Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

The Human Experiment

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

The idea for Biosphere 2, a "completely closed ecosystem," began as a concept for self-sustaining food production in outer space colonization. As built in the Arizona desert, Biosphere 2 was the most ambitious closed ecosystem ever developed. The dome complex included five wilderness areas based on earth ecosystems, such as a desert and a tropical rain forest; an area for agriculture; and high-tech living quarters.

It would be tightly sealed, maintained by sunlight and, for air and water control, by mechanical systems that were powered from outside the dome. Although not completely closed or self-sustaining, it was still the largest-scale project of its kind. Eight "biospherians," who set a world record for voluntary isolation, were enclosed for two years, from September 1991 to September 1993. The biospherians were able to raise just enough food to feed themselves, but they were malnourished enough to be badly affected by falling oxygen levels. Other problems included swarming cockroaches and ants. Yet the project proved that the concept was attainable, and it enhanced scientific and engineering knowledge about closed ecosystems.

I'd toured the grounds of Biosphere 2, including the biospherians' former living quarters, in 2000, after Columbia University had assumed management of the facility. I'd read the whitewash by biospherians Abigail Alling and Mark Nelson, Life Under Glass: Inside Story of Biosphere 2. So I was eager for a promised tell-all, The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2 by biospherian Jane Poynter. Although I was interested in the scientific results of the project, I was most interested in interpersonal relationships in extreme isolation, and I wanted to know the gory details.

Poynter's memoir is not professionally written and is limited in perspective, but it is honest and straightforward about the psychological experience. Midway into the enclosure, the biospherians split into two groups of four. The two groups stopped speaking to each other except in occasional ritualized circumstances. Poynter says this is not unusual in "extended isolated missions." She also quotes a paper on "psychology in enclosed environments" that mentions such events as an incident in which an Antarctica researcher shot another to death in a dispute over a bottle of wine, and an incident in which $50,000 worth of equipment and two years of data were thrown overboard from an ocean research vessel in a dispute over the refrigerator.

The biospherians stopped short of killing each other or destroying equipment, but their personal and collective narcissism created an extremely unpleasant living environment during the two-year enclosure. I couldn't help contrasting the Biosphere 2 group with the Amish / Mennonite community described in Eric Brende's Better Off. Both situations involve isolation, physical agricultural labor, and organic food. In sharp contrast to the Amish, however, the biospherians lacked kindness, civility, and personal restraint. Psychological tests showed that the biospherians--physically strong, resistant to stress, and independent--had psychological profiles similar to astronauts. NASA beware.

Copyright © 2007 by Heidi Boudro