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Pushing Our Limits: Insights from Biosphere 2

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Pushing Our Limits is a fresh examination of Biosphere 2, the world’s first man-made mini-world, twenty-five years after its first closure experiment. Author Mark Nelson, one of the eight crew members locked in the enclosure during the 1991–1993 experiment, offers a compelling insider’s view of the dramatic story behind Biosphere 2.

Biosphere 2 helped change public understanding of what our global biosphere is and how it provides for our health and well-being. However, the experiment is often dismissed as a failure, and news outlets at the time focused on interpersonal conflicts and unexpected problems that arose. Delving past the sensationalism, Nelson presents the goals and results of the experiment, addresses the implications of the project for our global situation, and discusses how the project’s challenges and successes can change our thinking about Biosphere 1: the Earth.

Pushing Our Limits offers insights from the project that can help us deal with our global ecological challenges. It also shows the intense and fulfilling connection the biospherians felt with their life support system and how this led to their vigilant attention to its needs.

With current concerns of sustainability and protection of our global biosphere, as well as the challenge of learning how to support life in space and on Mars, the largest, longest, and most important experiment in closed ecosystems is more relevant than ever. The book explores Biosphere 2’s lessons for changing technology to support and not destroy nature and for reconnecting people to a healthy relationship with nature.

328 pages, Paperback

Published February 27, 2018

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About the author

Mark Nelson

192 books12 followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the Goodreads database with this name.

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Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews
Profile Image for Ryan.
Author 1 book36 followers
August 13, 2020
One of the grandest science experiments of the twentieth century, I remember being quite enthralled when it was in the news at the time. The idea of artificially constructing a self-contained ecosystem that could sustain human life in the long-term bordered on science fiction and inspired me to learn everything I could about Earth science and ecology.

The details of the event have since been lost to my memory so this book written by one of the original eight people who participated in Biosphere 2 proved to be fascinating. The author introduces his fellow team mates, the people behind the project, how it was envisioned, designed and constructed part by part, how the various biomes within were made and maintained, and how it was LIKE living separately from the rest of humanity for two long years under glass. He ends most chapters connecting the lessons learned inside with how they relate to Earth, which is Biosphere 1. As an adherent of Deep Ecology principles my views are very much in line with Nelson's, who advocates we try to live in the same way he and the other biospherans had lived - in harmony with the natural environment in a closed-loop sustainable manner.

The final chapters took a different turn, bringing the reader up to date on what has happened to the place since the author left in the late 1990s. It was sad to learn of the politics and antagonisms behind the scenes, how he and the original team were discredited by subsequent new stakeholders and how Biosphere 2's original purpose as a gigantic systems science experimental platform had been altered quite significantly. No doubt useful experiments are still being done at a smaller scale within the domes, but the grand vision and ideals seem to have been lost along the way.
Profile Image for Sloane Marlowe.
10 reviews4 followers
July 29, 2018
Much has been written—some of it good but much of it salacious—about Biosphere 2 in the decades since it materialized in the desert outside the tiny town of Oracle, Arizona. In Pushing Our Limits: Insights from Biosphere 2, author Mark Nelson, a member of the original crew that lived in Biosphere 2 for nearly two years, aims to set the record straight.

The Biosphere 2 project grew out of the space race and the need for astronauts of the future to be able to survive extended space missions (like to Mars—à la The Martian). Some Russian and US scientists strongly believed that minibiospheres could serve the purpose as well or better than NASA’s technologically based approach. Russian scientists had taken the early lead in this field (biospheric theory), but, by the 1980s, American and Russian scientists had begun collaborating in the area, and the broader idea of biospheres as ecological laboratories in which emerging concerns like global warming could be explored had taken root.

When Biosphere 2 (the Earth’s ecosystem is Biosphere 1) finally emerged from the desert sands outside Tucson in the early 1990s, it enclosed 3.5 acres of habitats ranging from ocean to desert, with agricultural land and living quarters to sustain and house the crew members. Special care had been taken to assure Biosphere 2 was an airtight, closed ecological system. Eight volunteers agreed to take part in the venture that was billed as an “experiment in ecological self-organization,” committing to live in Biosphere 2 for as long as the experiment could be sustained—that is, as long as there was food, water, and oxygen.

The volume presents the reader with this extensive backstory and chapters specific to the challenges the crew faced during their time in Biosphere 2. Much has been made of the conflicts between and among the crew and the organization that spearheaded the development of both the physical Biosphere 2 and the experiment it was to house. Nelson touches on the sociological/psychological challenges of 8 adults living in a 3.5-acre enclosure under global scrutiny in a time predating the normalization of minimal personal privacy that originated with reality television and social media. He addresses these issues not by simply stating his own opinion or version of events, but by weaving the voices of his fellow crew members throughout the book through the use of fairly extensive quotes from their interviews and writings. This approach, coupled with his transparent discussion of how his own thoughts and feelings have changed with the benefit of time and hindsight, respects the complexity of human nature. In this way (and perhaps unintentionally), Pushing Our Limits follows in the tradition of utopian (dystopian) ecolit—a genre that often addresses the challenge of survival in an ecosystem with restricted or degraded resources with all of the social challenges of dealing with, well, other humans. The difference is that, unlike many of the books in the genre, Pushing Our Limits is non-fiction (the struggle is real, even though it was completely voluntary).

It is important not to allow the focus on the human issues to subsume the bigger point of Biosphere 2—an experiment in itself, but also as an incubator for other, smaller research projects. How research was done and the value of the research in a strictly scientific sense is a valid topic that has provoked much discussion, but I will set that aside here. Apart from that issue, Nelson’s discussion of the very real barriers to success the crew faced in terms of maintaining their biosphere while assuring adequate resources for the survival of its inhabitants includes technical discussions and illustrations, with enough detail to hold the reader’s interest. The discussion of how to artificially create a wave without killing microscopic plankton in the process, for example, provides the reader with insight into the teamwork required to develop novel solutions in a system with extreme constraints and complexities. Laymen and scientists alike should enjoy the discussions of how the crew overcame these challenges to survive far longer than most thought they would. My one tip for reading this book: Treat the question of the declining oxygen as a mystery—you will appreciate the beauty of the answer.

In the final analysis, the Biosphere 2 experiment Nelson discusses in this book scaled many current environmental issues (global warming, waste treatment, pollution) down to a size/scope/cycling rate that is easy to comprehend, what the biosphereans called the “molecule economy.” While Biosphere 1 (Earth’s biosphere) holds more complexity and diversity than simply scaling up Biosphere 2 would produce (Biosphere 2’s biomes eventually “self-organized,” which further decreased the diversity within them during the duration of the experiment), the book’s description of the constant attention and work involved in keeping the biosphere and technosphere (all human activities) in balance illustrates the precarious nature of the relationship between human activities and the environment. The controversies surrounding Biosphere 2 may be what has kept it in the public consciousness for so long, but the tenuous nature of the Biosphere 2 crew’s survival even when so many variables were under their control should resonate with every Biosphere 1 crew member.

“There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” —Marshall McLuhan
40 reviews25 followers
December 14, 2021
An extremely well-written and approachable book. For me, the scientific explanations were just enough to get me interested, but not too in-depth to mimic the cold and analytic style of scientific academia.
I grew up in Tucson, so I always knew about the Biosphere. This definitely satisfied my curiosity about this closed ecological experiment.
I came to this book wanting to learn about the psychological implications of living inside such a small place with only seven companions for two years, and I learn a lot about that, but maybe a little less than I hoped for.
I have always been interested in closed ecological systems and love making little biospheres in bottles. Because of this, I loved all parts of this book.
After finishing this book, I felt called to action to save our dying biosphere. Reading it has caused me to look at our Earth a little differently, and I intend to change my actions to better help the environment as a consequence of this book.
Profile Image for Jill.
136 reviews
March 5, 2023
I bought this book at Biosphere 2. We’d just finished a tour and I wanted to know more. Subsequent to our visit, I read this book, skimmed two more, listened to a couple podcasts, and watched the Spaceship Earth documentary. I’m still fascinated by the whole experiment.

This book is a retrospective, decades removed from the author’s enclosure. As such, he has gained perspective on what happened then and what is happening today. Each chapter is a discussion of an aspect of Biosphere 2 with its implications for Biosphere 1. The dire environmental warnings are not new, but more stark from the comparison and lessons of Biosphere 2.
Profile Image for Hank.
31 reviews
May 18, 2020
Nelson's latest book was an in depth look at not only the history of the BioSphere 2 project but how it ties into the current world's research and ecology. The anecdotes of his time in BioSphere 2 were great accents to the whole thing. I already had a lot of exposure to that from Poynter's "Human Experiment" (great book too) and Nelson's previous collaboration "Life Under Glass" need to read it again. With the renewed interest in Moon and Mars colonization I wonder how much more advanced we are in this field of research.
75 reviews6 followers
June 5, 2022
This book is light and humble. I find Biosphere 2 to be one of the most unique and bold scientific experiments. It still amazes me that this occurred 30 years ago and the insights from this experiment couldn't be more relevant than they are today. While many think that Biosphere 2 was an experiment into seeing the feasibility of creating a self-sustaining biosphere, this book begs to differ and shows that it was more an exercise that would make us appreciate the "Spaceship Earth". Extremely proud to read this while staying in Tucson.
Profile Image for Jordan.
67 reviews7 followers
July 18, 2022
Reads like a grant application: very little discussion of the day-to-day life inside the project and almost nothing about the huge problems they experienced, but very much about how the project relates to big world problems and how it could solve climate change, or whatever.
Profile Image for Pete.
59 reviews5 followers
April 15, 2018
Fascinating book about an extraordinary project.
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