Recognizing Our Environmental Arrogance

What an Artificial Earth Taught Me About Failure

By Nicole DeNamur

The silhouette of Biosphere 2, including one of the “lungs” on the left. Photo by Nicole DeNamur.

In 2000, I participated in an undergraduate course on ecology at Columbia University’s Biosphere 2 campus near Oracle, Arizona. My classmates and I studied the plants and animals in the desert and shared our data with students at sites in Black Rock, New York, and the rainforests of Brazil. We also had access to the Biosphere 2 structure, a.k.a. the “bubble in the desert.”

Construction of Biosphere 2—named after Biosphere 1, or planet Earth—began in the late 1980s. Biosphere 2 was a complex and often polarizing project that attracted significant attention. The glass, steel, and concrete facility was an attempt to recreate several of Earth’s biomes on a small scale—just over three acres. Rainforest, ocean, mangrove wetland, savanna grassland, and fog desert ecological communities were all represented, in addition to human habitation and agricultural areas. This unique structure was designed to be a “closed system,” where virtually nothing, not even gases, could come in or go out. The structure was used to support a series of missions, where submarine-style airlocks were closed and the system was sealed for a set period of time. Among other things, these closed-system missions were meant to lend insight into the viability of colonizing other planets.

However, after two missions in the 1990s faced numerous challenges, many labeled the project as a failure. Many of the species introduced into the system ultimately perished, and Time magazine even included Biosphere 2 on its list of the 100 worst ideas of the 20th century.

The project was largely abandoned and ultimately used as a teaching and research facility, which is how I ended up there. I remember walking through the airlocks and standing under the geometric framework of steel and glass. I could feel the “breeze” blowing through the artificial lungs as the air inside expanded and contracted with the shifts in temperature from night to day. The structure was a beautiful feat of engineering and an incredibly intimidating presence. While there were still plants and other organisms inside, the space felt empty and sterile—a sharp contrast to the life and optimism that once filled it.

The heart of the project—creating a representative sample of Earth for a short period of time—seemed relatively straightforward. It seemed to me that we should know enough about our world to recreate it on a small scale. But the reality was that, at least on some level, we did not know enough to make the project function (fittingly, managing carbon dioxide levels proved to be a significant part of the problem).

I realized that while others had labeled the Biosphere 2 project a failure, to me it was also a success. We learned something really important—we do not fully understand or appreciate the intricacies of our world and how it works.

If ever there was a time to recognize and honor what we don’t know, it is now. Conversations surrounding mass space travel continue to gain traction, and politicians are dismantling regulations designed to protect environmental and human health with little consideration. We lack a comprehensive understanding of the impacts of our choices, from resource extraction to allowing chemicals into our environmental systems, yet we continue to act without attempting to identify and explore our significant knowledge gaps.

If we continue to refuse to look at what we don’t know, our environmental arrogance will catch up to us. We need to reframe our thinking, so that projects and processes that daylight our ignorance are not seen as failures but insightful lessons. We should question whether we abandon failed projects or choose to learn from them. Do we press on with space travel and colonization or do we demonstrate that we value where we live now, by focusing our work on regenerating the ecological systems we’ve destroyed right here on Biosphere 1?

Years later, the “failed” missions of Biosphere 2 still resonate with me, and I try to pass on what I learned. I teach a course at the University of Washington that focuses on mitigating risk and driving innovation in the context of sustainable building design, construction, and operations. In their future work, I know my students will face challenges without precedent. They will have to take risks and try new things. I watch them struggle with tough questions that lack clear answers, and I know they feel like they’re failing—but they are also gaining a deeper understanding of what they don’t know. They are learning that “failure” also brings knowledge. And for this, I am grateful.

Nicole DeNamur is a lawyer, educator, and sustainability professional. Her work focuses on creating collaborative spaces and uniting diverse groups to mitigate climate change through the built environment.