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Life Under Glass: Crucial Lessons in Planetary Stewardship from Two Years in Biosphere 2

By Abigail Alling, Mark Nelson, and Sally Silverstone

Foreword by Sylvia A. Earle

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Life Under Glass tells the fascinating story of four men and four women who lived and worked inside the Biosphere 2 structure, where they recycled their air, water, food, and wastes, setting a world record for time spent in a closed ecological system. This is the only account written during the unprecedented experiment while the team was enclosed inside.

Foreword to 1st edition by Joseph P. Allen


Life Under Glass is a special present not only for me but for all the people who want to know, from real protagonists, the great history of Biosphere 2. The stories recounted here are extraordinary, beautiful, and dramatic at the same time. A must to read.” — Antonio Saggio

Life Under Glass tells the story of an important experiment which has contributed to the void of neglecting ecological large-scale issues. These authors are explorers in the very best sense, storytellers at the finest. Life Under Glass hence allows a truly enjoyable read, accompanied by eye-openers directly from the authors’ hearts.” — Dr. Ralf Anken


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Abigail Alling


After the successful completion of the two year closure, she became the Assistant Vice-President for Biospheric Development. From 1986 to 1994, Ms. Alling was also the Director of Marine Ecological Systems at Biosphere 2, where she created and operated the largest artificial ecological marine system, a 1,000,000 gallon mangrove marsh and ocean coral reef.

Previously, Ms. Alling was the Expedition Chief on the RV Heraclitus for the “Circumnavigation of South America” Expedition, which included a six-week voyage to the Antarctic Peninsula to study humpback whale population genetics in collaboration with the National Cancer Research Institute. In 1985, she served as the marine biologist supervising the historic first successful release of two captive bottlenose dolphins back to the wild. Additionally, she has been the recipient of numerous grants to conduct cetacean research in the world’s oceans under the auspices of a variety of organizations, including: the World Wildlife Fund, United Nations, Tides Foundation, Institute of Ecotechnics and Marine Mammal Commission.

Abigail Alling is a Fellow of both the Linnean Society (UK) and Explorers Club. She also serves as a Committee Member of the Paris-based, Espace Mer.
Many documentaries have featured her work and have been broadcasted around the world. These include: Buddha and the Biosphere for Vis a Vis French Television and The Coral Dance for Asahi Japan and Canal + French Television. PCRF’s work on coral reefs aboard the RV Heraclitus was featured in a three part National Geographic Asia television program.

She graduated cum laude from Middlebury College where she received her B.A. degree in Biology, and also received an M.S. degree in Environmental Studies, cum laude from Yale University.

Mark Nelson


Mark Nelson, PhD, is a founding director of the Institute of Ecotechnics and has worked for several decades in closed ecological system research, ecological engineering, the restoration of damaged ecosystems, desert agriculture and orchardry and wastewater recycling. He served as Director of Space and Environmental Applications for Space Biospheres Ventures, which created and operated Biosphere 2, the 3.15 acre materially closed facility near Tucson, Arizona, the world’s first laboratory for global ecology. Dr. Nelson was a member of the eight person “biospherian” crew for the first two year closure experiment, 1991-1993. His research inside included litterfall and decomposition in the tropical biomes, population dynamics and biomass increase, fodder production in the sustainable high-production agricultural system, and the constructed wetland sewage treatment system.

He is Chairman and CEO of the Institute of Ecotechnics , a U.K. and USA non-profit organization, which consults to several demonstration projects working in challenging biomes around the world; Vice Chairman of Global Ecotechnics Corp. and consults on wastewater reuse and recycling using Wastewater Gardens, subsurface flow constructed wetlands.

Beginning in the 1970s, Mark worked in the high desert grassland south of Santa Fe, New Mexico where he made hundreds of tons of compost, planted over a thousand fruit and windbreak trees, creating an oasis in previously overgrazed and eroding country. Since 1978 Mark has worked in the semi-arid tropical savannah of West Australia where he helped start Savannah Systems P/L a project centered on the pasture regeneration and enrichment of a 5,000-acre property in the Kimberley region.

Dr. Nelson has written and published a number of books related to biosphere studies, Pushing Our Limits (UofA Press), the Wastewater Gardener (Synergetic Press) and co-author of Life Under Glass and Space Biospheres.  He edited “Biological Life Support Technologies: Commercial Opportunities” and numerous chapters in books on space life support systems. His research papers cover such topics as ecological hierarchy, wastewater recycling through the use of constructed wetlands, and applications of closed ecological systems. Dr. Nelson is a Contributing Editor of the journal Life Support and Biosphere Science and a deputy organizer of the life science sessions on Closed Ecological Systems for COSPAR (the International Committee on Space Research of the ICSU).

Mark received a PhD in Environmental Engineering Sciences from the University of Florida. His dissertation involved the creation of Wastewater Gardens for protection of groundwater quality and coral reef health along the coast of Yucatan, Mexico. His M.S. was in the School of Renewable Natural Resources, University of Arizona; and his B.A. in Philosophy/Pre-Med Sciences was from Dartmouth College. Mark was a summa cum laude graduate from Dartmouth, Phi Beta Kappa and is a member of Phi Kappa Phi, the honors engineering society. Mark was awarded the Yuri Gagarin Jubilee Medal in 1993 for outstanding service to international cooperation in space and the environment by the Russian Cosmonautics Federation; and elected a Fellow of the Explorers Club in 1994 and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 2001.

He is currently working with artist Meridel Rubenstein on a project called “Eden in Iraq” bringing ecological wastewater treatment to the Marsh Arab communities of southern Iraq.

Sally Silverstone


Sally Silverstone was born in London, England. Her fascination with traditional cultures has taken her to East Africa, remote parts of India and Puerto Rico.  In the 80s and 90s she directed a 1200 acre rainforest enrichment project in Puerto Rico.  From 1987 – 1991 she joined Space Biospheres Ventures, the company designing and building the Biosphere 2 research facility in Arizona. She was responsible for the management and coordination of the architectural division operations, financial administration, and cost control for the project. In 1991 she joined the first team of eight researchers as co-captain and food systems manager for the historic two-year mission living and working inside of the Biosphere 2 facility, and still hold the record for longest human life-support experiment. She currently lives in NW Bali where she is CFO of the Biosphere Foundation based in Bali and Coordinator for the Biosphere Foundation’s “Biosphere Stewardship Education Programs.” Author’s Titles: Life Under Glass: The Inside Story of Biosphere 2


Planet in a bottle. Eden revisited. Laboratory under glass. The largest self-sustaining closed ecological system ever made. Biosphere 2 is many things to many people. This is the only account written while the team was enclosed inside Biosphere 2, telling the story of how they lived and worked inside the facility for two years. They recycled their air, water, food, and wastes, setting a world record for time spent in a closed ecological system and learned many valuable lessons about planetary stewardship.

From its half-acre farm to its coral reef to its emerald rainforest—this unique research facility has proven itself a marvel of human engineering and a testament to the human imagination. For two years, four men and four women lived and worked inside the structure, recycling their air, water, food, and wastes, and setting a world record for living in an isolated environment. But what has this giant glass-and-steel greenhouse been to those most intimately involved with it? What has it meant to the first crew who studied and cared for it? What was it like to be sealed inside a giant laboratory for twenty-four months?

In Life Under Glass, crew members, Abigail Alling and Mark Nelson and co-captain Sally Silverstone present the full account of those two remarkable years. From the struggles of growing their own food, to learning how to help sustain their life-giving atmosphere, the general reader, is offered a rare glimpse into how a group of dedicated researchers managed to surprise the world and fulfill their dream. In this updated edition, a new chapter reflects on the legacy of Biosphere 2 and the state of related scientific progress. Other crews will come and go, but no one else will face the risks, the uncertainties, and the challenges that this new breed of explorers did on Biosphere 2’s maiden voyage. Here is the fascinating story of how it all appeared—living under glass.



Additional information

Weight .95 lbs
Dimensions 9 × 6 × 1 in

Paperback, eBook

Pages 275


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Life Under Glass details an extraordinary scientific experiment, one in which a handful of idealistic citizen scientists, at considerable personal risk, volunteered to enter a closed system, Biosphere 2. The audacity of the effort brings to mind that famous quote of Teddy Roosevelt in which he hails not the critics, but those in the arena who strive valiantly, who spend themselves in a worthy cause, and who, if they fail, do so while daring greatly, their faces marred by dust and sweat and blood.”

– Professor Wade Davis, BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Life Under Glass is a massively important and inspirational book about a great experiment that will be regarded as a cornerstone in the human quest to understand the Biosphere and ecology itself. Anyone who wants to understand what innovation actually is must read this book and whisper a hushed vote of thanks that people like this exist!”

– Sir Tim Smit, Founder, Director, The Eden Project, Cornwall

“I am delighted to see a second edition of this important book that tells the true and, frankly, honest account of the Biosphere 2 experiment. It is important that the project has been so fully recorded here in what is also a most enjoyable read.”

– Sir Ghillean Prance FRS, VMH

Life Under Glass is an honest, first‐hand account of an innovative experiment. Biosphere 2 itself was visionary…the subjective experience in undertaking such an experiment makes enjoyable and inspirational reading for anyone eager to learn about exploring and discovering a new frontier where knowledge, skills, technology, and organization are key in managing self‐organizing systems.”

– Dr. Jose Furtado, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College, University of London

“I have known for five decades these deep, audacious, visionary nomads, walking the waves of the Heraclitus, creating Biosphere 2 to reflect our world, more real than true. Life Under Glass chronicles step‐by‐step a journey worthy of including in the Arabian Nights…braving the vivid unknown!”

– Godfrey Reggio, documentary film director (Koyaanisqatsi, the Qatsi trilogy)

Life Under Glass is a thrilling account of the daily life in Biosphere 2 and first and foremost a precious testimony on a unique experience that can teach humanity how to live in a small world, act as steward and feel interconnectedness. This book contains the keys to unlock the 21st century.”

– Jean‐Pierre Goux, President of the Institute for Sustainable Futures, author, “The Blue Century,” founder, OneHome

Life Under Glass is a special present not only for me but for all the people who want to know, from real protagonists, the great history of Biosphere 2. The stories recounted here are extraordinary, beautiful, and dramatic at the same time. A must to read.”

– Antonino Saggio, Professor of Architecture Sapienza University of Rome

Life Under Glass tells the story of an important experiment which has contributed to the void of neglecting ecological large‐scale issues. These authors are explorers in the very best sense, storytellers at the finest. Life Under Glass hence allows a truly enjoyable read, accompanied by eye‐openers directly from the authors’ hearts.”

– Dr. Ralf Anken, Head of the Department of Gravitational Biology, German Aerospace Center, Cologne

Life Under Glass is a great illustration of human creativity in extreme environments…the biospherian thinking process was an example of the emergence of a noosphere so that technics, or in my terms: art, science, and technology, reinforces life and life reinforces the arts, sciences, and technics in an evolutionary sustainable way.”

– Roger Malina, ArtScience Research, Director ArtSciLab UTDallas, Executive Editor Leonardo Publications, MIT Press.

Life Under Glass remains unique: the only first‐hand account of the biospherians as they evolved, individually and as a team, written by three of them while all eight were still enclosed and occupied with their scientific work, daily lives and interpersonal camaraderie and tensions. This second edition, with a new introduction and afterward and further documentation, makes for compelling reading, a special record of a special experience.”

John Rockwell, author and longtime New York Times dance, music and arts critic

“The Biosphere 2 closure experiment in 1991‐1993 is, to this day, the most successful closed environmental system test ever performed. The Biosphere 2 was created by a group of dedicated private ecology and space enthusiasts who designed, fund raised, built and instrumented the structure, identified and supplied the plants and animals that made up the biome, and then lived for 2 years in their built creation: a fully self sustaining closed environment. The 2 year period was chosen to demonstrate the surface stay of a typical Mars conjunction class mission. The 8 person crew that performed the mission did all the hard work that it took to keep their biome and complex machinery functioning, while suffering from calorie restriction and the associated weight loss, and a slow decline in oxygen concentration in their air supply. None of them were under any obligation to complete the 2 year stay but all of them did. It stands as a testament to human ingenuity and shows that the CAN DO attitude of private space enthusiasts is one of the most powerful forces that can propel humanity to the stars.”

– Dr. Carol R. Stoker, Staff Research Scientist, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA

“Biosphere 2 is a ‘vision’ and Life under Glass is a scientific treat and vicarious experience, beautifully written and amply illustrated with truly unique photographs. Without question Biosphere2 is an architectural masterpiece ‐ an extraordinary engineering feat hidden within an artistically inspiring monument to the future. If Biosphere 2 is the heart, then the biospherians are the soul, giving meaning and purpose to their mission. Dedicated to understanding (and measuring) such a complex system, they struggled through the tedious and yet exciting workaholic days, forced to come up with new and creative ideas to solve seemingly unsolvable problems while documenting their complex biomes’ evolution. See their world and relive their experiences through their eyes ‐ enrich your life and join the biospherian explorers in their two year emotional scientific journey, with all their hardships, challenges and successes, having lived through experiences that we, the readers, can only imagine.”

– Richard M. Satava, MD, PhD(hon), Emeritus Professor of Surgery, University of Washington, Seattle

“The task of recreating some of the most important of Earth’s biomes in Biosphere 2 was a remarkable, exciting and memorable challenge, one which a very dedicated international team accomplished with great success. Today, some of the lessons learned are providing insights into the restoration and preservation of wilderness biomes, regenerative agriculture, and atmospheric management. Perhaps most importantly, Biosphere 2’s story as captured in Life Under Glass, shows in dramatic fashion new roles for humans who recognize their dependence on and responsibility for protecting our living world.”

Michael J. Balick, PhD, Vice Pres. for Botanical Science & Director, Institute of Economic Botany, NY Botanical Garden

Life under Glass offers us a unique opportunity to understand how life is interconnected and how we need to live and behave if we want a sustainable planet. This book should be read by everybody in order to understand that we are biological beings and depend on the health of the biosphere. In this book, Mark Nelson, Abigail Alling and Sally Silverstone introduce us to the everyday life of a biospherian and the knowledge and sensitivity we need to be good stewards of Nature.”

– Tiahoga Ruge, environmental film‐maker, Regional Coordinator for Mexico, Earth Day Network

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