December 3, 2020 – Call them a cult, call them a commune, a collective, a corporation, a hoax, a fraud, a theatrical troupe, shipbuilders, farmers — whatever you call them, they are a fascinating group of people who achieved remarkable things together.
The central theme of this documentary film is about a famous experiment, the 1991-93 “Biosphere 2” enterprise, in which eight people attempted to survive for two years in the largest closed artificial ecological system ever built, but the film is about a lot more than that.
Particularly interesting is the history of the collective called “Theater of all Possibilities” headed by John Allen which began in San Francisco in 1967. In addition to theater, the group, which became a corporation as well, entered into a number of business and exploration projects around the world, including an art gallery in London, a rain forest in Puerto Rico, social service and health care-related projects in Australia and a hotel in Nepal under the Synergia banner, after the Synergia Ranch, near Santa Fe, New Mexico, founded in 1969 by the group.
This counterculture collective seemed to follow the “back to the land” ideas of the late 1960s but branched out into many other activities, including building an 82-foot, oceangoing sailboat, theater productions, social services, health and art. The most famous project, of course, is Biosphere 2 which grew out of the sustainability ideas pioneered at Synergia Ranch and the Institute of Ecotechnics, itself founded by the Synergia Ranch group.
Construction of the research vessel Heraclitus, a big ferrocement boat that looks like a Chinese Junk when under sail, is an enormously impressive feat, even if you don't consider the fact that it has reportedly sailed 270,000 nautical miles in 40 years. These self-described workaholics went to work on Biosphere 2 after sailing around the world and starting up all these international projects.
Although the Synergia people are counterculturalists, they are also capitalists, who made money on some of their ventures. Behind it all was a major financial backer, Ed Bass, financier, businessman, philanthropist and heir to a Texas oil fortune. Ed Bass and John Allen were co-founders of the Biosphere 2 project.
The idea of Biosphere 2 was to test sustainability of an environment that is sealed off from the air and water of the earth. Eight people would live inside this sealed environment for two years, living off the food grown inside, and the oxygen released by the plants grown inside. It would be like living on a spaceship, or an enclosed colony on Mars.
The project generated enormous publicity, which in turn led to intense scrutiny of John Allen and his group. Tensions and arguments started between the “biospherians” living inside the closed ecosystem and between them and John Allen. Eventually, the system could not be contained. One biospherian had to come out for treatment of an injury, and outside oxygen had to be let in when oxygen levels dropped and carbon dioxide levels rose too much in the closed system.
Breaking the containment seal, introduction of outside oxygen and the presence of a carbon dioxide scrubber all caused the project to be criticized by some scientists. After the two years were up and the biospherians emerged, Ed Bass suddenly took the project away from John Allen. Bass' front man in dumping Allen was none other than Steve Bannon, who would later become a key player in Donald Trump's presidential campaign and administration. After the takeover, massive amounts of scientific data from the Biosphere 2 project disappeared.
This movie is well documented with news broadcast video, audio tape as well as 16mm film taken by members of the Synergia collective. There are numerous interviews with scientists, acquaintances, and members of the collective, many of whom still live and work at the Synergia ranch. For those of us who remember the counterculture movements of 1960s and 1970s with fondness, there is a lot to admire in this film.
This is a story of paradise found, lost and found again, or at least it seems to be. It is a story about a few people who found a way to work together and achieve things that seem to be almost impossible. Despite setbacks, and in a time of great darkness, these people from the past are still here and they still have hope. I found this movie inspiring as well as revealing. This film rates an A.
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