Their faces are visible through the glass—drawn, tight grimaces. The camera catches the angry voices of two men, thin, their belts pulled tight to hold up sagging pants. The men’s chests heave as they struggle for air. In 1991, Biosphere-2 launched on the Arizona desert to great fanfare. Eight healthy, smiling men and women wearing Star Trek-sleek uniforms, waved to cameras before they stepped over the threshold into the 1.2-hectare glass dome erected to serve as a miniature replication of earth. The handwheel of a vault locked behind the biospherians. The team vowed to remain inside Biosphere-2 for two years living entirely on food, water and oxygen created by the structure’s seven biomes (ocean, freshwater and saltwater marshes, rain forest, savanna, desert, farm and human habitat).
Biosphere planners had calculated how many plants were needed to produce enough oxygen for the eight humans plus farm animals, birds and small fauna inside the glass—a total of 3,800 species in all. The lush vegetation would breath in carbon dioxide and expel oxygen. The designers planned that once the seven biomes in the dome stabilized, the living organisms inside would interact with inorganic matter to self-regulate and optimally perpetuate conditions for life inside the Biosphere, much as plants do on Earth. The designers were thinking along the lines of the planetary equilibrium that James Lovelock postulated in his Gaia hypothesis.
Instead of equilibrium, however, the biospherians noticed a puzzling and very troubling imbalance. Despite thousands of plants, oxygen concentrations did not level out in the dome, but dropped. As expected, plants breathed out oxygen as they photosynthesized, but once they expired, the decaying vegetal matter consumed oxygen, while exuding carbon dioxide. Some of the carbon dioxide was taken up by concrete in the biosphere, but the biosphere computers recorded a net loss of oxygen.
As oxygen levels sank, the biospherians’ bodies transformed. Their hearts pumped faster. Their pulse increased. They grew weak and dehydrated. Seeking energy, the adventurers’ metabolism sped up, increasing appetites. Food became scarce, and the team lost weight. Unable to breathe deeply, team members suffered from sleep disorders. Short-circuit cameras showed the biospherians walking slowly, breathing heavily. They grew irritable and quarreled. Fistfights broke out. Finally, pressured by negative press and rebellious biospherians, Paul Allen, Biosphere-2 research director, turned a valve that sent in a flush of oxygen. The response was immediate. The biospherians began to dance, leap and run. The joy on their faces broadcast widely.
The refrain of 2020 was “I can’t breathe”. These words were among George Floyd’s last and became a meme for Black Lives Matter protestors around the globe. Firemen fighting California infernos and COVID-19 patients rushed to ventilators uttered the same phrase. On January 6th, as Rosanne Boyland lay crushed under a mob of Trump supporters pressing to enter the U.S. Capitol, people in the crowd began to chant, “I can’t breathe!” in mimicry of Black Lives Matter protestors. Of late, we are reminded over and over that breath is a human being’s primary act. And her last.
Anxiety runs as a strong electrical current through twenty-first century society. And no wonder. Humans in the Anthropocene are located in Biosphere-1, a closed, controlled environment with limited resources, struggling in many different ways to breathe. As the earthly biomes falter, anxiety grows. Humanity is like a man nervously lighting up a cigarette as he sits in a large building that is filling with smoke. As one floor after another succumbs to flames, the butler offers the man another cigarette, while assuring him the tobacco is the source of the smoke. Consume more, the butler soothes, the smoke is no worry. Go ahead, you enjoy smoking. The man coughs. He smokes. He grows more agitated, so he takes another puff.
A Dutch translation of this essay has been published in Nexus 86, ‘Ons tijdperk van angst’.