The Wild Story of Steve Bannon’s Eco-Cult Disaster
The new documentary “Spaceship Earth” examines the Biosphere 2 project—an ecological experiment run by none other than Steve Bannon (yes, the fascist ex-Trump adviser).
Director Matt Wolf (Recorder: The Marian Stokes Project) is back with another documentary about extraordinary human commitment to knowledge. Spaceship Earth follows the Biosphere 2 project that took place in Oracle, Arizona, between 1991 and 1994, as well as the self-described capitalist theatrical and science-inspired commune run by John Allen and a group of young searchers, including Kathelin Gray, Marie Harding, William “Freddy” Dempster, Mark Nelson, Margaret Augustine, and others. Spaceship Earth is both a cautionary tale and a hopeful reflection that depicts how the late capitalist system can easily accelerate grand visions, yet, in order to do so, must compromise long-term viability and community-oriented forms of care.
John Allen and his commune called themselves Synergists, and in the 1970s started a community in New Mexico called Synergia Ranch, which he ran off of ideas of ecological sustainability and theatrical performance. The group originated in San Francisco but grew disillusioned at the commercialism of the city and set off on their own adventures, to grow their own food and experiment in building geodesic domes from scratch, for instance. Once they conquered their own living system, they went on to build a ship, again from scratch, which they called Heraclitus and sailed around the world. The Synergists funded all of these efforts by accruing capital through business ventures, including a forest in Puerto Rico, a farm in Australia, and a gallery in London—all with the help of Ed Bass, the billionaire heir to, yes, an oil fortune.
So there’s a central contradiction at the center of what the Synergists were up to. The group was driven toward commune life sans communism. They wanted the reverie of a sustainable culture but without the work of revolution. In fact, from what the documentary shows, all the Synergists were all white, and seemed to come from fairly well-off backgrounds. Harding, who married Allen, cited the desire to “leave New England” and the perfectly respectable yet ultimately unfulfilling way of life there as her reason for going to San Francisco. For this group, realizing their lofty vision inside the system was the goal—a way of looking at the world that mirrors the birth of Silicon Valley.
Biosphere 2, a sealed ecological dome project in Arizona, was the North Star of the Synergists’ commune-capitalist vision. Augustine, the company’s CEO, and Allen, its mastermind of sorts, hired a group of eight “Biospherians,” a mix of scientists, nature-lovers, and environmentalists, plus a super-fit 60-year-old medical doctor and researcher. Spaceship Earth tracks both the experiences of the Synergists, who became the managers at the Biosphere 2 corporation that was bankrolled by Bass, and the Biospherians, whose lives were forever changed by those two years in the dome (Nelson, an ecologist, was both). Allen and Augustine also appointed a scientific committee to confer more credibility onto the project, which seemed to put somewhat of a wrench in the works of the two former groups.
And somewhat surprisingly, Steve Bannon makes a cameo in Spaceship Earth, not as his present self, but as the fresh-out-of-Goldman-Sachs Wall Street yuppie who saw the possibilities for short-term profit after the first Biosphere 2 mission was complete.
Long story short: Media scrutiny and spin (as well as Allen and Augustine’s penchant for secrecy in the face of skepticism) led to a bunch of bad press, and Bass didn’t want to go down the same costly path on a second go-around. The documentary doesn’t dig very deeply into the specifics of Bannon’s involvement, since it comes after the main events of the film. Still it’s important to note that after two years at Space Biosphere Ventures, Bannon left his CEO post amidst a lawsuit filed by former employees alleging “abuse of conduct.” According to a 2016 Vice article on the subject and the 1996 Tucson Citizen article it cites, during the trial Bannon told jurors that when researcher Abigail Alling “claimed she had written a five-page statement about the safety problems with Biosphere 2 after his new management takeover, he ‘threatened to ram it down her [fucking] throat.’” None of these trial proceedings are accounted for in Spaceship Earth but in the film, Kathelin Gray does point out the particular darkness of Bannon’s present-day preoccupations and manipulations. It’s clear that, having been involved in the Biosphere 2 project to the extent as he was for a short time, he certainly knows that climate change is a real threat. His motivations, Gray points out, must run counter to knowledge.
In fact, it was increasing CO2 levels and diminishing oxygen levels that caused the most trouble in the Biosphere 2 experiment, and which led to a system that wasn’t, in the end, entirely closed, with small amounts of CO2 being pumped out and, toward the end, some oxygen being pumped in. Biospherians rejoiced when the oxygen came in—their attitudes, energy levels, and nutrition was seriously affected by the closed(-ish) nature of the system. In the end, the self-contained model was primed to slowly kill rather than to forever nourish—a lesson the Synergists, who are still out there, would do well to keep in mind.
It’s clear that Wolf is taken by the project’s John Allen, an Oklahoman with an MBA from Harvard who worked both as a union organizer and a U.S. Army engineer before founding the Synergists. The film centers around two often counteracting ideas: that of community and of competitive genius. It’s clear that Allen’s strength as a leader is what motivates his group to achieve such incredible feats, especially the construction of a working yacht that sailed around the globe, but it’s also apparent that there’s not much room for anyone in that vision beyond those he chooses.
The Synergists were inspired by the Whole Earth Catalog, Williams S. Burroughs, and Buckminster Fuller, but beyond the vision-board energy of inspirational thinkers, the group seem to take few notes from history and politics, preferring to catapult themselves with the conveniences of late capitalism. Wolf sees this gulf, but he doesn’t have many questions about it, choosing instead to preside over the romanticism of the group’s Sisyphean effort, never quite arriving at a particularly meaningful appraisal of their biggest idea.