The 1995 film Waterworld was one of Hollywood’s most infamous budget busters – a mega-million-dollar post-apocalyptic thriller that, at the time, cost more than any other film ever made. It did a pretty decent job of sinking Kevin Costner’s career for the rest of the decade. More importantly, it may also have helped do the same to the idea of mankind living on the sea.
Though scientists aren’t predicting sea-level rises of the magnitude seen in Waterworld – hundreds of feet thanks to melting polar ice caps – we may have to plan for a world with much higher sea levels. There has long been a dream that one day mankind, or at least some of us, will live on the ocean. Designer and architect Buckminster Fuller saw cities at sea contributing to a sustainable future for humanity. But then floating cities evoked images of flop films, or worse, of wealthy “robber barons” escaping to the high seas for financial reasons. Now, several groups are trying to change this perception by researching technologies that could help create floating cities, or “seasteads”, which become innovative models of sustainability and peaceful cooperation.
Does this sound too futuristic? Then consider China’s Fujian Province, where the Tanka people have been settled at sea since 700AD. Pushed into coastal waters in wartime during the Tang Dynasty, these boat dwellers weren’t allowed to set foot on land until the second half of the 20th Century. Today, some 7,000 Tankas still maintain a sea farming life – possibly a preview of a future to come for many more of us. Before the industrialisation of agriculture, most people lived in land-based villages no larger or more complex than the Tankas’ simple water-based community. It took a series of green revolutions in farming technology to allow people to leave rural communities, and move into densely-populated urban areas. We see signs that a “blue revolution” in ocean harvesting technology is underway, suggesting floating cities can’t be far off.
It may be a necessity – not merely a novelty – to inhabit the sea in the coming decades, but to do so will require the means to create reliable and sustainable food and power souces. Dwindling fish stocks from overfishing have prompted humanity to create farmed supplies, beginning with the most accessible environments on or near land. Yet most fish farming has not evolved beyond the low-tech cages and seaweed-draped lines anchored in shallow seas by ancient peoples like the Tankas. The most advanced methods of mass production employ harmful antibiotics and genetically modified feed in unnaturally crowded ponds on land.
But the drawbacks of current fish farming has created opportunities for technology like the floating “drifter pens” pioneered by Kampachi Farms. Given enough time, Kampachi Farms will replace stagnant ponds with GPS-tracked cages stitched out of copper wire to enable a constant inflow of fresh ocean water without flushing out the precious fish. These geodesic aquariums, inspired by Fuller’s prototypes for sturdy light-weight structures, will be let loose in swirling ocean gyres, where they only need occasional course-correction to maintain a rough position. This will be accomplished by nimble harvesting vessels driven by pioneers of this new life on the water.
Collapsing fisheries are of immediate concern, but land-based agriculture may also be in danger due to a predicted shortage of the crucial nutrient phosphorus by the year 2050. Once again, there could be a solution out at sea.
Blue Revolution Hawaii, led by Professor Patrick Takahashi, is another group planning for a future with thousands of floating cities. Takahashi and his team have devised a plan to enable large ships equipped with ocean thermal electric conversion, or Otec plants, in which warm surface waters interact with cold water “upwelled” from the deep ocean to drive a large power turbine. The cool water pumped to the surface contains the exact ratio of nutrients – including phosphorus – needed to support plant growth.