We don’t need utopias

What if Eden is chilling out in your neighborhood?

I’ve visited Biosphere 2, the Earth science research facility in Oracle, Arizona, on two different occasions. I first went three years ago during the early days of the pandemic, when we still had no idea how the COVID-19 virus would behave. A lot of institutions had already closed their doors to the public.


Biosphere 2 offered self-guided tours through a phone app, though, so my family and I drove out on a hot August evening. We listened to a young woman’s voice over our car speakers, narrating the story of each of the buildings as we drove by them. We saw the Biosphere 2 rainforest inside a giant terrarium in the shape of a glass dome; from a distance, we could see some big-leafed 80-feet-tall trees amid the kind of condensation you find only in the tropics, not here in the desert. The app described the ocean and savanna habitats, as well as Biosphere 2’s notorious “lung,” the two domes designed to equalize air pressure within the various environments. The 1.27-hectare compound at the foothills of the Catalina Mountains is the largest artificial and closed ecological system ever created.

Wanting to see it from the inside, we returned this past winter on a rainy day. As we approached the Epcot Center-like structures, we noticed a different kind of visitor on a dirt path on the campus: a bobcat and her three kittens, the little ones particularly curious, turning back and pausing to look back at us as their mom kept marching. This time, Biosphere 2 felt less seductive. In fact, it felt invasive — a cluster of structures plopped down in an existing ecosystem that was just as alive and important to the Earth as the carefully curated landscapes inside the domes. Above all, it felt outdated, a 1980s-style vision of what the future might look like: a blueprint for a big, sleek, see-through, self-sustaining colony on another planet. Why bother envisioning what we could grow on Biosphere 2 when we can’t even nurture what’s already here, on Biosphere 1?

It felt invasive — a cluster of structures plopped down in an existing ecosystem that was just as alive and important to the Earth as the carefully curated landscapes inside the domes.

The West is full of monuments to imaginary, aspirational futures. From the 28 temples built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah to southern Colorado’s Drop City, the “first rural hippie commune,” these sites all share one thing in common: They are built-out, ambitious, human-centric. And they’re also exclusive, as in not meant for everyone, open only to Mormons or members of the 1960s counterculture movement. 

Biosphere 2, near Oracle, Arizona, contains seven distinct biomes inside massive glass-covered structures. In this image, portions of the ocean biome, and mangrove and savanna biomes are visible.

The Arcosanti Project built in Arizona’s high-elevation desert is another experimental town designed to test out what Italian architect Paolo Soleri called “arcology.” Soleri believed that pairing architecture and ecology would limit urban sprawl and energy use and increase pedestrian-friendly designs. When you visit Arcosanti, though, none of this is obvious. The concrete 1970s buildings were supposed to demonstrate how we could live in harmony with the natural world. Yet all I saw were structures breaking down in the climate; water was getting into the staircases, and the vegetable gardens were insufficient to feed the estimated 70 people currently living there.

So who are all these aspirational futures for? I’m interested in something else: a nature-first vision that’s small in its foundation yet leaves nobody out, including non-humans. By their very nature, utopias have always been a part of our human delusion, a product of our constant desire to dream big and win. But why do we need them? Maybe our dreams should consider our current reality instead of obsessing over building out some technologically dependent fantasy of the future.

The rainforest biome at Biosphere 2.

A short ride away from where we live I found someone who’s on that path, working with what’s real now by recasting the past. His name is Drew Berryhill, and his project, a small nursery, is called Drutopia. After he faced eviction in 2020, Berryhill was approached about moving his homegrown nursery of cactus and succulents to an acre of land at the edge of a Black cultural center in Dunbar Spring, one of Tucson’s historically Black neighborhoods. (Many of these neighborhoods have rapidly gentrified over the past few decades.) With that acre, Berryhill was given the task of transforming a once-abandoned lot into a healthy botanical garden that can inspire others to reclaim more of that land. Speaking to the local newspaper, Berryhill said, “We’re creating that oasis vibe, that Eden-like vibe where people can come hang out, appreciate, chill.”

Utopias have always been a part of our human delusion, a product of our constant desire to dream big and win.

He said that he hopes that his collection of gems and cactus can help bring this little corner of the city back to life, drawing people to the area. He’s drawing other species, too; he often posts on social media about the hummingbirds nesting in the trees and how the pocket of green is becoming a refuge for all kinds of species, including coyotes and javelinas at night. And the locals are coming to just hang out, too, without the pressure to buy anything.

I did just that recently and saw how his plants were taking over most of the available land. The palo verde trees were blooming, and a couple sat at a bench near me, just chatting. They weren’t there to shop; they were simply enjoying themselves. Maybe “utopia” can really be that simple, as Berryhill hopes — the kind of authentic, nature-first experience that starts small and inspires others to do the same in their own backyards.   

Ruxandra Guidi was formerly a contributing editor for High Country News. She writes from Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on LinkedIn.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.