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    Floating Utopias for the Age of Rising Seas

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Image: Remizov

    A two mile-thick ice sheet in Antarctica is collapsing, which all but guarantees at least 10 feet of global sea level rise. That's grim news for the 44 percent of the world's population living in coastal areas, who now face the dire prospect of preparing for the coming tides. Developing the necessary engineering solutions, as well as plans to anticipate some inevitable social and economic destabilization, will prove a daunting challenge for millions of communities worldwide. Which is why, along with the engineers, we're going to need utopianists.

    In 1962, haunted by the specter of nuclear annihilation, the sociologist Lewis Mumford penned a new preface to his book, The Story of UtopiasHe noted that utopianism tends to thrive when civilization is in turmoil, and that far from being useless pie-in-the-sky dreaming, our utopian myths, schemes, and fictions hint at what he terms society's "potentialities."  

    "[E]very community possesses, in addition to its going institutions, a reservoir of potentialities, partly rooted in the past, still alive though hidden, and partly budding forth from new mutations, which open the way to further development," Mumford wrote. In the face of utter destruction by the bomb, he said, there was nonetheless an opportunity to "renew in man himself the sense of his more-than-human potentialities." 

    Now, we're faced with an existential crises of another stripe. Scientists have for the last few years considered a significant amount of global warming, and the sea level rise it brings with it, an inevitability. Now that we have a forebodingly certain baseline in place, it's an apt time to look at some of the many utopian ideas that have quite literally—yeah, sorry—been floated to cope with the rising tides.

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    Image courtesy of Remizov

    Floating Cities

    I've been keeping a close eye on modern utopianism for the last couple years, and one of the most common themes is, unsurprisingly, floating cities.

    Whether grandiose, or of the humbler variety, both sci-fi designers and urban planners are imagining how to raise our metropolises up to ride atop the rising tides. First, let's look at what is maybe the most prevalent medium for modern utopianism on the internet—design fiction. You've maybe already seen some examples of the genre running through your feed; the self-sustaining, ark-like city designed to float in a globally-warmed world. 

    This one, designed by Russian architect Alexander Remizov, is a "bioclimatic" ark—a self-sustaining, floating system designed to harbor insular communities of people in a disaster-ridden, high-tide world. It's both apocalyptic and hopeful; we can keep our sleek modernist design and opulent lives, we modern-day Noahs decked out with smart tech, as the world ravages everything unfortunate enough to lie outside the walls we've built. 

    According to Arch Daily, "Remizov envisioned this project as the house for the future which can be constructed quickly and withstand environmental disasters through its structural integrity.” Resilient, perfectly-organized floating domiciles aren't just the focus of science fiction, though.

    Image: NLE

    In a poor neighborhood of Lagos, Nigeria—now Africa's largest economy—local architects are trying to engineer an entire city to float. The first phase has been completed; the school is now essentially a moored boat. But the next phase of the African Water Cities Project is where the utopian planning begins in earnest.

    According to Design Boom, "phase two includes the construction of floating housing units that can be interlocked or float independently... the houses will also contain a state-of-the-art device designed by Japanese company AIR Danshin Systems Inc that detects certain movements (such as earthquake tremors) and activated a compressor that pumps air into a chamber below the structure so that the dwellings may navigate safely over a flood plain." It's supposed to be completed by the end of this year, but as with most utopian schemes, it appears to be a bit behind schedule.

    Floating Power

    Nuclear energy was the original utopian energy source: boundless, clean, a triumph of science. To its advocates, it still reflects near-unlimited potential. So, to better suit our drowning world, MIT has made them float. These buoyed, modular reactors rise and fall with the seas; tsunamis ostensibly glance off them harmlessly, and they use the vast reservoir of ocean below them as a well for cooling water as they produce a font of clean energy.  Problems persist, of course; meltdowns or radioactive discharge are even more a terrifying specter at sea. 

    Less controversial, but no less optimistic are other floating power sources; Singapore is getting ready to try out a pilot program for floating solar panels.

    New Venices

    If we cannot build utopian floating city-capsules, then perhaps we at least will be able to adapt our current infrastructure to the flood. Science fiction might offer some clues as to how.

    The sci-fi historian Adam Roberts argues that "utopian writing becomes a sort of para-SF, entwining itself round the genre in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." Yet in traditional science fiction, it's rare that irreversible climate change produces hopeful communities; Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 is the exceptional vision that does. 

    "It was almost an ice-free planet now, with only Antarctica and Greenland holding on to much, and Greenland going fast. Sea level was therefore eleven meters higher than it had been before the changes," Robinson writes. "This inundation of the coastline was one of the main drivers of the human disaster on Earth." Pertinent words, those.

    After a couple generations of terrible chaos, some degree of stability reemerged—as well as a New York City replete with Venetian canals laced between permanently submerged skyscrapers. Life, and its messy bustle, goes on: "A few parts of Manhattan's ground still stood above the water, but most of it was drowned, the old streets now canals, the city an elongated Venice, a skyscraper Venice, a super Venice—which was a very beautiful thing to be. Indeed it was an oft-expressed cliche that the city had been improved by the flood."

    Floating Free Market Utopias

    Image: Seasteading Institute 

    It's doubtful that libertarians like Peter Thiel are all that interested in fighting climate change; statistically speaking, most don't consider it a pressing issue. But their long-gestating Seasteading communities, those floating free market utopias where the tech elite can innovate away without the burdensome shackles of government, incidentally appear primed to adapt to a high-tide planet.

    Rising Prospects for Radical Change

    From the beginning, Occupy Wall Street was a utopian project in the strictest sense—a leaderless, ultra-egalitarian activist community founded at the foot of its participants' oppressor. Utopian projects are often most notable for how they illuminate the gulf between imperfect reality and their lofty aims, and the gulf OWS, was attempting to bridge was glaringly self-evident: Students, laborers, and average citizens couldn't find work, while profits for the 1 percent soared. A radical adjustment to income equality was therefore in order.

    When Hurricane Sandy, pulling from sea levels raised by climate change, washed over New York City, the movement's ideals were again translated into action—and we saw a glimmer of how besieged coastal communities might organize to respond to crises. Decentralized, democratic, networked, and better organized than legacy aid efforts, Occupy Sandy empowered communities while delivering disaster relief. It proved Occupy could organize to provide shelter, health, food delivery, and other crucial services.

    But, effective as it was, it also made the chasm to utopia again starkly evident, this time in the face of a harsh scientific reality—thousands of people are still without homes, and storms like this are going to keep coming. Occupy Sandy shows how far we need to travel before we're ready for the disasters of the future—our institutions aren't yet equipped to cope. 

    That's why we need to consider each of these utopian ideas (okay, maybe not the Steasteads). As Mumford says, even if the total vision they convey are ultimately impossible, they reveal the potentialities in our communities to first adequately imagine, then adapt, life beset by rising seas.

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