Spaceship Earth (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Behind Biosphere 2

Matt Wolf’s documentary film “Spaceship Earth” presents a fascinating story behind Biosphere 2, an American Earth system science research facility located in Oracle, Arizona. The documentary is often amusing during its first half as delving into an interesting tale surrounding the origin and development of Biosphere 2, and then it becomes alternatively fascinating and disturbing during its second half, which focuses on what happened once that famous ecological experiment was begun in Biosphere 2.

In the beginning, we get to know how everything was started from a guy named John Allen, who established a counterculture group along with several other people including Kathelin Gray and Marie Harding in San Francisco during the late 1960s. In their own mix of science, art, and a bit of spirituality, these people eagerly threw themselves into many different activities including performance art and ecological research, and they eventually moved together to a ranch in New Mexico once they felt that San Francisco was too urbane for them.

Under Allen’s strong leadership, they continued to move from one spot to another after the considerable success of their ranch business. At one point, they attempted to build a big ship together, and, though they did not know that much about how to build a ship, they studied and worked together a lot before embarking on this project of theirs, and they certainly rejoiced when their ship turned out to be pretty successful.

While they did not exactly believe in capitalism, Allen and his group members were quite conscious of how to run their businesses well enough to generate more profit for them and then draw more investors out there. Fortunately, Allen happened to have a wealthy investor who is a member of one of the richest families in US, and, thanks to the full support of that investor, he and his group members could freely reach for whatever they were motivated to do at many different places ranging from London to Kathmandu.

As several interviewees admit in the documentary, Allen’s group felt a bit like a commune or a cult at times, though, as far as shown from the documentary, he did not abuse or exploit anyone in his group. While he certainly had some human flaws, he always exuded positive influence upon others around him, and the mood among them was not that far from that of many start-up companies in Silicon Valley. After all, you need some collective belief and motivation if you and others around you try to create something good and new together, and Allen was such a person capable of providing both of them.

As they kept advancing in the late 1980s, Allen finally decided to go for what he and others had aspired to achieve for many years. With the financial support from that wealthy main backer of his, he embarked on building an ecological science facility which could be self-sustaining for years within its closed system, and his ambitious project soon drew the attention of the media and the public.

Because this would provide a golden opportunity for ecological research, Allen and his colleagues and researchers did their best to create artificial ecological environments inside Biosphere 2. A series of archival footage clips show us how many different animal and plant species were brought into several individual sections of Biosphere 2 for creating a number of various ecological environments inside the facility, and we later hear about how they had to select those animals and plants carefully for approximating to the real ecological environments of the Earth, which was incidentally regarded as Biosphere 1.

In case of selecting eight persons to live and study inside for Biosphere 2, Allen chose them from a bunch of many different volunteers, and the selected people seemed to be ideal for his project. As smart and creative folks not afraid of challenges, they were all ready to let themselves cut off from the outside world for next 2 years, and they were also quite enthusiastic about whatever they would discover and learn during that challenging period.

When these eight people eventually entered Biosphere 2 and then began the first month of their project, everything seemed to be going well at first as they eagerly worked and collaborated with each other, but, not so surprisingly, there subsequently came small and big problems popping here and there. For example, though Biosphere 2 was supposed to be completely closed off from the outside, they often had no choice but to receive some support and supply from the outside, and this certainly made bad impressions on the public and the media.

Allen and his colleagues and experts tried to get things under control as much as they could, but things often got worse. When the carbon dioxide level of Biosphere 2 was gradually increased without any mitigation at one point, the people inside Biosphere 2 became far less active and productive than before due to this atmosphere problem, and this will surely remind you of the importance of the air we breathe at every second on the Earth.

Anyway, the project inside Biosphere 2 was not a total failure, and its participants came to learn a lot about not only ecological environment but also themselves, but the end of their two-year journey was followed by a very bitter moment for Allen and everyone working with him. Once his main financial backer let a certain deplorable figure enter the picture, everything was quickly collapsed, and Biosphere 2 was eventually sold to the University of Arizona in 2011.

In conclusion, “Spaceship Earth” is worthwhile to watch especially if you have ever heard about its main subject, and its cautionary tale will make you reflect more on what has been happening on our planet because of our irresponsible actions during several decades. So far, we still have only one self-sustaining biosphere which has worked well for several billion years, but we are still ruining it more in the name of more profit even at this point, aren’t we?

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