'It's useful for viewers today': the film about a two-year voluntary isolation

Documentary Spaceship Earth focuses on an early 90s, hippy-inspired project to live sustainably in a contained biome, with nothing coming in or out

In September 1991, the final year of the Soviet Union and the beginning of a significant decline in trips to outer space, four men and four women donned bright red, Nasa-style jump suits for launch day in Arizona. They waved to masses of cameras, said their long-term goodbyes to a cheering crowd, and stepped beyond an air-tight door. But their mission, heavily covered in the press, was not to the moon, or into orbit, or even out of the state. The eight pioneers, part of a privately funded project called Biosphere 2, were to be locked in a 3.14-acre enclosed, self-sustaining structure for two whole years, on a mission to collect data and garner insights to aid Martian-style projects in mankind’s (presumed) extraterrestrial future.

Documentarian Matt Wolf, whose new film Spaceship Earth chronicles the Biosphere 2 project from its counter-cultural origins to controversial legacy – was nine when the experiment began, and missed the substantial media attention at the time. When he was poking around the internet several years ago and stumbled on a photo of the jump-suited Biospherians in their glass-paned habitat, he assumed it was from a science fiction movie. He soon realized the project was indeed real, and that many of its participants remained at a commune-style ranch in New Mexico.

“I became determined to tell their story,” Wolf told the Guardian, particularly once he witnessed the cache of archival footage – reels of tape in a temperature-controlled room – kept by those involved in Biosphere 2. “I was just astounded that they recognized the historical significance of what they were doing and were so rigorous in documenting it,” he said.

Biosphere 2 was an ambitious endeavor, to say the least – a collection of sealed-off biomes under a glass pyramid in the Arizona desert, intended to demonstrate the viability of self-sustaining microsystems on an inhospitable planet (or, as many participants warned, an inhospitable Earth). Biosphere 2, named as such because participants believed Earth to be Biosphere 1, featured a desert, a mangrove forest, a 9,000 square-foot ocean with its own coral reef, and a savannah grassland; its eight inhabitants were expected to cultivate their own food and drink, and to maintain livable atmospheric conditions of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Spaceship Earth reveals how this idealistic ambition – funded, in this case, by Ed Bass, a philanthropic billionaire from Texas oil money – stemmed from decades of challenging, idiosyncratic work by a counter-cultural group known as the Synergia Ranch. Wolf pieces together early footage of the so-called Synergists, founded in 1969 by ecologist and certified metallurgist John Allen in the height of San Francisco’s hippy days. The Synergists, as the film’s genuinely remarkable archival footage illustrates, thrived on the convivial and industrious energy of their collective, morphing from Jester-style theater to communal ranch to building their own ship (!) on which to sail around the world.

Synergist projects ranged from theater to ecology to architecture and science, “but at the end of the day, they were experimental people, they were adventurers”, said Wolf, who “defy the typical categories of hippies because they’re counter-cultural people who identify as capitalists”. Allen, in particular, cultivated powerful financial interests such as Bass to fund their increasingly ambitious, science-fiction inspired projects. (The name “Spaceship Earth” comes from the Buckminster Fuller book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, which partially inspired Biosphere 2, as well as the futurist ride at Disneyworld’s Epcot theme park).


In the mid-80s, when sustainability and the pressing threat of global warming were far from mainstream concepts, Synergists found in Bass a partner in their mission to build a self-sustaining, miniature world. (Wolf, who said he intended for the film to focus on the Biospherians and not later conflicts over management of the Biosphere, did not invite Bass to participate; he does, however, interview John Allen, who served as executive chairman of Biosphere 2 during the early 90s). The $200m-plus investigation into self-sufficiency recalled, Biospherians say in the film, the frontier explorers of the past.

“It’s very intoxicating, that kind of idealism and rhetoric,” said Wolf. “And it proved not to translate in the mainstream media context.” Wolf incorporates news clips from the early 90s, which reveal a fixation on the project’s utopian ideals and counter-cultural background. Several reports from the time presented a duality for the project – science or spectacle? – as if the project couldn’t be both, or a harbinger of future scientific attention grabs such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. One former researcher on the project called Biosphere 2, in an television interview, “trendy ecological entertainment” (to prove the point, Wolf includes footage of two Biospherians mud wrestling before a crowd, peering through the glass with their home cameras).

“I think one of the fatal flaws of the project is that they called it an experiment, and that comes with the baggage of academic expectations for science,” Wolf said. Biosphere 2, he believes, was “a different kind of science, a whole-systems or total system approach”.

At the time, the conversation around Biosphere 2’s work was “largely dismissive”, said Wolf. “They had been dubbed failures and in most senses their life’s work had been discounted.” The fact that people often associated Biosphere 2 with the 1996 comedy Biodome with Paulie Shore, “is in some senses a tragedy, given the scope and the ambition of this project”. Still, “what’s appealing about Biosphere 2 is the spectacle and theatricality of it,” said Wolf. “This is a futurist project, and that is outside the realm of traditional science. We see it more in the dotcom sector now, in people like Elon Musk and others who are ‘disruptors’ outside of conventional or mainstream institutions.”


The final third of the film, in which the Biosphere 2 experiment encounters public criticism for its management’s unnecessary secrecy, fracturing management relations and financial hemorrhaging, introduces a surprising new leader: a famous figure from the Trump administration who wrings Biosphere’s idealism for profit, in one of several uneasy seedlings of the present. (It goes without saying that a film primarily about eight people trapped, albeit voluntarily, in a confined space for months on end has some … parallels to spring 2020). “The takeover of Biosphere 2 is analogous to what you could call the takeover of Biosphere 1,” said Wolf. “We live in a time in which the political powers that be are sabotaging our ability to live sustainably on the planet through insidious policies.”

There’s environmental deregulation, the (pre-corona) booming fossil fuel industries, but also the American gospel of profit maximization, which the Synergists could only escape for so long. The group’s goal to make economically and ecologically viable projects was “not economically sustainable”, said Wolf, who sees Biosphere 2 as a “cautionary tale” of “this fantasy of industry and environmentalism coming together to protect our future”.

Cautionary tale and imperfect experiment it may be, Wolf said he still hopes viewers “feel inspired by a group of people who literally reimagined a world”, and whose personal transformation in isolation “will be useful for viewers today who are now, like the Biospherians, quarantined”.

Biosphere 2 demonstrates that “the model of small groups coalescing around common goals is viable,” said Wolf, but with a balance: “As we re-enter the world with a certain determination to take new approaches, there are limitations to that idealism because of pervasive forces of capitalism and politics.”

  • Spaceship Earth is available on Hulu and to rent elsewhere from 8 May in the US with a UK date yet to be announced


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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