'Cosmos' Calls for Utopia: Here Are Five Ideas That Fit the Bill

'Cosmos' urged its viewers to indulge their inner utopians, whether that means solar cities, living buildings, or space colonies. Idealism for the win.

Jun 2 2014, 8:35pm
A Stanford torus. Image via Don Davis.

Every week, Becky Ferreira, your hostess with the cosmostest, hones in on the most important science and history topics the hit show Cosmos glosses over. Previously: The Wow! Signal Is The Strongest Candidate For an Alien Radio Transmission Yet.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey has occasionally flirted with climate change, but the show finally went whole hog last night with “The World Set Free.” The introductory segment laid out the mechanisms that drove Venus from a potentially habitable paradise into a hellish pressure cooker tortured by its heavy shell of carbon dioxide gas. Much like Carl Sagan in the original series, Neil deGrasse Tyson used our sister planet as the ultimate example of why a runaway greenhouse gas effect is no joke.

Tyson frequently emphasized that the Earth is in deep trouble if humans continue to treat it like our own personal assrag, and he did a terrific job of spelling out the evidence that our species is the primary driver behind our warming world. We hardly need to be reminded. In the last month alone, Motherboard has published stories about the nations that will soon be underwater and the volatile future of the Antarctic ice sheet, and more apocalyptic news seems to pile up every day.

The looming threat of climate change is a tough pill to swallow, one that could make even the most devoted optimist harbor dark thoughts. Cosmos did the only thing it could to make the pill go down smooth—appeal to our utopian instincts.

John F. Kennedy's 1962 moon speech formed the thematic backbone of the episode, and rightly so. The moon landings are the ultimate example that humans can accomplish impossible feats, even if the motives behind them are shady. In that vein, the last scene of the episode featured a shot of a sustainable city packed with green space, solar panels, and wind turbines. Over it played Kennedy's famous line: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Sure, it's pure, schlocky idealism. But encouraging our inner utopianist may genuinely be the only way that humans will create a sustainable civilization before it's too late. So put your cynicism aside for a second, and let's embark on a whirlwind tour of concepts that might save our species (and millions of others) from self-wrought extinction. Because do we really want to end up being the dunces of the entire galaxy without even trying out some utopian ideas first?

Answering this question is the main thrust of Annalee Newitz's recent book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction. One of the book's central arguments is the necessity of transforming every urban surface into farmland. The idea has its roots in Sir Ebenezer Howard's 1898 tome Garden Cities of To-Morrow, which advocated the incorporation of fertile greenbelts into population centers, but it has evolved into an entirely different beast in the twenty-first century.

Howard's Victorian version of a biological city. Image via Ebenezer Howard.

For example, in a section entitled “The Biological City,” Newitz outlines ways to incorporate living species into future architecture. A group of English researchers achieved this with a bacteria-based product named BacillaFilla, which can create self-healing concrete. The sustainability innovator Rachel Armstrong is also working on a similar plan involving the release of synthetic proto-cells into the canals of Venice, where they will seek out the foundations of the city and augment their strength.

“We might start to experience the city as something we have to take care of the way we take care of our bodies,” said Armstrong of her “living city” concepts. “We'll take more care of the city because we feel its injuries more deeply.”

“Maybe cities would be so in tune with ecosystems that they would grow over time, and then decay over time too,” said David Benjamin, another sustainable architect quoted in Newitz's book. These cities would evolve like coral reefs, and might “look almost like ruins in the jungle but they're actually fully functional, occupied cities.” Though such concepts fly in the face of the ultra-shiny technoutopia most of us associate with the future, there is something deeply appealing about integrating life into the very core of urban settings (especially if it means we can arrange to have a Sarlacc pit as a garbage disposal).

Utopian concepts usually try to push back against specific apocalyptic scenarios, which means the ever-nascent “floating city” idea is more pertinent than ever. A few weeks back, Motherboard's Brian Merchant wrote a feature about these proposed oceanic communities, intended to rescue small pockets of humanity from the precipitous rise of the oceans.

While some of them look like paradisiacal herds of nomad houseboats, others were conceived with the idea that the entire planet would be contaminated. Alexander Remizov's “bioclimatic ark” is a sleek, insular capsule meant to shield a small community from the many dangers of an apocalyptic world. As pointed out in the feature, the design is somehow both hopeful and apocalyptic, which is about as realistic a combination as we can expect from the future.

Image courtesy of Remizov.

Every fledgling utopian has their own pet designs for sustainable civic centers, both on and off Earth (I'm quite partial to the Superstar city concept myself). Some, like O'Neill cylinders and terraformed planets, are not likely to emerge anytime soon. But others, like space-based solar power plants and synthetic biology, may end up averting species-wide disaster.

Cosmos took the right tack by showing how technically feasible our long-term survival is, if only we could effectively prioritize it. If unsavory political rivalries ultimately led us to the moon, maybe we can pull off a utopian civilization too. Or at least, utopian-lite.