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A Garden of Eden

Antonia Baum

The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2. Jane Poynter. viii + 368 pp. Thunder's Mouth Press, 2006. $26.95.

In The Human Experiment, Jane Poynter chronicles the two years she and seven others spent living in Biosphere 2, a three-acre man-made ecosystem in Arizona. The buildings rise up out of the desert, an architectural mélange of glass-enclosed structures resembling a fairy-tale castle. Biosphere 2 (so named to distinguish it from the larger outside world, or Biosphere 1), consisted of five wilderness biomes (a savannah, a tropical rain forest, a desert, a marsh and an ocean) and two human, or anthropogenic, biomes (a simulated miniature town and an agricultural area). One of Poynter's fellow residents described it as "the Garden of Eden atop an aircraft carrier."

Biosphere 2Click to Enlarge Image

Poynter begins with her personal journey from a well-upholstered life and education in private English schools through a coming of age that one senses is still a work in progress. As an impressionable young woman attending secretarial college in London, she stumbled on the Institute of Ecotechnics. The institute consisted of a curious assortment of counterculture itinerants headquartered in disparate locales and loosely tied by a passion for ecoscience. Among their established beachheads were a conference center on the French Riviera; an area in northwestern Australia used to study pastures; a ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico, focused on desert irrigation; and a performing arts center in Fort Worth, Texas, dubbed the Caravan of Dreams. The Institute of Ecotechnics adopted her, or she them, and thus began a series of adventures around the globe.

Poynter's work with the institute included required stints on their various projects. She hoped to gain one of the coveted spots in Biosphere 2, the training for which included, for example, mandatory meditation, theatrical performances and hard labor on the institute's works already in progress. One cannot help admiring Poynter's pluck during this curious odyssey, which was overseen by her Svengali, an authoritarian, charismatic man named John Allen. Her travels took her from the desolate northwestern Australian outback—where she spent several difficult months on a cattle station and learned to mend fences, castrate cattle and avoid deadly snakes—to the Heraclitus, a large oceangoing vessel on which she spent long periods of time both at sea and in port.

Eventually Poynter was chosen to be one of the "lucky" eight who would live in Biosphere 2, and on September 26, 1991, the two-year experiment began. The biospherians (as they called themselves) were expected to become a self-sustaining agricultural community, but their failure to anticipate problems led to several alarming developments, and the scientific data collected during the project did little to justify the expense. One obviously significant problem was a recurring inability to meet their caloric needs. One ought certainly to question the medical wisdom of knowingly subjecting eight human subjects to a prolonged semistarved state. After all, it is not as if we lack knowledge on this topic, which has been gained both from unfortunate natural occurrences and from research such as Ancel Keys's landmark study of a group of conscientious objectors during World War II. The biospherians demonstrated classic signs of chronic semistarvation. They experienced not only the usual primary indicator, weight loss, but also a lack of energy, decreased motivation, depressed mood, compromised cognition and, well, a preoccupation with food.

Evidence of this last symptom is a charming passage in which the author relates a recipe for a four-month pizza. The instructions begin with the planting of the wheat and the raising of the African pygmy goat, continue with the harvesting of the wheat and milking of the goat, and end with the finished product, served "piping hot."

The biospherians also experienced chronic, intermittent difficulties maintaining the proper balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide within the biosphere. The resulting hypoxia was disastrous for the crew, but they obstinately attempted to persevere without pumping in oxygen, an inevitable necessity. Here again, the seemingly wanton disregard for the health of the people inside seems, at best, shortsighted.

With uneven prose, Poynter welcomes the reader into the world that would become hers. The book's scattershot format mirrors the haphazard nature of the entire project—both seem to have lacked a clear plan. Poynter interrupts scientific discussions with jarring personal intrusions and passages that read more like a travelogue. She is at her best when delving into the personal but devotes too many pages to the minutiae of the oxygen–carbon dioxide debacle and the petty politics of the egos involved in the project.

Poynter also discusses the controversy surrounding Biosphere 2, although her take seems biased by her attachment to her mentors. To justify the project, for example, she quotes acclaimed aerospace engineer Burt Rutan:

When there is ever a true breakthrough you can find a time period when the consensus was, "Well that's nonsense." . . . a true, creative researcher has to have confidence in nonsense.

Poynter and her fellow biospherians believed that "we were not only saving the world. . . . We were creating a new way of life, a new civilization based on the notion of social synergism."

Unfortunately, the mission yielded more bickering and infighting than scientific data. Their "mantra," which they said was "Leave your ego at the door," proved impossible to uphold. And that, as much as anything else, was the cause of their experiment's failures.

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