GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And the show today, how small, subtle changes in nature can throw its whole balance into a freefall, how everything is connected. And for Jane Poynter, at one point in her life, everything depended on those connections working. It was when she was in her mid-20s and living under glass. You must have had, like, mixing feelings about that?
JANE POYNTER: Mixed feelings in what way?
RAZ: I don't know, the outside world and the idea that you were almost like, in a zoo.
POYNTER: I liked seeing people looking through the windows. The one time, however, that it was very intrusive was when people knocked on the glass. You'd be working away and all of a sudden, you'd hear this banging on the glass. And you'd look up and all of a sudden, all of these cameras would pick up and click, click, click, click, click.
RAZ: OK. So you may remember this. This was the ultimate group house. It was called Biosphere 2. And it was like a giant glass terrarium in the middle of the Arizona desert. It's actually still there. Anyway, Jane and seven other researchers wanted to see if they could sustain themselves for two years, farming their own food, recycling their own waste, breathing only the air inside that sealed biosphere. And all under the condition that they would not leave. Here's Jane Poynter from the TED stage.
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POYNTER: So Biosphere 2 was essentially a three-acre, entirely sealed, miniature world that I lived in for two years and 20 minutes. And so we had our own miniature rainforests, a private beach with a coral reef. We had a savanna, a marsh, a desert. We had our own half-acre farm that we had to grow everything. And of course we had our human habitat where we lived. Back in the mid-'80s when we were designing Biosphere 2, we had to ask ourselves some pretty basic questions. I mean, what is a biosphere? And so, well, we decided that what it really is, is that it is entirely materially closed. That is, nothing goes in or out at all - no material. And energetically open. Which is essentially what planet Earth is.
And by 1991, we finally had this thing built and it was time for us to go in and give it a go. We needed to know, can you take this biosphere that has evolved on a planetary scale and jam it into a little bottle, and will it survive? Big questions. And we wanted to know this both for being able to go somewhere else in the universe - if we were going to go to Mars, for instance, would we take a biosphere with us to live in it? We also wanted to know so that we could understand more about the Earth that we all live in.
RAZ: So, like, how long before you realized that everything inside of that place was, you know, was connected?
POYNTER: Very quickly. The most profound experience I had in the biosphere was the experience of not only being completely dependent on my biosphere, but being absolutely a part of my biosphere in a very literal way. I mean, as I walked through the biosphere, I was incredibly conscious of the fact that the plants surrounding me were providing me with the oxygen that I needed to breathe, and that I was providing them some of the CO2 they needed to grow.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
POYNTER: When I breathed out, my CO2 fed the sweet potatoes that I was growing. And we ate an awful lot of sweet potatoes. And those sweet potatoes became part of me. In fact, we ate so many sweet potatoes I became orange with sweet potato. I literally was eating the same carbon over and over again. I was eating myself in some strange sort of bizarre way. Here I am inside Biosphere 2 making a pizza.
So I am harvesting the wheat in order to make the dough. And then of course I have to milk the goats and feed the goats in order to make the cheese. It took me four months in Biosphere 2 to make a pizza. Here in Biosphere 1, well, it takes me about two minutes 'cause I pick up the phone and I call and say, hey, can you deliver the pizza?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: Like, you really know how to make a pizza.
POYNTER: Oh, I really know how to make a pizza.
RAZ: From the ground up.
POYNTER: (Laughing) But boy, do you appreciate that pizza.
RAZ: But, I mean, it was just - it wasn't, like, just goats that you were milking, right? I mean, there were other animals, other species in there, right?
POYNTER: We had - the domestic animals played a rather fun role. We had chickens, goats and pigs. And, you know, we didn't really need animals in there. We could've had a vegetarian diet, but the domestic animals were in there because when you grow agricultural products, there's a lot of it that humans can't eat. So, like, there's all of these beautiful greens that we can't eat and they're extremely high protein for goats. So they would eat all of the greens and produce milk for us.
Then aside from all the domestic animals, 250 species of insects were put inside there. There were numerous lizards and garter snakes and tortoises. So we really were trying to re-create many aspects of the ecosystem. Now we were a fairly small ecosystem, so we couldn't have large ungulates roaming across our savanna. So we had to play those roles by harvesting the grass and that kind of thing. But the animals played an extremely important role in the ecological cycling.
RAZ: I mean, it sounds amazing, but, you know, there were things that just didn't work.
POYNTER: Really almost every aspect of the biosphere worked but one, which was a very important aspect of the biosphere, but what boiled down to a very simple design flaw.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
POYNTER: Because it turned out that we were losing oxygen, quite a lot of oxygen. We had lost seven tons of oxygen and we had no clue where it was. And we had sleep apnea at night so you'd wake up gasping with breath because that's - your blood chemistry has changed and that you literally do that. You stop breathing and then you gasp. And everybody outside thought we were dying. I mean, the media was making it sound like we were dying and I had to call up my mother every other day saying, no, Mom, it's fine - fine. We're fine. And the doctor was, in fact, checking us to make sure we were in fact fine. But, in fact, he was the person that was most susceptible to the oxygen. And one day he couldn't add up a line of figures and it was time for us to put oxygen in.
And we did indeed find it, and we found it in the concrete - essentially had done something very simple; we had put too much carbon in the soil in the form of compost. It broke down. It took oxygen out of the air, put CO2 into the air, and it went into the concrete. Pretty straightforward really. So you might think, well, boy, your life-support system was failing you. Wasn't that dreadful? Yes. In a sense, it was terrifying, except that I knew that I could walk out the airlock door at any time if it really got bad. Though who was going to say "I can't take it anymore"? Not me, that was for sure. And...
RAZ: And things really did go bad inside Biosphere 2. They got the oxygen sorted out, but they lost all this weight because they couldn't grow enough food. And then they started to argue about how to run things. And the connections between them started to break down.
POYNTER: We really struggled with our interpersonal relationships so there's no question. And it was painful; it, you know, in some circumstances could have been dangerous. It definitely reduced the creativity with which we addressed our challenges that we had in the biosphere. Though, we still did come together and manage the biosphere, and we did complete the two years. It just made it so much harder.
RAZ: I mean, despite all those problems - there's almost like a lazy narrative, you know, that came out of Biosphere 2, that it was, like, this total debacle that, you know, it was a total failure. But the actual truth is that it spawned hundreds of, like, research papers and we learned a lot from it, right?
POYNTER: Yeah. Gosh, there's so much to say about that. I mean, the science that came out of Biosphere 2 was really extraordinary. You've probably heard of the souring seas, where we have the acidification of the ocean, which is, you know, really beginning to cause havoc around the world in our coral reefs and other parts of our ecosystems within the ocean. And Biosphere 2 was really the first time that that was quantified - in the little miniature ocean inside Biosphere 2.
RAZ: That is so cool. I mean, do you - when you look back at that time, do you sort of think about how the things that you did out there really kind of apply to how we live here on Earth?
POYNTER: What I think about is that we are a part of a biosphere. You know, in Biosphere 2, the health of our biosphere was something that we could look at moment to moment. We looked at the CO2 on a daily basis, sometimes on an hourly basis, seeing it going up and going down. And we attempted to manage those levels of CO2 within our biospheres actively. And it was very immediate. And the challenge that we have in Biosphere 1 - the Earth - is that very often, the kinds of challenges we're looking at are not immediate. They're things that happen over decades, maybe over a hundred years.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
POYNTER: The Industrial Revolution, and Prometheus, has given us this - the ability to light up the world. It has also given us this - the ability to look at the world from the outside. And if you lose where you are in your biosphere or are perhaps having a difficulty connecting with where you are in the biosphere, I would say to you, take a deep breath. The yogis had it right - breath does, in fact, connect us all in a very literal way. Take a breath now and as you breathe, think about what is in your breath. There, perhaps, is the CO2 from the person sitting next door to you. Maybe there's a little bit of oxygen from some algae on the beach not far from here. It also connects us in time. There may be some carbon in your breath from the dinosaurs. There could also be carbon that you are exhaling now that will be in the breath of your great-great-great-grandchildren.
RAZ: Jane Poynter. She now runs a company that designs products for extreme environments like space. You can hear her full talk at TED.com. And, by the way, Biosphere 2 is still out there in the Arizona desert. No one lives there, but they're still doing research and still giving tours. Do you ever go back?
POYNTER: Oh, yes. I love going to the biosphere. And of course, when people come to Tucson - friends, family, colleagues always want to go up there. Even though we were in there 20 years ago...
POYNTER: It is still an astounding building to go and see.
RAZ: I'm assuming you don't have to pay admission, right?
POYNTER: (Laughing) No, I don't have to pay admission. I think I would go to say I have a lifetime pass.