keeping with the definition you’ve used) would reflect those values more than those of artistic, visionary adventurers – at least to begin with?
John: Yeah, but it’s necessary to keep these issues alive so that we don’t just surrender to the “battleship grey” syndrome. The word biosphere has become very popular. I’ve had people invite me into their living room that they’ve decorated with some rocks and rugs and they say, “welcome to my biosphere.” A biosphere, as I said earlier, is a materially closed system and has energy and information flowing through it that produces free energy. Las Vegas is not an example of this.(laughter)
The technosphere of the planet earth which is the major driving force for these artificial environments is, like Las Vegas, lowering the free energy of the planet, it’s lowering the complexity and diversity. It’s bad for thinking and feeling. The technosphere needs to be renovated. The word for that is noosphere and it describes a biosphere and a technosphere working together. Biosphere 2 is really Noosphere 1.
David: Wasn’t noosphere a term coined by Teilhard de Chardin?
John: It’s debatable whether Vernadsky or Teilhard de Chardin coined that term. They were both in Paris at the same time and Chardin was a student of Vernadsky. Chardin gave an idealistic tilt to the word and Vernadsky gave a scientific interpretation.
Rebecca Was the Biosphere, as many have claimed, partly inspired by an apocalyptic vision of the world’s future?
John: No, no, a thousand times no. This is the media for you. I said, the Biosphere was a refugia. This word has a technical meaning in biology – it means a place that has a concentration of life diversity. In the Amazon, for example, if there are huge movements in climate etc.. it’s a place where the genetic diversity of the rainforest concentrates. Well this became, in certain sensationalist hands, interpreted as me being the head of an apocalyptic cult of survivalist savages protecting billionaires and the Pentagon in the middle of Arizona! You can’t live in Biosphere 2 if Biosphere 1 were destroyed – at least on earth. It was a dumb smear job.
David: What were some of the biggest challenges that you and your colleagues had to face during the project?
John: The media.(laughter) I know it seems that the media was all negative, but there was actually a period when this was the greatest scientific project that had ever happened on the planet earth and it was going to save the world and so on. So then we had people going around totally conceited and some never recovered – they actually believed that!
Then there were those who said that it was the worst thing that had ever happened, and some of our people went around thinking that and were feeling all guilt-ridden.(laughter) It’s a pattern in the American media – they build you up, then they take you down. The big challenge was how to keep it out of the public eye, and we succeeded in doing that for a long time.
Rebecca But then there was controversy about that, about the fact that you weren’t available – the media took it as having something to hide.
John: Right. This added to the media fuel and they said, why didn’t anybody know about you from 1969 until 1988? What great secret did you have to conceal? (laughter) But some critics were really beneficial to the project. Hundreds of people came up with excellent critiques.
Rebecca What was it do you think about this project that inspired so much controversy?
John: It was a challenge – to reductionist science, to the idea that space stations should just survey planet earth, and to the school system. Kids love it. Biosphere 2 has the same impact on a kid as seeing the earth from space. Kids from the fourth and fifth grade would insist that they would make their teachers teach them about biospheres.
Rebecca Many people also seemed to have a problem about the fact that you’ve taken patents out on some of the technology developed for Biosphere 2.
John: Yes, then there’s the nihilist left.(laughter) They said we were contaminated because we dealt with business at all, but they didn’t offer to finance it! We could have gone to the government, but they were too conservative, so we got one adventurous capitalist and now he’s taken it over. But at least he got the idea out – at least humanity now knows that this is possible. And now that the idea is out, it can’t be stopped.
David: I was reading in Science magazine that there’s an attempt being made by the Biosphere team to accommodate more scientific research by outside scientists.
John: The first two years was like a maiden voyage. On a maiden voyage you need to have people who are highly skilled, who can react quickly to emergencies – not your usual scientific type. Now we have it down to where it’s operating more regularly. Like NASA at a certain point needed the `right stuff,’ and now they put scientists up into space because they no longer need somebody with a jet pilot reflex – the same with Biosphere 2.
David: How did the biospherians deal with the psycho-social pressure of living in such tight quarters for so long together?
John: A little better than a nuclear family in a suburban house.
David: A little better? How did you measure that?
John: Oh, by the divorce rate, the murder rate…(laughter)
Rebecca Did they live together before they went into the Biosphere 2?
John: We did expeditionary training. We’d had ship voyages and we’d worked in remote stations. We had sophisticated medical measurements and psychoanalysts monitering things. The main thing I looked for every morning was if anyone had a black eye. (laughter)
Most importantly (and NASA did a lot of work on this) we saw if anybody refused to eat with anybody the night before. Nobody ever did, even though they sometimes refused to speak with one another. It’s a long held tradition in nomadic tribes that if you eat together you don’t kill the other person.
Rebecca What are some of the characteristics do you think that are necessary for somebody to survive well under those conditions?
John: The first condition in a complex experimental situation is that you have to be knowledgeable in many different areas. Also, you have to relate to other people whether you like them or not. If somebody says, “jump” you have to jump if they’re in charge of that particular area.
Most of all you must see some value in the task. The biggest secret anybody’s ever found to high morale is if people think they are doing something interesting and important. As soon as it starts to bore people or they think it’s insignificant then you have to go to a whole moral-building stimulus deal. The present mode in the United States is, I’m okay, you’re okay, let’s all feel good, and so on. But the older school, which I believe is more correct, is that an army outfit that doesn’t gripe is going to be wiped out during their first engagement with enemy forces.
David: Can you tell us about the present situation at the Biosphere 2, the allegations of mis-management and what this will mean for its future?
John: Well, they’re totally false. We had developed a whole series of products with budgets and five-year plans, so basically the financial partner just took it all away. I don’t know what the consequences will be because that’s under negotiations but I would hope that a reasonable solution will be found. I’m often accused of being a sanguine type who perhaps tends to take a cheerier view towards life than the facts would justify.
David: I hope it’s contagious, I could use a little bit of that. (laughter) Can you tell us about the plans for an underwater biosphere and future biosphere projects?
John: There’s a whole series of biospheres that have an extreme importance to human beings. One is underwater, one will be a desert biosphere, a low atmospheric pressure biosphere at 20,000 feet, a polluted biosphere etc…At what point will the planet earth be wiped out because the large system can no longer adapt to the rate of change? There’s a lot of argument about that and some people say, (in a dumb voice) “well, we can keep on doing it because there’s going to be a technofix along the line.”
Let’s suppose you take the smoggiest day in Mexico City or a real disaster like Love Canal and build a biosphere around it to find out if it can recover. You see, it’s masked out here because you have the total biosphere working to repair it. It’s like if you have a hole in your head. You would recover because the total body would go into a healing trip. But at some point with say 23 holes the whole system would break down.
One hole at a time can be repaired, but in a closed biosphere we could figure out to a degree, allowing for scale factors, what would be the point of no return for the total system. Of course, long before that there should be mass and intelligent action against it, and we’re probably very close to that. But who can say? The biosphere has lots of resilience. Do we have what it takes to support ten billion people? This is one of the biggest areas where the Biosphere 2 can help us to find answers.
Rebecca You’ve been described variously as an entrepreneur, a charlatan, a genius and a megalomaniac. How would you describe yourself?
John: (laughter) A human being behind those four faces and probably a billion others. That’s why I’m so interested in theater, because there you get