A Garden of Eden
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
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