The Strange History of Steve Bannon and the Biosphere 2 Experiment
Here’s what happened when Trump’s chief strategist was given a mock Earth.
Image: Mother Jones/C-SPAN/YouTube
If you know anything about Steve Bannon, you might recall that he was the executive chairman of conservative media outlet Breitbart.com. Or that he was appointed chief advisor for the Trump campaign in early August.
If his appointment to White House chief strategist last weekend is the first time you're hearing his name at all, however, you're in for a treat.
Before he became a poster boy for white nationalism and the far-right, and long before he rose to this level of political power, he ran an investment banking firm, Bannon & Co., and was hired to help a company called Space Biosphere Ventures out of its financial troubles.
Since Kellyanne Conway, a key Trump adviser, suggested that "people should look at the full résumé" before criticising Bannon, here's how that résumé line reads.
Biosphere 2 began in fear of the apocalypse
Biosphere 2 was meant to lay groundwork for future space colonization missions, as well as act as an environmental and social experiment: Eight scientists were to be locked into a three-acre dome containing five different earthly biomes for two years, from September 1991 to September 1993. The goal was to see if humans could survive and become self-sufficient in a "closed system"—that is, one that was not supposed to have any supplies coming in or out. Texas philanthropist Ed Bass, who'd inherited his family's oil fortune but took on ecological causes, poured $200 million into the project, but hired Bannon in 1993 to stop the huge runaway costs of the experiment gone awry. Read more about the Biosphere 2 experiment, here.
Bannon spoke out on climate change concerns more than 20 years ago
During his four years at Breitbart, much of the website's content was devoted to "debunking" climate change, with articles calling its supporters "pure scum" and putting the word science in scare quotes.
But in a 1995 interview for C-SPAN about Biosphere 2, as Mother Jones noted, while he was consulting for the project Bannon seems to support the climate change concerns that the Biosphere 2 scientists shared:
"A lot of the scientists who are studying global change and studying the effects of greenhouse gases, many of them feel that the Earth's atmosphere in 100 years is what Biosphere 2's atmosphere is today. We have extraordinarily high CO2, we have very high nitrous oxide, we have high methane. And we have lower oxygen content. So the power of this place is allowing those scientists who are really involved in the study of global change, and which, in the outside world or Biosphere 1, really have to work with just computer simulation, this actually allows them to study and monitor the impact of enhanced CO2 and other greenhouse gases on humans, plants, and animals."
Scientists broke into the dome to sound the alarm about Bannon's involvement
This one's a huge "OH SHIT" for scientists: Tampering with an in-progress experiment and contaminating the entire dome.
In late 1993, Space Biosphere Ventures refused to accept Bannon's proposal to remove top Biosphere 2 management. Bannon quit over this, but returned as CEO the following year when Bass gave in to his requests.
Two of the original eight researchers staged a mutiny from outside when they heard Bannon was back. "They opened doors and broke glass seals, letting outside air into the dome," the Chicago Tribune reported in 1994. "In no way was it sabotage," said Abigail Alling, one of the researchers. "It was my responsibility."
He was accused of harassing employees
After this takeover, project director Augustine accused Bass of having used his agents to dissociate her from the Biosphere project in breach of an earlier agreement, Buzzfeed reported again in August. In a counter-suit, Space Biosphere Ventures accused her of self-dealing and funneling $800,000 of project money.
She claimed this was an effort to slander her out of the position, and accused Bannon, Bass and another banker of a long list of harassment in her complaint: "Both Bowen and Bannon were insulting to the plaintiff and other females employees of Biosphere 2, and in their presence, and against their will, made lewd remarks, told offensive off-color stories, made disparaging remarks about females, made sexually suggestive remarks, discussed females they had known in a lewd and derogatory fashion and in general acted with total indifference to the feelings of the plaintiff and other female employees of Biosphere 2." She also claimed that Bannon once made comments about her being "a woman in a man's job."
In the face of the counter-suit, she dropped her legal action and was removed from the project in 1993.
He threatened the safety of researchers
During his abuse of process trial for the takeover, Bannon acknowledged that he "vowed to kick (Alling's) ass." When 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 ——- throat," the Tuscon Citizen reported in 1996. He also called her a "self-centered, deluded young woman" and a "bimbo."
All of this, he chalked up to "hard feelings and broken dreams."
As a result of this trial, the Pinal County jury ordered Space Biosphere Ventures to pay $600,000 in damages to the two researchers.
In spite of Bannon's short and tumultuous rule, Biosphere 2 lives on today as B2, now owned by University of Arizona. "At the outset, B2 was a rich man's toy," Joel E. Cohen, a professor of populations at the Rockefeller University, told The Arizona Republic in a 2004 article.
It's written off largely as a stunt, and not very good science to begin with, but what it taught us about one of the soon-to-be most powerful leaders in the world could be the greatest finding of all.
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