Documentary Review: Remembering the Biosphere — “Spaceship Earth”

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Here is THE must-see documentary for a world living under quarantine.

“Spaceship Earth” is about can-do cooperation, art and science coalescing, about “learning by doing” and recognizing that “small groups of people are the engines of change.”

It’s about making the impossible possible, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” discovering skills you didn’t know you had, about stumbling, getting up and getting back to it.

And its a cautionary tale of media spin, of over-hyping and over-selling something that is designed to over-reach, and the dangers of falling short of what you’ve led the hype machine of TV — and the bottom-line, shortsighted Wall Street mentality — to expect you to achieve.

Utopian and beautiful, idealistic and futuristic, Arizona’s Biosphere 2 captured the world’s imagination in that post “We are the World/Hands Across America” age, the idea that humans could build a habitat that simulated “Biosphere 1” (the Earth), seal it off as if it was a space ship, and recycle air, water and waste to keep eight humans, wildlife and plants alive for two years.

Maybe you remember the 1991-93 Biosphere experiment for the buzz that surrounded it (long montages of breathless TV coverage are sampled) and the withering blowback the “experiment” received when things went wrong, promises were broken and the impurity of the experiment was revealed.

Maybe you remember the Pauly Shore comedy “Bio-Dome” that joined in the mockery.

But there’s a lot more to it and the sober-minded people who dreamed it up, hand-built the facility and executed this two year exercise in sustainability, conceived in simulating space travel habitation and survival.

Matt Wolf’s fascinating deep-dive into this project traces the group to its 1960s “Summer of Love” San Francisco origins, its earlier exercises in running a self-sustaining ranch and building a sailing junk which they could travel the world in, stopping to set up other projects — recreating a rainforest in Puerto Rico, etc. — and perform as The Theater of All Possibilities.”

Because as founder John Allen put it to the collection of direction-seeking youth,  academics, scientists and others who gathered around him, “It’s ALL theater.”

Wolf’s film shows us their 25 year odyssey, as a collective (not quite a commune), a group of smart, energetic extroverts who took on challenges, learned new skills for each challenge and mastered what NASA jargon has memorably coined “working the problem.”

They took a look at all the data and visual evidence of climate change/environmental degradation, and the over-population and consumption-driven collapse of “Biosphere 1,” and  “decided we had to DO something.”

People like Kathelin Gray, Mark Nelson, Marie Harding and others traveled the world, studied environments and learned to farm, to engineer, to film and to build  — from houses to boats to a gigantic geodesic complex that would be their greatest piece of architecture and theater, a scientific attention-grabbing exercise in raising environmental awareness and consciousness.

They ran their “corporation” as “a work democracy,” where everyone had to polish an expertise, but one that circled their charismatic leader. The blowback over their biggest project started with the disparaging label “cult.”

Meeting the chuckling but ever-upbeat John Allen on film, that seems to be a bit over-the-top. But the film invites us to think, “Suppose that’s accurate? So what?”

“We are hard-wired to create cults in the innovative phase of an organization,” one insider reasons.

Think about people who motivate others to buy into their vision. Allen comes off as no more “out there” than Martin Luther King Jr., Elon Musk or Elizabeth Warren — intelligent, challenging, always setting idealistic goals, inspiring others to join in and “work the problem” with them.

The big surprises of Wolf’s film aren’t the “downfall,” allegations of “cheating” in the experiment, the pitfalls of trying something as difficult and potentially dangerous as this in a “learn as you go” shakedown cruise manner.

And it’s no surprise hearing that this effort to create “science fiction without the ‘fiction'” was largely inspired by Douglas Trumball’s enviro sci-fi classic,”Silent Running.”

What is stunning is meeting these people and realizing the competence that they backed their confidence with, seeing the lifelong learning that went into the preparations for Biosphere, realizing that whatever stumbles came from their over-promising, that the attempt and the hype they added to it had social and scientific value.

The film’s two real shortcomings are the limited amount of “inside the sphere” footage included and the lack of outside “experts” to comment on the merit, or lack of merit, in their project, looking back on it 25 years later.

The third act villains we may have forgotten — a billionaire backer who would pass from the Earth unknown had he not backed them, a cynical ultra-conservative “Wall Street type” who went on to political and climate-change-denying infamy.

But the “sphere,” which is still around, is worth remembering, especially as human civilization is brought to a consuming, polluting and short-term self-interest pause by COVID-19.

Haters back then and haters now do what haters do. But these hippies? They were the brightest bulbs on the chandelier. And maybe they were onto something.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Linda Leigh, John Allen, Tony Burgess, Kathelin Gray , Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Marie Harding

Credits: Directed by Matt Wolf. A Neon release.

Running time: 1:53

 

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