John P. Allen and Deborah Snyder
In November of 2019 I was lucky to talk with Deborah Snyder and John P. Allen. Deborah is the principle director of the Synergetic Press and previously led the publishing and educational projects for the Biosphere 2. John Allen is the creator of the Biosphere 2. In 2009 the Synergetic Press published his memoir: Me and the Biospheres. His memoir contextualizes and guides our conversation.
Cole Schiffer: Hi. Thank you very much, I am very excited.
Deborah Snyder: Oh very Excited, John he is just waking up. He went for a long walk today. Is this someones tea? Oh no that is old tea. John I want to introduce you to a student that is passionate about the work you do. I just gave you a piece of paper about him. He is having a Skype meeting with you. He wants to have a Skype meeting with you. He wants to ask a few questions along these lines. He is studying your book. He has read your book, Me and The Biospheres. He is on Skype right now on the computer. If you are ready to have, can you have a 20 minute conversation with him? Then we will see about maybe participate in one of his classes. Right now. Right now. Stand up and meet Cole.
John Allen: And what
DS: Let me introduce you to Cole. Do you have your hearing aids on? Oh. No wonder. Okay I'm talking to the deaf. I put his microphone on, he doesn't even have his hearing aids on. Where are they? Have you not had them on all day long?
DS: Alright, just a minute. Where are they? Walks off camera
JA: [walks up to the camera] Hi. She is getting my hearing aids so we can be more accurate.
CS: Wonderful. Thank you.
JA: She is just zooming through the library and will be back in.
CS: Great. Thank you very much. I don't know if you can hear me or not, but thank you very much.
CS: I will wait a sec.
DS: Just a minute. I am sorry. This is an unusual situation. Usually he has hearing aids on and unfortunately nobody knows where he took them off.
JA: We're doing okay.
DS: Did anybody possibly notice that he put them on today?
JA: Oh yeah [laughing] A knight in electronic armor.
CS: Lets see what I have [I show John I Seem To Be A Verb by R. Buckminster Fuller]
JA: Oh Bucky Fuller. Yeah right. I remember he said it more strongly. I am a verb.
DS: Okay. Cole I am very sorry, but they are not where you left them last night.
JA: Where did I leave them?
DS: I don't know but, you've done something to them.
JA: Where did I sleep last night?
DS: In your bedroom.
JA: My bedroom?
DS: [begins to button John's sweater] Yeah, in your bedroom, but apparently you haven't had these on all day so you've done something to them. Here they are. Found them [in John's sweater]. Jesus Christ. Brand new $8,000 hearing aids.
JA: In the detective trade the first thing the detectives do is pat you down, not run and look in the bedroom.
DS: Here. Let me hope I get this in without hurting you. There. Did it. Alright Cole. Let me introduce you. He has read your message. He understands that you have been studying these ideas about Buckminster Fuller and architecture and you wanted to have conversation with him. How is it working?
JA: Yeah yeah it's fine, It's making noise.
DS: Making noise. Something is making noise. How is that? Better?
JA: That's better.
DS: Okay. Let me turn this on again. Restart. Okay this is a little Bluetooth microphone device. Okay. Alright. Shoot away. Now he can hear.
JA: Now we have knights in electronic armor.
CS: Exactly, cyborgs. Thank you very much. I am just completely honored and grateful to be able to speak with you. In the last year I have got very interested in the ideas of R. Buckminster Fuller and thinking beyond specialization and throughout thinking about things like this, I found the Biosphere 2. To me it felt like something that was-speculative and did not exist in real life. I read your memoir in September and most of my conversations with professors and peers have been about the biosphere 2. I have been very interested in this.
DS: Great. Well it is very smart of you to pick up on Buckminster Fuller. His big thing was education is over when specialization became the main form of organizing educational programs.
JA: Remittance educational programs. It was the end of educational programs.
CS: Yeah. That leads to my first question. In thinking about the Biosphere 2, a lot of what you are doing is following the famous quote from Buckminster Fuller that an instruction manual for spaceship earth did not come with it. What you did with Biosphere 2 is look at the ecological roots of earth. Would you say that was a lot of your task? Returning and looking at the roots of earth that are the underlying processes of this machine. I don't think I should say machine I guess.
DS: Would you say that the underlying roots of Biosphere 2 was to develop an operating manual for spaceship earth? Like what Bucky was writing about like there is no operating manual for spaceship earth.
JA: It was actually to explore the solar system.
DS: The Biosphere 2 project itself-
JA: And you would have to have a biosphere to, for example, live on Mars or Venus or, for that matter, long term on Antarctica. So, we also worked with the Antarctica expedition people. There are a lot places that you find very few people and generally that is an indication that you need a biosphere.
DS: And also I think I would say something about because there was no manual for Biosphere 2 either and there where people who that thought maybe there was and that they would just run it. It was also to learn and to actually build a handbook. What are the operations of a biosphere? And then apply them, Since it was a model of the earth's biosphere, to scale those up and apply similar things to the larger scale thing and his point about exploring the solar system because Biosphere 2 project, Space Biospheres Ventures, which was the name of the company it has both. 50/50 was earth applications and space applications––
JA: [interjecting] Especially mars
DS: The idea of an artificial biosphere was necessary for space explorations, but we were looking for the spin off to design something to sustain itself in space obviously it had technologies that would have earth applications. So it was a two fold mission.
CS: That makes sense.
JA: Actually, at that time things were more advanced. I was on the Mars committee which was: the Soviet Union, United States, and Biosphere 2. So actually things were more advanced on many different vectors and there has been a big huge shutdown.
CS: Yeah and I have some questions around that later, but I think another thing that you mentioned a lot in your memoir in this idea of the Biosphere 2 functioning as a symbol. A symbol to get beyond our reductionist science and reductionist world.
JA: Oh yeah.
CS: The other thing is that the Biosphere 2 in practice was a temporary vessel I guess, but architecturally inspired by the design of the pyramids and all of these significant structures. It really feels monumental.
JA: Actually, we visited the pyramids. Went around the planet visiting, not just the pyramids but the Taj Mahal, Great Pyramid. And the Great Pyramid was not just a big piece of stone, it was a real architectural feat.
DS: It was deliberate to use historically significant architectural shapes and structures to make it iconic. It was to showcase the beauty of a biosphere as well as it being an experiment. Most experiments in laboratories are designed without any architectural grace to them. So, it was a statement. It was an absolute statement that beauty was an important part of science. That art and science needs to work together. Architecture is something that bridges that. You can see it in the work of Buckminster Fuller, who bridges beauty, art, science, engineering––all of those things. Biosphere 2 was about whole systems, design as well as in research. It was mainly applied research that was being conducted in the facility.
JA: Actually, Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff was also very [influential]. Bruce was a personal friend, a very good friend. So the architectural side was through that particular tradition.
CS: It was definitely a beautiful structure, but beyond that it feels like it symbolizes this whole idea that goes along with thinking of a whole systems view of the world. An ecological view of the world. And it stands in physical reality. If I read the books of Bucky or read your memoir or whatever [they are ideas]. This stands as a physical prolonging structure.
JA: Oh yeah, see Bucky and Frank Lloyd Wright actually are architects. And so architecture played a big role in the space program cause everybody, what we would all talk about when we got together you know, was Mars. And also up to some of the moons in Jupiter, but mars was the turnover.
DS: Form and function that whole thing in their theory was. In synergetic architecture and biospheric design was the acronym for your architectural company at Biosphere 2. And form follows function was also a big thing. It was a big thing, like it was you don't have to make scientific experiments ugly kind of thing.
JA: But you're sitting in. I am sitting in [laughing] here. Can you flip around the room?
DS: Well it's dark. This is our home it's an old horse corral actually. It's adobe architecture. It's Synergia ranch.
CS: It's original adobe architecture?
DS: Yeah. Well, it's a farm house. It was a farm house. Literally this was a farm house––
JA: [interjecting] ranch house not a farm house.
DS: Yeah they made adobe bricks. He saw it. He saw it in your book. He knows that we started this 50 years ago that before my time, but you know. You made the adobe. Then you built the buildings. You can see on the website. You've seen some of the architecture. You know we got geodesic domes and community. All of the projects that Synergetic [Ranch] started was called synergetic architecture and biosphere design. The architectural company that evolved, that Johnny worked with with Margaret and Phil and others, was highly influenced by Bruce Goff, Frank Lloyd Wright and
JA: [talking over DS] Bruce was the guy that I got at [inaudible] and Bruce was got it straight from Frank Lloyd wright
DS: You see they are influenced in the design that was largely, they always wanted to find great forms from architecture and put it in the project here.
JA: [interjecting] like Angkor Wat. And then of course we actually built the Hotel Vajra in Kathmandu, Nepal. That was in the world view. We were culminating these architectural concentration of a given culture's values.
CS: Especially with the technosphere element of it, the Biosphere 2 gives an example. There are many people that are talking about it now, but the Biosphere 2 gives a symbol or an example for how we can use our technology when we network our world. We should value monitoring earth and creating an ecological synergy between and that's not what we do [with in our networked world]. But the Biosphere 2 shows what we could have done.
DS: Well it shows what we can do.
CS: Can do.
JA: We would not have any trouble if I had left the biosphere out, if we just said it was a model for the Mars base. See, the Biosphere threatens many established scientists and many established corporations and many established nations. Who basically exploit the biosphere and they even pretend that there is not such a thing. So, politically I would have been set if I called it, you know, Mars Base 1 instead of Biosphere 2 [laughing] politically.
DS: I would like to just add, the design of the engineering, the design of the technosphere was designed by the main modality from Biosphere 2 design and operation was to design a technosphere that works in harmony with its biosphere. So your technology is designed to support nature, cause the nature is what's helping to keep that biosphere, the life support systems going. So what we don't have in the greater application into earth's biosphere is where earth's technophobe is just being designed and nature is being consumed as a resource and it is not being replenished. So the technosphere has to be designed to support nature and the value of natural ecosystem's services, natural capital, that was something that was really clear during the time of designing that because you actually had to ask "hat's the value of that waterfall?" or "what's the value of the wind or the tide system?'' So we actually had to design it and that was a good thing.
CS: It feels so visionary, now those questions are unavoidable and necessary [with climate collapse]. In the past some environmentalist critics of the Biosphere 2 critiqued the supposed over interest in modern technology at the same time technologist critics focused on the supposed over interest in the environment. You offered a reorientation we are only now accepting. That our technology exists and will play a major role in creating ecological balance. A new orientation by a popular critic Benjamin Bratton offers is similar to your understanding of the technosphere. He presents this worldview as a novel reorientation (and published a sort of hit piece on the Biosphere 2) but you understand it differently. Can you speak to the role of indigenous and shamanic ways of thinking about nature and the world in your conceptualization of the Biosphere 2 and broader relationship to the technosphere?
DS: [interjecting] Well the shamanic world works to remind us that we came from and are a part of nature and we need to live more in nature. We had a shaman at the bioneers conference that was there. Saying, how many people are wearing clothing that was made out of cotton? And how many were not––
JA: But the big point is that you might ask yourself why was there such opposition to the Biosphere 2? Why was there such? It's because the capitalist financial class, that is the main thing they exploit. So this is a deliberate censorship.
CS: But it is still there. And I think that is why there is a lot of attention. Even though it was butchered in the media.
JA: What made the hostility was that we actually built a model for the Biosphere 2. That unleashed the demonic resistance.
CS: That can never be taken away. That it was built and exists.
DS: It was designed to last 100 years. They tried to bulldoze it down but figured it was going to be too expensive at one point in time. They were going to make a development there and figured that yeah. So yeah it still is a model of earth's biosphere. It was reduced down to reductionist science, and they tried to make it into smaller systems so that it doesn't function as a whole system anymore and they now it's an educational manufacturing diplomas out on reductionist science. Even though they are really working now, since the University of Arizona has taken over full ownership it has started to grow.
JA: The way you can look at it is a better model of biosphere 1.
CS: Exactly that's what I think it is and it's a [potential] model for our technology in the biosphere 1.
JA: Yeah, since Biosphere 2 shows the technosphere working for the biosphere and capitalism has it just the opposite. This is very basic stuff since the world is fundamentally run by capitalism. And I know both worlds from Harvard Business School. Running corporations on one side and doing biospheric work on the other side. And there is a completely different psychology between the exploitation and studying for some more interesting if not higher goal.
CS: There is a famous book From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner, it is about myths involved with creating this new digital world and the possibility of the internet and the possibility of cyberspace being an escape. An escape of capitalism, consumerism, authoritarianism. That is the thing now, we are really being confronted in it not being true and that's where I think we must return back to your ideas of the technosphere of the Biosphere 2. At the end of your book you talk about a shift in your focus towards the cybersphere, but the internet is rooted in the military and capitalism is deep ways. Was that was a big misconception?
DS: You talk about the cybersphere and cyber meaning helms man and the internet is just a component of a cybersphere, there are many different means of communication on how people steer the ship but in terms of the internet and that space and your friends at the electronic frontier foundation are fighting to preserve this.
JA: they are great people
DS: We had higher hopes. John Perry Barlow is a deer friend of Johns and John Gilmore, who co-founded the eff are constantly fighting with this issue and harder fights in this last year because of the capitalist and militaristic attempts to control that sphere. Do you have any comments about the internet and it's role in our cybersphere and then you might say something about the noosphere?
CS: One thing to add-on is that the internet took away this big hopeful push in the 70s/80s/90s to redesign our world. These ideas maybe stopped because it was decided that we would just create this new world [internet] that would be outside of our world. And I think that is a dangerous thing because our would is now more dysfunctional than ever and a lot of these ideas at times feel more distant because we created this new imaginary world that we thought would be separate.
DS: You know there is a lot to be said there. You know the internet and computers. I know you have commented a number of times how it has destroyed a lot of peoples ability to think and a lot about our society. The advent of computers and the rise of the internet.
JA: You know I don't think computers are a necessarily stimulating to a biospheric approach. In a way they are the ideal ultra capitalists deal. You can maximize your profits with minimum material. Biospherics is completely different from all of the western specialists I know. That is they all live in the biosphere, but the biosphere does not live in them. In fact often they are, even the ones who call themselves liberals or whatever, they are the biggest pushers of the destructive. You can't really destroy the biosphere because, but what you can do it damage it, that is lower the number of species. In fact they are part of the biosphere whether they realize it or not. So you can't find a biosphere inside them but you can find them inside the biosphere.
CS: As someone that was too young to observe the Biosphere 2 through media as it was unveiled. How was the media portrayal a part of the design? You knew from the start this project would create a huge media spectacle––
DS: [Interjecting] No idea. We had no idea that it was going to be so popular and people would come to see it before we even broke ground. We had no idea to expect that but by the time they closed [the door to the Biosphere 2] and went inside we knew we had the world's attention. That much we knew.
JA: So at that point the establishment became rather frightened. Because the main profits they make is, it used to be exploitation of human labor, now it's exploitation of the entire biosphere. They have gone past just exploiting the human species. They've gone past Marx. It's not just exploiting run off humanoids.
CS: Maybe the media frenzy that followed Biosphere 2 was not anticipated, but after there was an initial excitement this idea of the Biosphere 2 being experienced as an image and through video. Most people experienced that way. How did you craft this image?
DS: We had 200,000 monthly visitors. We were the second largest attraction in the state of Arizona, second only to the grand canyon. We had satellite up-links to classrooms across all North America and we had launched programs through the satellite up-links. We published newsletters. A lot of doing, designing, and building. Then we went about trying to communicate the story of what was happening and as we grew and had more resources and capacity. I also started a publishing imprint and published a number of books. We had a large publishing outlet, which sold on the order of 250,000. We had designed curriculum. I was in charge of the publishing and educational programs. The visitor center was a very educationally oriented experience, it included the whole entire campus. The research greenhouse, lectures, conferences. We held conferences to try to develop and build the science of biospherics that did not exist until Biosphere 2.
JA: Well actually a lot of science did exist at the time. People like Darwin and Bucky Fuller. The biosphere was here, we are just part of the biosphere. The biosphere involved humanity, among many other things including all of those things that went along with humanity––civilization, etc. The issue was never really architecture or anything else, but it was that the financial capitalism, and I went to Harvard Business school I think I understand it, is to maximize profit. Well, you maximize profit, in every case I have ever studied, by exploiting what is already here. Even amongst the most hardcore HBS guys [laughing] you would find, well in fact Harvard Business School get students because idea is this is very difficult to do this and you better pay out to Harvard. I had an ulterior motive, in fact, in the mining industry there are not many ladies out there and Harvard is next to a place called Cambridge. So it's co-ed.
CS: I am curious about the theatricality that went into the Biosphere. In what ways did the ideas of theater go into the design of the Biosphere 2?
JA: Oh it does not just go into design. The real question is what role does theater play in life. Remember the idea of the Biosphere 2 was, the thrust of it, I was a member of the Soviet American Mars committee. Everybody leaves this out. So it wasn't like some idiotic American Mark Twain out there to make a literary point, at that time there was what was called a space race. And we were the only corporation that I knew that could work in Moscow and Washington and Beijing and London and Paris, everywhere that had a space program. They had to work with us, because nobody else knew how you were going to live when you get there [Mars]. Unless you are just going to stay in a suit, you have to build a biosphere. So if you are really talking long term stay, that's what you have to do. And so that brought up a big contradiction in the ruling class on building Biosphere 2, should you build it at all. It could be very reflexive on capitalism. Not everyone was for building one at all. They have never gone into why was there and who were the forces who were backing this tremendous attack on Biosphere 2. And who actually opposes and further work on biospheric science. You know, when you see something historic and it faces a lot of opposition you have to start asking what classes are for it and against it and what are the financial implications and what does the history of technology have got to do with it. It's complex systems. So ordinarily people, even Harvard or Oxford graduates, are not taught how to carry that many dynamic variables in attention at the same level.
CS: I have a deep interest in the Biosphere because it deserves reexamination through the history of technology and the implicated parties.
JA: Well I think I would emphasize it is a different world view. See, technically everybody, including everybody who were most against the Biosphere 2, admit it [the Biosphere 2] was a huge advance, but philosophically what would it mean. Say if you were a capitalist who had graduated from Harvard Business School, which I did, but if you took it seriously, which I did not, that is you profit maximize. And when you profit maximize, it doesn't take too much mathematics to figure whether we should spend this money restricting making capitalist profit on taking down the rain forests and so forth and so forth. No. We would make more profit if you let it [rain forests] be taken down as far as you could to where you could make big money by redoing it. You really don't have to spend two years at Harvard Business School to figure that out. The biggest thing is that the Soviet Union collapsed. The Soviet Union has good point and bad points, but is not run by profit maximizing Wall St. Which means when they decided to do something, they weren't constrained by the fact that they had deliver great returns 8% of the capital per-year. So there are tremendous advantages. You take a different kind of Weltanschauung, a different world view. Now hardly anybody talks about that. The American intelligentsia is already castrated. I can't remember when the last time I talked to an American intelligentsia––and I talked to some of the great ones––who even use words like biosphere total systems and stuff like that. They have been essentially ghettoized. Since the ghetto's are essentially Harvard and Princeton, it's hard to object to it.
DS: You know biosphere was not commonly known by anyone in 1984. In 1984-1989 I had to spell the word biosphere every time on the phone to people. Biosphere 2 put a icon and a worldview in a literal and visual sense. Because it was small enough that people could see it in a picture. They could realize that it was a full world. Biomes are the building blocks of a biosphere.
CS: When you're talking about the origins or this word and icon, the Biosphere was an clear critique of our world and science. It easy to understand that the media and the ruling class would be excited about going to Mars––
JA: [Interjecting] Wait a minute, this is very important. It became important for the American establishment because the Russkis were doing it. And that would give them a huge advantage. As soon as the Russki establishment fell down the American establishment stopped it all. From a purely Harvard Business School graduate financial point of view it's quite possible no corporation would in fact back it unless it was going to have taxation. Anyway all this raised economic issues in the west that the Russians solved. That the market is what we decide from different things rather than turning it all over to a bunch of people who are shop keepers. The main thing for why Biosphere 2 fell in my opinion historically, if you look at the big picture, is because the Soviet Union fell. And when the Soviet Union fell there was no major country that threatened the United States ruling class, in fact there was no other major country doing anything and at that point it was all over. Now one thing of course is that Bucky Fuller was a huge thing in this, a very huge friend. That architecture of Wright and Fuller has itself had a problem with establishment here. That's what made Biosphere 2 really threaten the establishment I think. Because when we built Biosphere 2 they could see that we were operating with a top scale architecture somewhere/somehow and therefore we could do it on Mars. It's easier on Mars actually than planet earth because everything weighs less.
CS: Thank you Deborah and John!
Email me if you would like to listen to the recording of the interview.