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A magazine of forecasts, trends, and ideas about the future

Sept-October 2008 Vol. 42, No. 5

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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


 

Dennis Chamberland, director of the nonprofit League of the New Worlds, a group whose mission is the colonization of the oceans and space. The League is building a deep sea module called the Leviathan and hopes that, in 2010, the completed Leviathan module will sustain three aquanauts underwater for 80 days in a central Florida lagoon in a live test. If the project succeeds, the league will follow up with the 2012 launch of the Challenger, an underwater laboratory and residential complex that will house people permanently at its planned site in the Gulf Stream.

 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: I
t 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.

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McKinley Conway, engineer and founder of Conway Data Inc., a firm involved in research, publications, and telecommunications, specializing in futures studies, global megaprojects, and site selection.


FUTURIST:
Crescent Hydropolis has gotten a lot of fanfare for its plans to open an underwater hotel later this year in Dubai. It hopes to open other hotels afterwards in other locations around the world – London, New York City, and the Isle of Man among them. It's a fun tourist gimmick – lots of people might pay good money for the experience of looking outside their hotel windows to see fish swimming past and coral beds surrounding them. But might this be the start of a bigger trend? Might humankind be officially seeing about a colonization of the world’s oceans?

Conway:
As we know, there’s a lot of pressure on the development in coastal zones. And we have people who really want to live in the water and engage in water sports. And a lot of people are interested in marine life. We have a pretty extreme situation in Dubai with the subdivisions. Since ancient times there have been floating villages and villages on water. So I think it’s a pretty logical step.

FUTURIST: Do you see this interest in the ocean increasing in the next few decades?

Conway:
There are a lot of reasons for living offshore. The Japanese have proposed a number of community developments offshore. Such developments would not be bothered by changes in sea level. A floating community would just rise up regardless of what the shore is doing. Of course we might not be too happy, for example, during a hurricane. But those are the risks we take.

FUTURIST: Is building closer to the surface more feasible than building underwater?

Conway: There is a lot of activity right now to develop energy using the oceans. One is turbines below the surface. I feel sure that that is going to become more important over the next couple of years, that we’ll develop an impetus for building underwater. That might be the prelude for something more permanent.

There is considerable interest in Florida right now in tapping the energy of the Gulf Stream. Look what happened in the wind industry with the wind turbines. You can place turbines underwater with the ocean currents and derive quite a lot more energy from the water using turbines because the water is more dense.

Water turbine possibility looks more feasible when compared with wind. It looks like it might be more efficient in some cases. The whole idea is to connect it to a grid. The opportunities that exist in front of us now, we have three sources of renewable energy that look awfully good–the sun, the wind, and the water. They’re plentiful, they’re cheap, and there are opportunities for business groups to develop them. We have a fair expectation that renewable energy could replace fossil fuels and leave us in a much healthier position.

FUTURIST:
Nuclear energy seems to be very popular right now.

Conway:
Nuclear energy is well-established and well-known. The ocean energy is not yet well-known. It still has to make a name for itself. Over the years, people will be given a choice, and I hope the choice will be for the three safest. They all will be connected to the grid.

FUTURIST: By a grid, you mean power lines?

Conway: 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 them.

But if you have wind, water and solar, it’s unlikely that they will all shut down at the same time. And they will work better interconnected.

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.

The underwater turbines, they have that merit in that they don’t interfere with the view along the coast.

There isn’t any large-scale development of any kind, though, that won’t bring forth some kind of negative reactions. But everyone is trying to minimize the public reactions against the projects.

FUTURIST: In addition to power generators and grid systems, what might we be seeing in the way of permanent living stations in the ocean?


Conway: That may come. But that is looking quite a ways ahead. That gets into the realm of pure speculation. We’ve ventured quite a way with communities. One example is domed communities and using domes to control climates.

Several decades ago I was traveling in northern Burma. I came across a small community on a lake I was taken out in a small boat and was showed the village’s stilts. It was supporting itself on stilts. And they had hydroponic floating gardens for the vegetables. You see things like that on the outer Amazon basin. People are adventurous and surprise us with what they are willing to do.            I hope that whoever is our president next year and in the years to come will put a lot of chips on renewable energy. We need to have a strong national program to develop energy from wind, water, and solar energy. That will become important to us.  

FUTURIST: But colonization, on the other hand, is not something we’re likely to see?

Conway:
I wouldn’t think it would be near term. There are rare occasions, like tourist hotels. You see things like the ice hotels in Scandinavian areas. There are no limits to what tourists will subject themselves to. The Dubai people have used a lot of creativity and imagination. I commend them.

FUTURIST: We could stay on land indefinitely, at least for the foreseeable future?

Conway:
The biggest problem we have is population. I think most people agree on that. I believe the key to handling that problem is lead time. If we were given enough lead time, we could solve just about any problem. It’s the ones that surprise us that give us a lot of trouble. Knowing that we have a population crunch I think we could find ways to manage it.

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Danny Quintana attorney and author of Martian Peace: Why We Must
Explore the Oceans and Space.  

FUTURIST: 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:
In terms of colonizing the ocean, certainly, that will happen. That is just going to happen as a matter of course. But I think that harnessing the resources of the ocean is something that we can do, and something I would like to see happen, right now.  We can do that by very slowly redirecting defense spending and defense contractors to the tasks of harnessing the ocean’s resources. It’s using the same organizations but giving them a new mission.

Another action we can take right now is to set aside zones of the ocean for preserving fish populations–make them off limits to mankind. That’s something we need to move on with urgency because there are many species that are very close to extinction. Right now, we just don’t have the political will to move forward in those areas. It’s not wrong to fish, as long as we are careful and don’t overdo it. It’s something that I would encourage, ensuring a wise use of our fish populations. That’s the vision. If we don’t, we’re going to end up so overfishing the ocean that we’re never going to recover.

FUTURIST: Is colonizing the ocean a foreseeable goal?

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?

Quintana:  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.

But once you leave the U.S. waters and enter into the jurisdiction of the international waters, it’s open season. That’s absolutely not necessary. We can make it so that when there is a cruise ship in the open ocean that is dumping garbage into the ocean and killing fish and wildlife, we arrest them and then make them go back and clean it up. The United States has to play policeman.

FUTURIST: I was looking at some private endeavors that aim to build ocean habitations. They all had great-looking drawings, but none seem to be very far along in actual development. What have you heard about the whole ocean colonization thing?

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. 

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Patri Friedman, executive director of the Seasteading Institute.

FUTURIST: Seasteading, for those readers who are not familiar with it, is essentially staking out a long-term residence on the ocean’s surface?

Friedman:
The frontier is part of how we think of it. The frontier thesis is: America came in large part from people who were willing to venture out and attempt new ways of living. Looking at a frontier is looking at new ways of living, a spirit that is kind of lacking right now. It’s not just that the ocean is empty and we want to fill it. It’s about finding new uses of living space and resources.

FUTURIST: What does technology allow us to do right now?


Friedman:  Oil platforms - they are permanent, they are fixed. They can take the beating of the waves. However, they are incredibly expensive. One thing we’re trying to figure out is how to make it less expensive. Are they expensive because they are on the ocean’s surface, or because they are drilling oil, which is in itself expensive?

Another example is cruise lines. They sustain people very comfortably while sailing atop the ocean. They too, however, are very expensive. What we need to do is make something that’s permanent and spacious but also cheap. We see it as a technological solution to a political problem. People are bad at changing human nature or changing politics, but very good at finding new technological means to make things work better.  

FUTURIST: What maintenance challenges does Seasteading present – what kinds of wear and tear would you have to address?           

Friedman:
You can expect to pay the construction costs in maintenance every 20 years, which is not good. One of our challenges is going to be to try to minimize that. What does help is that we’re not going to move any place very fast. We could use cheaper things like cement. Cement is good in that it’s cheap and its strong. Steel has a good weight ratio but is very expensive. Plastics hold up against water really well also.

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?

Friedman: 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.

That would be true in space also you can move around different things. The next frontier is the ocean state. They have this weird dynamic that you can rearrange things and make it work more smoothly.

It’s kind of like if everyone lived in an RV, except everyone lives in something spacious and comfortable.  There is a lot of space on land but it’s a place we could go to in order to get more resources. Aquaculture will be a necessity. There is decline in wild fish stocks. Currently, coastal and freshwater aquaculture freshwater areas are limited they tend to be sensitive environmentally. Offshore aquaculture, where you basically maintain fish farms in the deep ocean, There’s demand for fish. It’s a way to increase the amount of food that we can produce. So we increase the earth’s food-bearing capacity. And fish are known to make you smarter. So we’re also making the world smarter. The ocean is a lot less sensitive. There is a lot more space. One problem, though, is it is food-poor. When things die, they drop down to the bottom where only bacteria live. Most of the life is concentrated in natural upwellings. We’ll have to either locate in those areas or artificially create upwellings by means of artificial pumps, or OTEC generator that pumps nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean pipes that run way down.  OTEC plants generate a lot of power and they generate fresh water. As a side effect of the heat engine, you end up boiling water. The water condenses and you have automatic fresh water. We’re not doing anything with OTECs right now because you need a community that can afford a couple-hundred-million-dollar power plant. 

FUTURIST: How far along are you in developing Seasteads right now?

Friedman:
We’ve established a research institute that is applying for non-profit status. We’re planning to hire a researcher and engineer and do some designs work that could figure out what the best design is and do some cost effective work. First we’d want to build one in the San Francisco Bay. Once we’ve built it and tested it, then well look to build bigger ones

FUTURIST:  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.

Friedman: That’s true. We’re very focused on an individual-level path. We think it’s important to make a lot of stuff that people can try on a small scale.      

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