Greenhouse Humanity

URTH. Director: Ben Rivers (2016).

APOCALYPSE: A solitary greenhouse is the final outpost on Earth in Ben River’s prophetic science fiction-scenario, which stages the uncertain fate of the planet: deserted, with this greenhouse as its last remaining habitable place.

Anders Dunker
A Norwegian philosopher, now located in California.


Ben Rivers

UK, 2016. 20 minutes

Distant and dreamily, a female voice declares: “We must all die; nor leave survivor nor heir to the wide inheritance of earth. We must all die! The species of man must perish…”

The words are taken from Mary Shelly’s apocalyptic science fiction fable The Last Man (1826). Through the unclear mist on the screen, an image of a strange and enormous greenhouse in a desert comes into view. Soon the film intercuts between various surveillance camera footage from inside the greenhouse, and we see different growths climbing around one another in an inner, closed world. As the voice speaks, the narrative premises fall into place: She is a scientist, perhaps the ultimate one. She is trapped in the greenhouse, once constructed as a closed biosphere and now the only habitable place left, with the climate running amok and Earth’s atmosphere turning into a poisonous fog like on the planet Venus. The image emerging is extreme; soon the greenhouse appears as a small cabin on the space craft that is Earth. The only habitable cabin on a planet which, akin to a giant Titanic, is drifting dead and depopulated through the cosmic night.

Apocalypse.Ben Rivers

Looking through the eyes of the last person, the greenhouse images change: the trees become the final trees, the fish the final animals, and grass a mere biological souvenir. Simultaneously, we understand that what we are witnessing is a log – perhaps a lost document from the almost sweetly resigned naturalist, who tries to stay alive day after day. When she realises the imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, we understand that the creeping emergency situation of the greenhouse repeats the global climate catastrophe in a microscopic and insignificant aftermath. All is already too late, and the story appears at first glance as a poetic meditation on the expiration all things.

“The greenhouse appears as a small cabin on board Earth the space ship, as the only hospitable cabin.”

The real story. Ben River’s art film may be science fiction, but it possesses a documentary like atmosphere and is shot on location. The research unit Biosphere 2 is located in Arizona and is the largest closed biological system ever constructed. As the project commenced in the 1980s, the ambition was to build a stable and self-sufficient biological system which also had a stable atmosphere. This way, inhabitants were not just supplied with breathable air, but also with self-grown food over a long period of time. Thus, the experiment could form a basis for future colonies on Mars, a dream which today seems stronger than ever. Not only will Elon Musk and SpaceX facilitate a colonising of the red planet; Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum – Vice President of the United Arab Emirates – recently declared his plans for founding a city the size of Chicago on Mars during this century. The possibilities for a human community and a ‘terra-shaping’ of other planets seem to reduce the environmental movement’s warning of “we only have one Earth” to a somewhat partial truth. To those dreaming of interplanetary exodus, however, the true story about the giant greenhouse Biosphere 2 could provide a sobering reality check.

Apocalypse.Ben Rivers

First of all, it was far more difficult than first assumed to control the carefully selected flora and fauna. The populations of ants and cockroaches exploded, whilst many of the trees grew scarily thin and tall until finally breaking in half under their own weight. Secondly, it proved difficult to get the chemical balance in the atmosphere right, and they kept running out of oxygen – which is also a theme of the film Urth. Thirdly, the social environment, popularly referred to as the ‘anthroposphere’ was a recurring problem. The group of scientists who were to live together in this half-synthetic Eden soon fell into terrible and devastating conflicts, and struggled to stay mentally balanced. Due to their manifold imbalances, experiments on the closed circuits were postponed until further notice.

“The civilisation projects has gone awry, and nature has finally disappeared forever.”

Illusion or delirium. The idea of actually being forced to survive in the greenhouse, then, becomes rather frightening. Our thoughts might wander to Robinson Crusoe or similar tales of people lost in the wilderness awaiting pick-up or discovery. To await rescue is fundamentally a need to be reconnected with the safety net of civilisation. The real Biosphere 2 scientists had food secretly smuggled in, and oxygen added to the greenhouse atmosphere. The scientist in the fictitious Urth greenhouse, on the other hand, is completely exposed to, and delivered to, fate itself. There are no supplies from the outside that can save her. She lives in a poor copy of a world missing its prototype.

Nevertheless, something is amiss in this story. Why is the young scientist utterly alone? What happened to her colleagues? What is the status of her own mental balance? Can we trust what she tells us to be true? It is hard not to notice that trees still grow on the outside, or that planes pass in the sky. Due to this, another scenario becomes an intriguing alternative: perhaps it is all a game, a daydream or delirium. The suspicion seems to be confirmed when the scientist finally states that she wants to return into the real world, where everything is as normal – streets, cities, people and shopping centres. But who knows – this could be a comforting fantasy, a final, confusing wish or dream.

Apocalypse.Ben Rivers

Despite its documentary feel, the film remains playful and ambiguous. Whether the story itself is believable is not the be-all and end-all, it seems. Instead, the point is the message behind the construction – and our own suspense of disbelief, which in drama theory is the prerequisite for believing fiction; to set scepticism and distrust aside. Within climate issues, however, it can be almost the opposite: The scepticism and distrust in climate changes is a fiction in which we seek refuge – to avoid having to take reality seriously. In this way we are able to see the scientist’s prophetic science fiction-scenario as an attempt to step into the realities of our own world. The story becomes a therapeutic exercise, a staging of the distant future of the biosphere and Earth’s uncertain fate.

The dream of the absolute island. In all its ambiguity, the greenhouse experiment perfectly illustrates our society today. In the third volume of his main body of work, Sphären, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk dedicates long passages to the Arizona desert experiment. He views the dream of constructing what he calls “the absolute island” as an extreme and outrageous manifestation of the general tendency of humans to isolate themselves from nature and modify their own habitat. Thus, Biosphere 2 becomes an attempt at an existential reformatting of the basic human state of being, some sort of “being in the World part 2”. The Arizona greenhouse oasis is left as a partly wrecked monument to the will of artificiality – and a questionable homage to the “post-natural”.

In the thought experiments of the film, the dream of complete nature restraint and a humanised environment are exposed through an apocalypse brimming with irony. Even in the small greenhouse, the imagined human control over nature is reduced to neurotic mapping of uncontrollable processes. The main character’s efforts to save the last greenhouse plants become a comforting, albeit pointless, gesture after the real battle is lost – akin to the way zoos keep the last remaining examples of otherwise extinct species alive. In the dreamy narration of Urth, the “post-natural” is shown to be horribly concrete: The civilisation projects have gone awry, and nature has finally disappeared forever. With simple measures, the story thus submits a quiet reverence to flora, fauna, and the environment – as something profound, wild and irreplaceable.