Life in a doomed dome


Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities
Rebecca Reider
310 pages, hardcover, $39.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2009.

The American West has long been home to grand engineering schemes, with planners and boosters eager to manipulate nature to suit their own purposes. Rebecca Reider's new book, Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities, reveals one well-known experiment to have been as disorganized and full of hubris as any of the West's most notoriously mismanaged hydrological undertakings. Her book just won a 2009 Book of the Year award from Foreword Magazine.

The Biosphere 2 experiment, which locked eight "biospherians" inside a glass dome for two years in the name of science, was largely inspired by a single charismatic individual -- John Allen. Allen built a cult of personality at his Arizona ranch and then enlisted his ranching comrades in the Biosphere project. It ultimately ended in chaos, with participants forced out by restraining orders.

Reider painstakingly recreates the history of the original group, a history replete with enough tension and power plays to fill a whole season of Survivor. Yet underneath the reality-show-style drama there were serious scientific questions: How can we better understand human impacts on complex ecosystems? Can we manage nature to create functioning systems that nourish human life on Earth?

In the short term, the answer to the second question is a resounding "no." As the Biosphere 2 project disintegrated amid wildly feuding factions -- Columbia University took over the site -- what remained was a system poisoned by carbon dioxide. Although this allowed climate scientists to conduct experiments on how rising CO2 levels might affect oceans and plant life, it did not reflect favorably on science's ability to recreate the intricate workings of healthy ecosystems.

Ghosts of Biosphere 2 seemed to linger during Columbia's tenure at the Arizona project, leading to an ongoing crisis of scientific identity. Columbia eventually withdrew from the site, which today is managed by the University of Arizona. At times, Reider over-analyzes the problems. But she leaves readers with one more important question, one that the new owners are still trying to answer: How can science that seeks to have a real-world impact "find a compromise between complexity and control?"

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