Buckminster Fuller, Joe Quirk, and How to Walk on Water

This Article was written by Cade Summers, with great privilege and special thanks to Joe Quirk.

 

Today I want to tell a story. It’s not a story you hear every day, but it’s one that needs to be told. It’s a story concerning many different variables and characters, as well as many different settings, problems, and solutions merged into one, great solution. It is a solution as miraculous, or (after you’ve read this story) as real, as walking on water.

The story doesn’t begin in a typical setting. It begins in the mind of a famous, noble, and genius man. The man is the great architect of Buckminster Fuller, and the time is the 1960s. The idea, or the spark of this story, is a city both never attempted, and considered impossible.

This city, should it have been built, would have been the first of its kind. Half a century ago, Fuller planned the first models of a city district that was designed not to stand on the ground, but to float on the ocean. The district, which was planned for the bay of Tokyo, would have sustained stores, apartments and even parks, and created thousands of homes in the middle of the most densely populated city on the planet.

The idea was visionary and even considered by the United States government for a time. However, as politics and government began to get involved in the project, the visionary solution began to hit a stagnating standstill. Buckminster Fuller enthusiastically continued to write about the project despite the stagnation, and he even included the idea his book Critical Path, published only 2 years before his death in 1983.

Second Birth

Fast forward half a century since this project’s conception. A writer and entrepreneur is relaxing and having a wonderful vacation on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean. The food is great, the crew is happy, and the entertainment is abundant. This man, however, begins to consider something that would seem like a fantasy to most. He begins to wonder what it would be like to live on a cruise like the one he’s on.

Now, to the average person, the idea of living on a cruise ship would conjure images focused on an extreme excess of strawberry daiquiris. However, the man in question, who is now doing back-of-the-napkin calculations, is not thinking that. This man is Joe Quirk, and he has just struck upon a pretty, well, quirky idea.

All around him, a high standard of living is being enjoyed by himself, his fellow vacationers, and most importantly, the crew. “How possible would it be”, Joe began to ask, “for human beings to simply live on the ocean?” The calculations and the answer would have to wait, however. After all, Joe was on vacation, enjoying himself, while the first seeds of this fantasy implanted themselves in his mind.

From Seas to Sands to Seas

It was some time later that the idea of living on a cruise began to take shape and to become far more relevant. By some time later, I mean it was at a time when Joe Quirk had gone from the middle of the ocean to the middle of the desert. Whereas this idea had started on a cruise, it was kicked off at Burning Man.

If one thing should be clear, Joe knew how to have fun.

Joe was in the middle of the festival, talking with a friend, James Hogan. The conversation eventually landed on Joe’s idea of a cruise ship on which people could live permanently. James, who had heard a similar idea, immediately introduced Joe to a man he knew named Patri Friedman.

Patri had been famous in some circles for speculating about new forms of societies. His father was a well-known political theorist, and his grandfather was the great Nobel-Winning Economist Milton Friedman, who founded his own school of economics known as the Chicago School of Economics.

To describe their first meeting, Joe gave me a wonderful image. “I went to go see [Patri], and I want you to imagine a man on an upside-down canoe. This was Patri Friedman. Balancing like some sort of Guru in the middle of a desert at a Burning Man”.

Patri was, in many ways, this guru figure, and where Joe had done some initial calculations on whether or not living on a cruise ship was possible, Patri shifted the idea to that of living on man-made islands. Together they hatched a plan to write a book about the project, explaining how it was not only feasible to live on the ocean but ideal in many aspects.

The next step in this story lands in the present day. Although Buckminster Fuller first proposed that living on the oceans would be possible and created some models 50 years ago, the first book actively advocating for the idea of living on the ocean was published only in March of 2017. Similarly, although he first plans for seasteads started in the 1960’s, the first development of them is starting today.

Seasteading: A Brave New World

Today there are many solutions to reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. There are many solutions to restoring fish populations or replacing fossil fuels, and there are even a few about adapting to sea level change. There is only one solution, however, which addresses all four complex environmental problems: Seasteading.

Seasteading is a novel approach to fighting many of the world’s most difficult environmental and social problems. In short, seasteading is the practice of building cities no longer on land, but which instead float on the ocean. The idea might sound like science fiction, but the development of the very first seastead is happening right now inside the territories of French Polynesia. These cities are designed not only to be environmentally sustainable but also to purify and rejuvenate open ocean and harbor waters.

Since the inception of seasteading, the project has focused on resolving certain moral dilemmas. These goals persist in the project, and today there are eight moral imperatives the seasteading project focuses on. While I won’t focus on all of them in this piece, several of them concern the environment, and the solutions which the engineers, aqua-farmers, environmentalists, and clean-energy specialists have devised show great promise.

Moral Imperative #1- Clean the Atmosphere

The Industrial Revolution has introduced massive amounts of pollution into the atmosphere as a result of the massive growth in human population and general human wealth in the last three centuries. Today more CO2 than ever before exists in our skies, and its excess in our atmosphere poses an ever-present threat to our ever-growing population. But what if all that carbon in the atmosphere didn’t have to be a threat? What if all that carbon in the atmosphere…could be another resource?

When fossil fuels are formed, they are mostly deposits from prehistoric algae. Today, many kinds of algae excel at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere, are edible,  and can be farmed in the open ocean. Additionally, algae can even pull agricultural pollutants out of the water, turning various forms of waste into either an edible and nutritious food source or an abundant source of biofuel.

By hosting algae farms, especially in areas where agricultural runoff is common, seasteads have a viable way to create food not only for their own populations but also for people everywhere on earth, all while reducing CO2 in the atmosphere and pollution in the water. By using these many different species of plant in ocean farms, seasteads can clean our atmosphere while creating a crop that is an ingredient in many day-to-day products.

Moral Imperative #2- Live in Balance with Nature

As previously mentioned, seasteads are designed to be very sustainable. This design goes far beyond algae. According to Rutger De Graff, an Engineer from the Dutch Engineering Company DeltaSync, housing on seasteads will be able to pull energy for heating and cooling directly from the water. In DelatSync’s calculations, the amount of energy needed to warm or cool these on-the-water structures will result in a CO2 reduction of 60% compared to structures on land.

Seasteads are also designed to have a symbiosis with modern cityscapes, harvesting waste and runoff from cities for farms, while providing food and energy back to the city. Instead of cities dumping massive amounts of pollutants and waste into the ocean, seasteads can become filters for cities, and transform harmful materials into constructive resources.

Moral Imperative #3- Power the World

While powering the world with biofuel from algae is a viable option for seasteads, there are even more ways for seasteads to produce energy. A form of energy harvesting known as Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion or “OTEC” works similarly to Geothermal energy, but instead of harvesting heat energy from land, it harvests the energy within the ocean. Energy by OTEC is both clean and renewable, and a single OTEC station can generate enough power to replace 1.3 million barrels of oil.

There are already many variants of windmills on the open ocean, and offshore wind energy remains as a third viable form of clean, renewable and productive energy which seasteads can use. With options such as biofuel, wind, and ocean-thermal, seasteads are sitting or, rather, floating, on a practical gold mine.

Conclusion

Seasteading represents an excellent solution for many of humanity’s most difficult problems. With access to greater freedom on the open ocean and symbiosis with the waste of cities, seasteads offer an amazing step forward for humanity. They can create jobs, homes, and industries all from the sea.

If you’d like to learn more about the project, you can check out a speech by the president of the seasteading institute here, or you can support them with donations or merchandise here.

Thanks for reading, and stay green!

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