Matt Wolf’s film Spaceship Earth charts a brave but flawed attempt to discover how mankind could live on another planet, but leaves many unanswered questions
Well this is a film that puts my lockdown vegetable growing attempts into perspective. In 1991, eight volunteers agreed to spend two years sealed inside a giant ‘biosphere’ in an experiment in self-sufficiency conceived to research how mankind could survive living on another planet.
Directed by Matt Wolf, Spaceship Earth is the story of this brave but ultimately flawed endeavour – from beetroot overload and banana wine to serious health problems. But it is also about so much more, exploring the intersections – and conflicts – between the idealistic group’s commitment to scientific research into sustainability with the venture’s commercial reality and its media portrayal. There’s even an unexpected appearance from a young Steve Bannon, who went on to be Trump’s chief strategist.
The true story certainly lives up to its stranger-than-fiction billing. At its heart is a collective of free-thinkers emerging from the 60s counter-culture scene, led by the charismatic polymath John Allen, who were to go on, much later, to conceive the concept for the biosphere. With the help of copious footage that the group took to document their activities. the film traces their varied enterprises over several decades. Yes, they travelled around together on a school bus, and did some weird experimental theatre work but they also, rather impressively, swiftly-acquired the expertise, knowledge and determination to realise increasingly ambitious endeavours. They warm up with the Synergia ranch commune, complete with Buckminster Fuller-inspired geodesic dome – the idea of the dome being stronger than its individual parts appealed as a symbol of the strength of group endeavour. After some years, restless for a bigger challenge, they built their own ship and travelled the world, setting up various enterprises along the way. By this time they were being financially assisted by Ed Bass, an oil billionaire and philanthropist.
Over time, the group become increasingly concerned about sustainability and impending ecological disaster, with fears that climate change will ultimately require mankind to live on other planets. This led the group of ‘synergists’ to come up with the concept for Biosphere 2 (Earth is Biosphere 1). Built in Arizona, Biosphere 2, was an ambitious indoor recreation of the Earth’s eco-system incorporating different biome areas including an ocean with a coral reef, a rainforest and savannah grassland as well as living spaces, laboratories and workshops. Designed with the help of a former associate of Buckminster Fuller, the structure was conceived as a tightly-sealed closed research and living environment. Eight ‘biospherians’ (including one of the original synergists) committed to live in it for two years, growing and harvesting their own food, with 100% waste and water recycling, and all the time monitoring and measuring productivity and the Biosphere’s environmental conditions. They had communications with the team outside, and there was also a window in, where curious tourists could wave and gawp at the inhabitants. Organisers certainly had a good grasp of the power of media image – with biospherians dressed in matching jumpsuits surely inspired by Star Trek on the day they entered the Biosphere, in step with the razzamatazz of the launch event.
I could have done with a bit more detail on the Biosphere 2 set-up. We hear all about the disputes between the scientists and management, but less on the human aspect. There is some insight from interviews with biospherians, but there are still many unanswered questions. What did they do all the time? What did they miss? What were the worst aspects? What about arguments and relationships? Perhaps they were just so exhausted with the demands of self-sufficiency. There was substantial weight loss, fatigue and other health problems as oxygen levels fell and carbon dioxide levels rose dangerously. Crops were failing. Something had to be done – and the decision was taken to inject in oxygen, and later to activate a carbon dioxide ‘scrubber’ to aid the efficiency of the Biosphere’s struggling ecosystem, leading to media outcry that these provisions had secretly been put in place and ran counter to the original goals. But the eight ultimately stayed the course in this rather hard-core, ecological forerunner of Big Brother.
But after that, things get murky with a dramatic management take-over in the full glare of the media as Bass kicked out the original synergist visionaries and installed Bannon, who took the venture in a new direction.
So was it a valiant failure? Yes – in that the closed system couldn’t cope without intervention – although surely the point of the research was to learn from the experience and adjust accordingly. However, plans for a second attempt were abandoned, and it is unclear from the film how useful the research outputs were – the suggestion was that these had been suppressed.
Although at times frustrating – the film might have benefitted from less time on Allen’s group’s earlier endeavours and experimental theatre work and more narrative clarity – Spaceship Earth is certainly a good yarn. Film-buffs will doubtless make connections with sci-fi films such as Silent Running and The Martian, which involve tending artificial ecosystems on space stations or other planets. Architects and designers interested in sustainability will find much to engage, but may be a bit frustrated with a lack of focus on the detail and outcome of the grand experiment.
Meanwhile a clutch of the original group including Allen still live at Synergia Ranch in New Mexico, and Biosphere 2 is still operational for scientific research, as part of the University of Arizona.
Spaceship Earth is available to rent on digital platforms - spaceshipearthfilm.co.uk
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