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 cameras from inside the greenhouse, and we see different growths climbing around one another in an interior, contained world. As the voice speaks, the narrative premises fall into place: She is a scientist, perhaps the last one there is. She is trapped in the greenhouse, once constructed as a closed biosphere and currently the only habitable place left, since the climate gone haywire, turning Earth’s atmosphere into a poisonous fog like on the planet Venus. The emerging image is extreme; soon the greenhouse seems like a small compartment on Spaceship Earth, the only habitable cabin on a planet which, like a giant version of the Titanic is drifting dead and depopulated into the cosmic night.
Looking through the eyes of the last human being, the greenhouse images change: the trees become the last trees, the fish the last of the 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 day by day tries to stay alive. When she registers the imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, we understand that the creeping emergency in the greenhouse repeats the global climate catastrophe in a microscopic and insignificant aftermath. Everything is already too late, and the story appears at first glance as a poetic meditation on the transience all things.
«The greenhouse appears as a small compartment on board Spaceship Earth, as the only habitable cabin.»
The real story. Ben River’s art film may be science fiction, but it has a documentary-like atmosphere and is shot on location. The research unit Biosphere 2 is located in Arizona, being 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 only 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 colonizing 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 ‘terraforming’ of other planets seem to reduce the environmental movement’s warning that “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 provides a sobering reality check.
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 disturbingly thin and tall until they finally broke in half, collapsing 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 numerous imbalances, experiments on the closed circuits were postponed until further notice.
«The civilization projects has gone awry, and nature has finally disappeared forever.»
Illusion or delirium.The idea of actually being forced to survive in the greenhouse thus becomes rather horrifying. 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 civilization. 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, and delivered to her fate. There are no supplies from the outside that can save her. She lives in a poor copy of a world whose original is lost.
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? It is hard not to notice that trees still grow on the outside, or that planes pass in the sky. Thus, 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 centers. But who knows – this could be a comforting fantasy, a final, confusing wish or dream.
Despite its documentary feel, the film remains playful and ambiguous. Whether the story itself is believable seems to be only of a minor importance. Instead, the point is the message behind the construction – and furthermore our own suspense of disbelief – which in drama theory is the prerequisite for believing fiction; you must set aside your skepticism and distrust. With climate issues, however, the opposite may seem to be the case: The skepticism and distrust in climate changes is a fiction in which we seek refuge – to avoid seriously taking in the realities. From this perspective, the scientist’s prophetic science fiction-scenario appears as an attempt to fully realize our predicament. 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 provides a perfect image of our current society. In the third volume of his main body of work, Spheres, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk dedicates long passages to the Arizona desert experiment. He percieves the dream of constructing what he calls “the absolute island” as an extreme and extravagant manifestation of the general human tendency 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 II”. The Arizona greenhouse oasis remains as a partly wrecked monument to the will to artificiality – and a questionable homage to the “post-natural”.
In the film’s thought experiment, the dream of a complete control of nature and a humanized environment are exposed through an apocalypse brimming with irony. Even in the small greenhouse, the illusory 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, yet pointless, gesture after the real battle is lost –much like the way keep alive the last remaining specimens of otherwise extinct species. In the dreamlike plot of Urth, the notion of a “post-natural” condition gets chillingly concrete. The experiment of civilization has gone awry, and nature has finally disappeared forever. With simple measures, the story transmits a quiet reverence for the flora, the fauna and the environment– as something unfathomable, untameable and irreplaceable.