The Texas Oil Heir Who Launched Biosphere 2 is Still Backing it Today

photo:  Joseph Sohm/shutterstock

photo:  Joseph Sohm/shutterstock

Depending on who you ask, Biosphere 2 is either a visionary ecological experiment, a strange footnote from 1990s history, or the long-running site of mainstream environmental research. They all have some truth to them, I suppose, but the last one is definitely correct.

The almost 40-acre campus, now owned and operated by nearby University of Arizona, has been and continues to be home to environmental research, yielding over a dozen publications so far in 2017 alone, according to its website. And while universities and federal grants play a big part in its colorful history, it’s mostly a product of philanthropy.

Initially funded by oil heir Edward Bass to the tune of $150 million, the environmentalist's Philecology Foundation has given additional funding to keep Biosphere 2 alive, in 2007 and 2011, and just made a new grant of $30 million. The latest give will create a research endowment and support two faculty positions.

The site, essentially an elaborate series of domes and greenhouse-like structures that mimic various ecosystems and climates, is a big and unique example of a passion project shepherded into existence by a private donor. And while the original high-profile experiments drew some harsh criticism (Time called it one of the worst ideas of the century), Biosphere 2 ended up pivoting to serve researchers and educators for years after. It’s hard to imagine something quite like it becoming reality without philanthropic support, but here it is today, alive and kicking.

Bass, the money man behind the project from the start, is a Fort Worth heir to an oil fortune who is now worth $2.5 billion. He’s a devoted environmentalist who has served on a number of green groups’ boards, including the World Wildlife Fund. He’s been a huge funder of environmental science, including at his alma mater, Yale. He’s also one of the biggest philanthropists in Fort Worth, giving millions to cultural institutions, the downtown area and new performance spaces.

Back in the 1970s, Bass partnered with environmentalist hippie John Allen, a huge fan of Buckminster Fuller’s work and the concept of “Spaceship Earth,” and they eventually came to the idea of building a self-contained, closed environment that would attempt to recreate the earth’s ecosystems. 

Much has been written about the project’s troubled, highly public early experiments, in which jumpsuit-clad teams were meant to live in self-sustaining isolation, but quickly ran into several technical and human-caused mishaps. The level to which those first missions were failures depends on who you ask, but they certainly took some bizarre twists, including lawsuits, a break-in, and the controversial involvement (is there any other kind?) of Stephen Bannon.  

It might have ended up a roadside attraction, or been leveled for development, but Biosphere 2 survived, shifting to more conventional research and education purposes. Columbia University took it over from 1996 to 2003, then University of Arizona took control in 2007 and took ownership in 2011. 

Even if you’re not sealing off humans inside for extended periods of time, it turns out, a large enclosure recreating natural environments is a great tool for running controlled experiments at different scales, adjusting climates, and continuously monitoring changes. We’ve learned a lot about coral reefs and ocean acidification from Biosphere 2, and current research includes tracking flows of water in soil as climate changes. You can also pick up echoes of Biosphere 2 in modern sustainability work and even philanthropic projects, whether intentional or not, such as some super-green building programs and a Sloan initiative studying the microbiology of built environments. 

You’ve got to give Bass credit. Even after Biosphere 2 floundered and took a beating in its first phase, he backed the project with tens of millions over years as the project evolved, found new advisors, and shored up its scientific rigor and credibility. Billionaire benefactors driven by their passions can embark on some strange projects, for sure—sometimes they don't get off the ground, sometimes they fall apart. In the case of Bass and Biosphere 2, he really stuck with it as it moved from one act to the next.