For a child a backyard can be the wilderness, or the ocean or an island of mystery. For a young person on foot or on a bicycle the city is almost infinite. For a grownup with a car the city is an endless maze of turns and corners, backstreets and cul de sacs and the lifeless arteries of freeways and bypasses. For those whose life is made mostly of flyovers the city is a patch on the landscape, part of a network of patches connecting airports and terminals and waiting areas.
At each level details are missed or lost.
The child never tires of the cracks in paving stones or the creatures found among the grasses. The mysterious realm outside of safe boundaries is overcome by imagination without limits. A porch becomes a spaceship or the ramparts of a castle. Every angle and corner is explored repeatedly and new wonders are constantly revealed.
The world beyond fences and borders opens to foreign lands and neighborhoods and secret haunts beside creeks and rivers and under bridges. In every direction the familiar gives way to novel possibilities and pathways. There are people and places that reveal themselves like secrets and anyone who dares can find the hidden spaces populated by teenagers and wanderers and sometimes the homeless poor.
Cars take us far away into foreign places while detaching us from what we know or what we can really call home. We are caught up in the proscribed flow of traffic designed to conduct us past the details of place and time. We become tourists or commuters, always just passing through to arrive somewhere other than where we are. We begin to live in bubbles and we call this freedom.
Those who flyover begin to look elsewhere for a sense of being unconfined. Living in prisons of wealth or notoriety we dream of another existence outside or beyond the worlds we know. We dream of space colonies and going to Mars and look upon the earth as a place to transcend or to escape. We look at situations as confrontations or problems to be solved and tend to forget about both the earth and the oceans as places in which to thrive or to simply be.
Meanwhile the waters rise.
Jeff Bezos sees the salvation of the earth in building vast cities in an environment entirely hostile to all biological life. I understand both the impulse and the fascination. I’ve been addicted to dramas about outer space since I was a small boy. I consider myself somewhat of a ‘trekkie’ for whom science fiction is one of my favorite literary genres. Perhaps this is because of the metaphorical value it offers in representing our moral quandaries against the frontier background of an imaginary universe. Maybe it’s merely an offshoot of the magical thinking that filled my adolescent fantasies.
The myth of the frontier we are told, is a necessary creation of the human urge for freedom and novelty. Ironically, the realities of survival in outer space run absolutely counter to all but a momentary sense of real freedom. Whether we journey in a small capsule or a giant artificial metropolis we will find ourselves confined within a tin can in an airless void bombarded by deadly radiation. The rules of existence are many times more restrictive than anything we face on the surface of our own planet. Even if we find other worlds ‘out there’ that are compatible with some form of life the odds are extremely thin that it would be compatible with our own. Ironically, my favorite novel by my favorite writer of ‘hard’ science fiction, ‘Aurora’ by Kim Stanley Robinson, offers a sobering argument questioning the likely success of such an endeavor.
True, the endless mysteries of the universe are irresistible to our insatiable curiosity and I look eagerly forward to their continued exploration and unraveling. However, the idea that we can save or preserve our species’ existence by launching a significant bulk of our population into outer space appears to me increasingly absurd.
Even in terms of mysteries, not to mention frontiers, we live on a planet that’s more than 3/4 covered in water, and we know less about the depths of the oceans than we do about other planets in our solar system. Yet, water is not only the element that makes our carbon based life possible, it’s teeming with the material that makes it sustainable. Our rapidly rising crises of global warming, population density and urban decay are most profoundly influenced by conditions in the oceanic environment. The oceans, congruent with a thin layer of atmosphere, not only generate and regulate global climate conditions, but are the essential medium for the rise and spread of our civilization. It’s the impending rise of sea level that may be responsible for our eminent decline.
Given this rise, which we apparently have little collective will to do anything about, many of the world’s coastal urban areas and a not a few nations and principalities will be underwater by the end of the century. The rise in global temperature has already lead to long term drought, increasingly devastating weather and extreme weather events. The collapse of whole agricultural systems leads to the migration of populations and the civil unrest and wars that result. We are now forced to look toward shorter term and perhaps less visionary solutions than building inhabitable colonies in outer space.
Closer at hand, requiring less expenditure of energy and investment and more attainable with our present levels of technology are solutions that take advantage of the very environmental circumstances in which we are enmeshed. We can build cities on the seas.
While Bezos, Branson and Musk compete to leave the earth completely and Zuckerberg urges us to leave our bodies, current pioneers in the field of cohabitation with the seas are citizens of Africa, Japan, the Netherlands, and Kuwait. The Africans see the promise of the oceans, the Japanese are simply running out of room, the Dutch live in a nation below sea level and the Arabs have an excess of wealth to invest in massive engineering projects to extend their real estate to incorporate ocean, marsh and desert. These are just a few examples of the imagination going into claiming the ocean for future real estate. Similar and diverse projects like this are being proposed or built in many other places.
The problem is that many of these habitats are being built for the very rich as suburbs on the sea, with high end shopping malls, vacation villas and places where the winners in capitalism’s lottery can park their yachts. So far the largest man made presence in the ocean is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. What needs to be conceived, designed and built should house, clothe and feed many of those displaced by the widening deserts, increasing floods and the resulting migrations and wars over shrinking territory. It’s precisely the widening divide between rich and poor that’s the corrosive leading to society’s unrest and failure.
The oceans are both the source of our lives and the life of our civilizations, and is the one resource that can never be fully subjugated or tamed. Desperate and afraid of what we’ve done to our earth we turn our wealth toward the heavens and are apparently willing to risk everything to escape our collective fate. We spend centuries hunting the keys to the mystery of life and death only to find that the mystery will never surrender to our terms and every attempt to transcend it leads us closer to our inevitable demise. Many of us feel helpless, so we build walls against the rising tides.
To those who wish to escape, I wish them well. Perhaps when they’ve travelled far enough they’ll find and bring back elements that can help us to thrive. To survive they’ll have to carry with them fragments of our living earth, the water and plants and air. Perhaps they will someday return with other treasures. In the process of their cold journeys maybe they’ll uncover secrets that will help us all to live. Will they ever find another place that feels like home? Not likely.
So flee you brave and wealthy men. You’ll remember us and the blue earth, and when you are drawn to return by the ocean’s breath perhaps you’ll be able to teach us the value and necessity of preserving our home. When William Shatner, one of the early captains of our imaginations, returned from his brief journey (via Bezos’ Blue Origin) beyond imagination and into the edges of the real void his tear filled comment was, “This is life and that’s death.”
Decades ago in the late sixties the Italian architect Paolo Soleri proposed the construction of aquatic cities, both free floating and adjacent to continental coasts. His designs are essentially modular in both vertical and horizontal directions. Starting from a central core that incorporates basic living, manufacturing and food production facilities, these cities would grow outward organically in concentric rings around a common core, to incorporate expanding populations and ever evolving priorities.
From his book on urban theory and design,
‘Arcology: The City In The Image Of Man’
”Life came out of the sea when the time was ripe for a next step toward complexity. Then the ecological flood came to cleanse the earth and let the “elected” few re-engage in the homogenesis of the earth. The biological flood invested in the human species is now edging man toward the same seas that eons ago saw the exodus of some of his creatures.”
”Ecologically the seas behave as a many layered medium. One could almost say that the earth has one layer of ecologies and the seas have a whole thickness of ecologies wrapped one around the other. It could also be observed that it is the element itself, water, that makes the biological “thickness” of the seas possible and that it is also the cause of their great homogeneity, stability, balance and diffusion. These elements of relative homogeneity, stability, balance and diffusion are the characteristics that, combined with fluidity, make sea arcology relevant.”
Once I lived on a beach along the west coast of Florida. There was a house, like a shack that had survived hurricanes and floods and now stood alone amid the retirement cabanas and motels. I would sit out on the porch in the shade under a billowing parachute awning and look out at the Gulf that every day showed a different color and mood, sometimes restless, sometimes calm, the warm ocean currents bringing close to shore the food for seagulls and pelicans. Sometimes I would wade out among the waves and look out over a seemingly endless expanse of water and sky, feeling humbled before the face of the deep.
Now I walk beneath the desert sun and think about the ocean. It’s as if it calls me back across these millions of years and many thousand generations. The desert plants echo the shapes of coral and anemone, and I reflect upon the life we lived before learning to scratch out our lives across the land. Now the land needs to heal and we need to relearn the lessons of the sea, of change, and of a life that’s forever born out of water.