World in a Bottle

Once the punch line of a bad joke, Arizona’s Biosphere 2 could be more relevant than ever.


Arizona's Biosphere 2

Credit: Preservation

If you have an interest in either science or pop culture, you probably recall Biosphere 2, which briefly captured the world's fancy in 1991 when eight "biospherians" boldly went where no man or woman had gone before—into a giant terrarium for two years to live with plants, animals, and a whole lot of bugs. Their mission, driven by a strange philosophical meld of Star Trek and The Whole Earth Catalog, was going to show us everything from how to live in tune with nature here on earth to how we might someday exist on other planets.

It didn't work so well. The air inside the steel-and-glass enclosure went bad, cockroaches thrived, and the biospherians were constantly warding off hunger. Sometime after rumors spread that pizza and candy bars were being smuggled inside and that seven tons of oxygen had to be pumped in to keep them all breathing, Biosphere 2 became a national joke, a staple of late-night monologues and gleefully snarky reporters. By the time the eight biospherians were released back into the wild, the project had settled into a cultural niche as one of those goofy examples of self-aggrandizing counterculture idealism just made for a Saturday Night Live skit.

It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, to realize that Biosphere 2 is still out there in the Arizona desert, a sprawling complex of geodesic domes, towering pyramids, and majestically vaulted glass ceilings, all topped by a bulbous white tower.  It's being operated now as a tourist attraction—think Epcot Center, but less fun—and it's up for sale.

The facility itself is surely less desirable than the surrounding property: thousands of acres of undeveloped land amid Tucson's suburban sprawl. Fairfield Homes, a development company based in Tucson, had announced plans early last year to buy the property and build Biosphere Estates, with homes starting at around $300,000, but bowed out as the housing market stalled. (The deal would not have required the developer to preserve the Biosphere facility.) In the end, the complex will need luck to survive the inexorable march of the bulldozers.

Except for the concern of a few ecologists and science geeks, the reaction to this threat has largely been, "Oh well." But before we consign Biosphere 2 to whatever fate awaits it, we owe it one last look, to see if it might have something left to teach us. After all, it's not like we're doing so well with Biosphere 1 these days—also known as the planet Earth.

For more of this article, e-mail us to purchase a copy.  

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.