What kid didn't dream of living at sea in a glittering bubble dome? Today, researchers from around the globe are taking the first steps in bringing that dream to life. A new rush is on to build upon the oceans. As part of this special supplement to the September-October issue of THE FUTURIST magazine, we talked to Dennis Chamberland of the League of New Worlds, super-projects futurist McKinely Conway, author Danny Quintana, and Patri Friedman of the Seasteading Institute about the practical obstacles to ocean habitation and the race to make life at sea a twenty-first century reality.
Interviews by Rick Docksai
FUTURIST: How will you get oxygen to the Leviathan undersea module?
Chamberland: There are all kinds of ways to get oxygen down to a human colony. You can access it from sea water; you can extract it from the hydrolisis of the water itself. You can do reverse osmosis and draw it out of the water itself. You can suction it from the air it pump it down by hose, which we are going to do.
We'll rely on the Blue Dominion. It’s a surface craft above water that’s a temporary step to human underwater habitation. You want to sever that surface water connection wherever possible, but you can never sever it completely. You also need a docking station.
We're also going to have a submersible surface support station. When a storm comes along we can submerge it and tie it down. You will need some surface connection and tie it down. Well have advanced life support systems.
FUTURIST: How close is the Leviathan to completion?
Chamberland: We ran into some funding issues so we’re looking to launch it in 2010. We just set the clock back today. It was supposed to launch in 2009. That’s one of the risks that you take when you try to coordinate a huge project with uncertain funding strains.
FUTURIST: How costly was it?
Chamberland: We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars for the navigation module, which we’ve completed. But I don’t have an exact figure since we haven’t completed the Leviathan itself yet. What you’re really talking about is planning funds.
FUTURIST: What challenges does building in the ocean present?
Chamberland: We haven’t been building in the oceans at present. The Leviathan is going to be in a lagoon in central Florida. You ask a good question because building in the ocean is much different than building in a protected lagoon. I want you to note that that is central Florida and not to be confused with the Keys. I say that because there is other work going on in the Keys and I don’t want to get the two mixed up.
We have our share of competition.
FUTURIST: Of competition?
Chamberland: There are other groups coming up with undersea projects. There’s tension going on in the community. It’s actually quite active. All of a sudden, there has been a huge swell in activities in this area.
FUTURIST: You mean in the last 10 years?
Chamberland: I would say that the trends seem to start with the planning of the undersea hotels. And I have no complaints against those hotels. They certainly serve to raise awareness about human habitation in the sea. My group planted and harvested the first crop in 1974 in Key Largo. We started the League of the New Worlds started in 1992. We began planning for it that year.
FUTURIST: So the hotels raised interest in underwater habitation?
Chamberland: I think it just happened. I think it all just started at the same time. I don’t think they are related. Certainly we’re not involved in undersea hotels. We’re designed to be a permanent community with families, research stations, et cetera.
FUTURIST: Do you get a sense that the public, and their elected officials, have long been skittish about ocean habitations, considering that the United States has declared multiple space exploration initiatives but never to my knowledge an ocean colonization initiative?
Chamberland: It just boggles my mind. How many people permanently occupy space? There are probably four on the International Space Station. How many people are living under the ocean? Zero. I chalk it up to human weirdness. We plan for whole crews to permanently occupy space, the moon, and eventually Mars, but there is no government plan on the books to permanently occupy the ocean that is only a few feet away … today, when we have all this glorious technology that could accomplish that, there is no plan except private ventures like ours. Why that is, I have no clue. It’s just strange.
FUTURIST: How about universities? Have any universities come forward with grants?
Chamberland: Most of the time universities approach the ocean from a surface-observation viewpoint. They will send probes all the way to the bottom of the ocean, to the abysmal depths. But there are no university programs that I am aware of that have people living in the ocean. In the most sensitive ecosystem, we are totally blind. We’re not that far along yet.
Inside the different colleges, there must be a program that fits this kind of investigation. If you go up to a university that is an ocean study of the ocean environment, you then have to find a college that is amenable to putting humans in the water to study it in-situe. But that doesn’t exist. You have to find a college that is willing to do something that no other college has done before. We know it’s going to be a very sensitive issue because they have their reputations on the line. We are already half-completed with the New Worlds Explorer whose purpose is to pre-research habitat. We anticipate launching it later this year. It’s completely funded, so we don’t have an issue with that. No one has ever done studies on permanent human habitations of the oceans. There have just been short-term missions that last days or weeks. I am certain that we could have done this in 1940. There is no question in my mind. Buckminster Fuller (an architect who is considered a foremost futurist) had a plan for an underwater city at least as far back as the 40s, and it was a good one. This is not something that is fully within the boundaries of today’s technologies, not to mention much easier and cheaper than a space station.
With the proper funding, we could do this today. And I’m not talking about a lot of funding either.
Yes, an interconnected system for electricity. Since the light bulb, we
haven’t had an adequate means for storing electricity until recently.
You could only use solar energy on sunny days and then it shut down at
night. Wind systems, they’re great as long as the wind is blowing. If
the wind is intermittent, then they don’t work well. Both solar and wind
are not considered consistent enough that you can be wholly dependent on
One of the more controversial energy projects is offshore wind farms. There is often a lot of opposition of locals to what they would see above the surface. They don’t want to see it.
turbines, they have that merit in that they don’t interfere with the
view along the coast.
FUTURIST: In addition to power generators and grid systems, what might we be seeing in the way of permanent living stations in the ocean?
But colonization, on the other hand, is not something we’re likely to
Your book makes a compelling case for ocean exploration. I’m
interested to hear your thoughts on not only exploring the ocean, but
actually founding settlements in it. Some today already talk about that.
But a lot of others say forget it; we won’t be able to undertake that
for a very long time into the future. What do you think?
Quintana: Logistically, it would be extremely difficult. And it would be extremely expensive. And it frankly would not be necessary. I think it would be better to just harness better the earth’s resources.
We’re adding a hundred more million people a year and you can’t even mention birth control without the religious nuts getting up in arms. We are going to have to bring the populations of this world under control. Sixty percent of Indians can’t read and write, but man they can reproduce. At the rate they’re going, in a hundred years they‘re going to have 10 billion people.
There are some who say that there are so many problems here on earth, why should we do this? We should do this because it is going to happen anyway. The Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese are going to go along without us. It’s like in the 1500s: The countries that didn’t explore the New World and establish trade routes with the New World’s inhabitants got marginalized and left behind.
FUTURIST: You’ve described what the U.S. can do. But is it safe to say that expanded-yet more responsible-use of the ocean’s resources is something that has to be an international effort?
It should be an international effort. But the United States has to lead
it. Our fish stocks in Alaska are doing great right now, and it’s
because they are very carefully regulated. The Navy can do that right
now. It can patrol the waters and say that these treaties are in effect.
Quintana: That would be my observation. It’s so much easier to build in Las Vegas than to build under the sea of cortex. Where do you get your return as an investor? I look at the consumer. Consumer spending is going to decrease. You take a 200 dollar a month pay cut because of the higher cost of transportation. That’s 200 dollars a week they’re not going to spend underwater. They don’t have cash flow. Maybe in the future, they’ll have cash flow. But right now, they just sound impractical. That’s far into the future. Let’s focus on mining the ocean. Let’s protect the sea life. I think you could do tours of those areas, have boats that go out there, go see the wildlife. But I don’t think you could do underwater hotels. You could build ships that go down a little ways. I see that type of technology developing in the future, and it would be fun.
Explore first. I don’t think we should colonize the ocean. I think what we should do is be careful with the ocean. With space exploration, we need to settle Mars as a point of human survival. When we have run out resources on this planet, we will need a new planet. We can terraform Mars. Will it be easy? No, it won’t be easy. But that is part of the intrigue. I see it as more attractive, but also more practical, having humans under the ocean. I think the interruptions that would occur under the ocean system would not be a very good idea. You could end up messing up the sea bed and cause really large problems by unregulated mining and hunting for game.
Going with the consumerism model for the rest of the planet of historic proportions, it’s a given that having the whole planet adopt the consumerism model, that is an extremely dangerous way to go forward. We consume 20 percent of the resources of the planet. We are consuming the greenhouse gas that is going through the stratosphere.
FUTURIST: Some say that we should colonize the ocean just because of the survival skills it will teach us for when we do colonize other planets. What do you think?
Quintana: Absolutely. We could build facilities under the ocean so that we could eventually colonize Mars. The Mars Project did a colonization project in the Rocky Mountains and another in Antarctica. It’s hard to think about exploring another planet when it’s more than six months away. The human component is that going there is so dangerous and there’s no room for error. Most of the explorers throughout history failed. Only a handful actually completed their adventures. Most of the adventures people only did them one time and that was it.
executive director of the Seasteading Institute.
What maintenance challenges does Seasteading present – what kinds of
wear and tear would you have to address?
FUTURIST: This research into more durable materials could probably serve us well down the road when we’re trying to build spacecraft that could transport people to other planets.
Friedman: It could. We view this as a more achievable frontier.
FUTURIST: Your Web site makes some mentions of self-governance. Might seafaring give rise to independent communities and even whole new sea-based nations?
Absolutely. That is our interest, the idea of experiments in
self-governing. Instead of a few large firms or countries, having many
small firms and niche markets. One of our hopes is revolutionizing the
government industry. Things floating on the ocean can be moved around
and changed quickly. A floating city can be modular, a building can be
detached and be rearranged. If a business doesn’t like a new tax that is
passed, it can move it to another city. It will give cities more
incentives to do a good job.
How far along are you in developing Seasteads right now?
It seems that while space stations and space colonies would require
the resources of whole countries and consortia of countries, Seasteads
could be built by communities or even by individuals.