Spaceship Earth

When Eric Davis quipped that he follows new religions in the way that normal people follow sports he helpfully identified the nerd tribe I belong to. This explains why words like telos and eschatology bubble up in casual conversations around the Root Simple compound much to Kelly’s annoyance. It also means that I’ve seen every single hippie cult documentary ever made and, of course, immediately dropped a few bucks to stream the new documentary Spaceship Earth, a film centering on the not well known Synergia Ranch commune, the folks behind the Biosphere 2 project.

The Synergians were originally an avant-garde theater troupe led by a charismatic leader, John Allen, and they would likely object to me lumping them in with new religious groups, preferring to think of themselves more as ecologists or proto-space colonists. To which I’d counter that what do you call a group that thinks we’ll all someday head to a new Eden up in the heavens if not a group with eschatological hankerings?

The best part of Spaceship Earth was getting to see the background history of the Biosphere project from the viewpoint of the Synergians. After initially cheer-leading the Biosphere project, the mainstream press quickly turned on the group, focusing instead on a lurid reality show narrative, and concluding that a culty avant guarde theater troupe with a charismatic leader had no business taking up a science project. True, the Biosphere project was not science in the strict definition of the term. It attempted to do too much all at once without controlling for variables. And, with its colonizing space aspirations, it smacked more of scientism than science. But why shouldn’t artists be allowed the latitude to engage in an interdisciplinary folly? Perhaps we could use a bit less specialization and more interdisciplinary zaniness to explore the thorny problems we all face.

I wish that Spaceship Earth had focused more on the flawed ideas of the Biospherians/Synergians. Those ideas centered on the cybernetic notions of Norbert Wiener and (this might trigger some folks but I just gotta say it) deeply flawed thoughtstylings of huckster Buckminster Fuller (1, 2,) made popular by the Whole Earth Catalog utopians of the 1970s. The Biospherians/Synergians thought that they could create a complex, self-guiding model of the Earth and use that idea to escape our very real and material problems down here on dusty old Earth. Spaceship Earth doesn’t really explore this ideology. Maybe it’s because those ideas have gone mainstream, unfortunately. If you’re a fish you don’t recognize the water. We swim in an ideological sea polluted by automated control systems such as the failed algorithmic editing project going on over at Facebook, Twitter and Google as well as worshiping space colony charlatans like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. This cybernetic ideology has birthed an internet that promulgates rumors that Wayfair is sending out children in boxes and that pedophile rings are operating in the basements of pizza restaurants. Worse cybernetic monsters, I fear, are yet to come.

Exploring this scary new world is a lane occupied by documentarian Adam Curtis. If you pair Spaceship Earth on a double feature with the second episode of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and throw in a reading of Thomas Pynchon’s notorious Gravity’s Rainbow you’ll have enough fodder for a marathon discussion of the nightmares birthed by hippie commune notions of self guiding systems of control. At the end of this long discussion you might just all start gathering up the sledgehammers for the coming Neo-Luddite rebellion. Resist those algorithms! But I digress, comrades.

The Synergian sailboat Heraclitus.

Ideological quibbles aside, Spaceship Earth is a very well crafted documentary. The Synergians were not the stereotypical anyone-can-drop-in sort of commune. John Allen got an M.B.A. at Harvard and knows how to start successful businesses and raise money. He surrounded himself with equally ambitious and talented people. The Synergians had the resources to buy 16mm film cameras and shoot lots of footage. They built their own sailboat and sailed it around the world. Then, pairing with bazillionaire oil scion Ed Bass, they put together the ambitious Biosphere 2 project. The footage of all these antics make Spaceship Earth a fascinating documentary to watch. For added entertainment, weirdo Steve Bannon pops up at the end in the way that the vengeful singing statue shows up in act II of Don Giovanni to pull everyone down to hell.

Spaceship Earth also disrupts the stereotype of the Drop City sort of drug and insanity fueled 1970s commune. I suspect that there were other M.B.A. run communes like the Synergians that we’ve never heard about. The Synergians have some things in common with the commune known as The Farm that, after having a major meltdown, ended up not so much growing food, but instead launching entrepreneurial projects such as designing and selling electronics, running a midwife school and operating a soy dairy among many other activities. You can see in these groups both the ideological and economic origins of Silicon Valley.

It should also be noted that any film that depicts people sealing themselves up in a pod makes for perfect pandemic viewing, at least for those of us non-essential types. And what could be more non-essential than hippie avant-garde thespians? For us urban homesteader types, it’s also good to have a reminder that hubris in the face of complexity is an occupational hazard of anyone who attempts to garden, keep animals, cook from scratch or otherwise interact with things other than laptops and iPhones.

You can stream Spaceship Earth via the YouTubes for here.

If you haven’t seen Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace do a little googling and you’ll find it on the interwebs in its entirety.

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  1. Interesting summary (I’ll have to read it more carefully though). I stumbled upon this title somewhere and the reviews I read weren’t very positive so I didn’t bother watching.

  2. In 1973, in our book Shelter, I wrote “Calling Earth a spaceship is like stepping out into a clear night in New Mexico and saying, “Wow, it looks just like the planetarium.”

    • Lloyd–that sums it up better than I ever could. Your book Shelter has a place of honor in my workshop. Would love to have you on the podcast sometime . . .

  3. Pingback: Sheltered | Root Simple

  4. i don’t think i’ve ever encountered someone with as much interest in communes and cults of the mid-20th century as me! i’m having a great day because of this! and i will definitely watch that documentary. i hope to have something intelligent to say afterwards.

  5. Today, while I was at work, my sister stole my apple ipad and tested to see
    if it can survive a 40 foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My
    iPad is now broken and she has 83 views. I know this is completely
    off topic but I had to share it with someone!

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