“Biosphere 2 is a cautionary tale,” says Linda Leigh, 25 years after she participated in that 1991 endeavor. “We don’t need a precautionary tale [now] because all the rampant destruction and death are already happening.” Now barely a historical footnote, that quixotic and prescient project is the subject of Matt Wolf’s beguiling and illuminating documentary “Spaceship Earth.”
Leigh was one of eight “biospherians” who sealed themselves in a huge futuristic biodome structure, vowing to stay there for two years. They wanted to show that it was possible to live in a completely enclosed environment where they grew their own food and recycled their waste, water, and air and would not need any resources from outside. It was as if they were in a space colony or on spaceship — indeed, a microcosm of our planet (which they called “Biosphere 1”), which is also a closed system with limited resources.
They hoped to present an alternative to the world’s shortsighted exploitation of nature and poisoning of the environment, and for a while they aroused enthusiastic media coverage. But it did not take long before the message got distorted and Biosphere 2 started experiencing its own systemic failures.
The idea originated in 1967, in San Francisco, where John Allen, an inventor, investor, and charismatic organizer eager to change the world, gathered together a group of like-minded young people in a creative collective that combined art, theater, film, science, and technology to bring about that transformation. They were like a latter-day Bauhaus, taking their inspiration from sources ranging from the French playwright Antonin Artaud and Beat novelist William Burroughs to R. Buckminster Fuller, whose book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” (1969), along with “The Whole Earth Catalogue” and Douglas Trumbull’s sci-fi film “Silent Running” (1972), helped shape their vision.
Early initiatives included “The Theater of All Possibilities,” a music, dance, and performance art extravaganza which, as seen in clips from the collective’s extensive film archive, looks very much like what you’d expect from the era of guerrilla theater and happenings and “Hair.” They then moved into the desert in New Mexico in a Ken Kesey-like bus to establish the communal Synergia Ranch. Having accomplished that, they built an ark-like ship named Heraclitus and sailed to every continent.
And it’s still only the 1970s — why hasn’t anyone made a movie about these people before?
While sailing around the world they were not just taking in the sights and putting on shows. They were buying property and businesses such as a gallery in London, a hotel in Kathmandu, and a ranch in the Australian outback. “We were quite capitalistic,” admits Allen with a smile. And they would need a lot of capital for their biggest venture, Biosphere 2, which cost $200 million and was backed by Ed Bass, a hip, philanthropic oil billionaire.
But despite their capitalistic backing, they were still full of zeal and idealism and boasted impressive technological and scientific expertise, They had good PR, too, because the sealing in of the biospherians became a media event broadcast around the world. Though the initial coverage was positive, in later news cycles it took on a darker cast. Some speculated that Allen was a cult leader. Scientists said that the research was not scientific. A biospherian got her hand caught in a grain threshing machine and had to be taken to the hospital. When she came back she was found to have brought in a couple of knapsacks filled with supplies, a violation of their rules that was pounced upon by critics, tarnishing the project’s credibility.
There were technical and personnel problems as well. Plants and animals died. Food became scarce. Cockroaches swarmed. Carbon dioxide levels climbed, and the crew had barely enough energy to squabble. Somehow they made it through the two years and when they exited triumphantly in their red “Star Trek”-like uniforms they had set several records for a closed life system and had accumulated a vast amount of research data.
But then, like the Spanish Inquisition on “Monty Python,” came a bête noire nobody expected … Steve Bannon?
As Leigh says, it is a cautionary tale. A warning not just about the tenuous fate of the planet, but for those who have the temerity to try to save it.
“Spaceship Earth” is the first offering in a virtual documentary screening and conversation series co-presented by the Camden International Film Festival and newportFILM. On May 13 they will also present an online virtual post-film discussion with the director, producer Stacey Reiss, and possibly some of the film subjects. It will be moderated by Brent Lang of Variety.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.