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Spaceship Earth

Spaceship Earth

Matt Wolf, director
RadicalMedia and Stacey Reiss Productions
116 minutes

In 1991, eight adventurers donned designer astronaut jumpsuits and began a 2-year mission in a 3-acre airtight terrarium in the Arizona desert called Biosphere 2 (Biosphere 1 being the environment the rest of us earthlings inhabit). A media circus, complete with cringeworthy celebrity cameos, surrounded the launch of the massive project that would be a model for similar ventures on other worlds. Spaceship Earth chronicles the fascinating history and prehistory of Biosphere 2, a $200 million earthbound space expedition that blurred the line between science and entertainment. Biosphere 2 was the culmination of a series of ambitious projects led by the charismatic and brilliant John Allen.

Allen assembled a group of followers that began as a theater troupe at the height of 1960s commune culture in San Francisco, but these self-described “Synergists” soon began experimenting with bigger projects that they were profoundly unqualified to attempt. They built a massive sailboat for the purpose of exploring Earth’s biomes and left sustainable businesses in their wake, thanks to a funding partnership with Ed Bass, a rebellious Texas oil billionaire with an environmentalist streak.

As idealists but also capitalists, the Synergists were members of a remarkably functional commune. Having mastered the seas, their next move was to save the planet from ecological destruction.

Biosphere 2 was a prototype for a planetary colony. More importantly, the Synergists hoped it would teach them how to live sustainably on Earth. Everything, from water and air to nutrients, had to be recycled during the 2-year mission, so expedition members were metabolically linked to the organisms under the Buckminster Fuller–inspired enclosure. The massive scale of the project drew intense media scrutiny, for which Allen and his followers were unprepared, and raised expectations for a level of scientific rigor that they had never quite promised.

The maiden voyage of Biosphere 2 was far from a controlled experiment, and enthusiasm from scientists outside the dome dropped as precipitously as the oxygen levels on the inside. Still, some of the original Synergists look back at Biosphere 2 as a triumphant project that taught them lessons about sustainability that were not otherwise knowable. Now entering their sixth decade of collaboration, Allen’s group continues to operate a sustainable ranch, and some of the businesses they established on their global voyage are still afloat.

Director Matt Wolf, interviewing key players in the Synergist movement, recounts their 50-year wild ride, and viewers are treated to a gold mine of riveting archival footage. Wolf’s subjects are wonderful storytellers, and he infuses the film with compassion and admiration for the Synergists’ idealism and accomplishments.

Ultimately, the inspirational lessons of Spaceship Earth are that we have to push ourselves to chase important visions when moments of opportunity arise and that small collectives like the Synergists can be the engines of creative success. For Allen’s group, a heavy dose of charisma and performance flair also went a long way toward seizing the moment and drawing others into their lofty, futurist goals.

About the author

School of Biological Sciences, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA.