, secret grail—was the valorization of an individual too special to be absorbed into a larger goal, part cowboy and part entrepreneur, part idealist and part Silicon Valley autocrat. No longer distracted by Mars, you shift your focus to climate change and water, from the future to the present, which could certainly use some work but doesn’t have quite the same allure. A few months ago, Biosphere 2 turned twenty-five. That sounds about right.

But I still sometimes think about that glassed-in beach, about sitting there alone or with a small group of people I trust, quarantined from a toxic society, watching the vacuum-powered waves roll in and roll away again. The world reserves a special kind of Schadenfreude for its dreamers. As for the actual beach, I tend to avoid it on account of always feeling too crowded, and too loud.

Mike Powell has written for Grantland, Pitchfork, the Ringer, Rolling Stone, and other places in print and online. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.