7.8 Building New Environments

Much has already been said here and elsewhere about the pressures of unrestrained population growth. Those who find unpleasant the suggestion that longer life will imply enforced birth control and various other practices will want instead to expand the available physical space for human life. Even the present world population is having difficulty finding places to live. For example, as countries industrialize they experience the phenomenon of urban expansion. In already heavily populated nations, the growth of a handful of urban centres can be very dramatic, and several more such megalopoli in the developing nations could reach 20 to 30 million in a few years at the current pace. Many of the newcomers are housed in shacks precariously perched on sewage-filled mud or on unstable hillsides. There are no paved streets, lights, running water, official police services, fire departments, or building codes. Yet the slums and barrios of dozens of cities grow by thousands of immigrants from the countryside every day, with no end and little immediate hope in sight. Under such circumstances, the state can easily loose control to anarchy. Criminal elements tend to step in and to become a de facto government. This can be clearly seen in a number of third world countries today, and there is no reason to suppose that the urbanization giving rise to these problems will slow in the foreseeable future.

Nearly the opposite is taking place in cities of the already industrialized nations as they move beyond industrialism to the next stage of civilization. Large old cities--especially industry centres--have lost population in two waves of out-migration. One is the continuing exodus to the lawns, gardens, and golf courses of suburbia. This shift forces relocation of schools, shopping, and some offices as well as the costly extension of transit lines. In this kind of move, people at least remain in the broad surrounds of their original cities. It does cause jurisdictional problems and tends to harm the city core, which is often left with the lowest socioeconomic group, a declining tax base, and neighbourhoods impoverished to the point of destitution. Meanwhile, at the edges, such cities grow together with their neighbours in broad bands of alternating urban centres and suburbs. One can drive hundreds of miles through such areas on the Eastern seaboard of the United States, and a similar situation is developing around the central Great Lakes, in Florida, and in California.

However, other cities, notably in the Midwest, have lost net population to the South and Southwest or to smaller urban centres at some distance from the major cities. In these cases, the central city suffers all the problems mentioned above, and the urban region as a whole cannot compensate economically, for the population has moved too far away.

The net result of these two migrations could be a spreading out of North American population over a much larger percentage of available land, and a dramatic lessening of crowding in large city centres. Suburban areas and new cities gradually develop centres of their own, but these are smaller and somewhat less concentrated than those of the older cities. Better communication and transportation systems and relocation of factory work, once only located near resources or shipping, all contribute to this migration. There are fewer reasons every year for information workers to locate at traditional city centres, and so they move. As communications improve, working out of one's living space becomes more and more feasible, and attachment to cities may lessen further.

Meanwhile, the cities affected by migration from the core see large tracts of former housing and industrial land becoming surplus, and some try to renew and attract counter-migration by making their cores attractive places to live, shop, play, or tour--even when the people work elsewhere, and especially when they work at home. If some people work where they live, perhaps others can be induced to live where they work. To achieve this, it may be that some present office buildings would become a mixture of offices and apartments. Certainly, new construction and renovation at the core of older cities would have to be radically different in order to make them attractive places once more.

Improved transportation of both short- and long- range types helps to allow such changes and is also driven by them. New technologies for reducing airport congestion and improving takeoff and landing efficiencies are a high priority, for example. Another priority (in North America) is improved high-speed ground transportation technologies for commuters in order to relieve the traffic jams in such cities as Los Angeles and Chicago. At the same time, it will become critical to devise strategies to lessen the impact of the loss of industrial tax base at the city core and to alleviate conditions for those left behind in poverty, with no hope of obtaining jobs or of migrating to places where their prospects might be better. That is, whatever one's ethical framework, there are a large number of factors that have to be traded off and prioritized, and the task is far from simple.

At the same time, new building technologies and a new respect for arable land are driving development in places once considered inhospitable. For instance, mountain sides cannot be cultivated but they can be lived on or in, and an underground house can have many floors, with a large lawn and garden on the roof. Building technology is becoming more and more effective at sealing off living space users from hostile environments. It is now feasible to live comfortably in deserts, on infertile land, or in some of the earth's coldest regions--if population pressure demands. There are vast empty lands in the Canadian north, the Australian interior, and the African and Asian deserts, as well as in mountainous regions in all parts of the world. It may be desirable to cover, heat, live in, and grow food on the Arctic tundra. It may be desirable, say, to run a pipeline from the mouth of the Amazon through the Atlantic and bring abundant water to the Sahara desert. It might become practical to roof over a valley in the Canadian Rockies and build a large city underneath. When population pressures are great enough, technology often can be found to respond to produce new living space--yet another example of the need to find technological solutions to problems caused in part by technology. That is, the doomsday forecast by Malthus may be postponed by the development of still more technique, though it cannot be put off indefinitely if the population continues to rise.

It ought also to be noted that new technology may be required to develop new living space to replace that which has been rendered unusable by older technologies. Even assuming that nuclear war is never the cause of such problems, people may be driven underground by cosmic radiation if, as some suggest, the ozone layer of the atmosphere is any further depleted by the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other pollutants. On a less global scale, overfishing and pollution may force the inhabitants of fishing communities to relocate and take up different work. The same thing happens when acid rain defoliates a commercial forest or cropland. In each case, jobs, people, the environment, and politics play out an intricate dance of interlocking responsibilities and duties complex enough to deeply engage the most sophisticated of ethicists.

Perhaps the ultimate in environmental technology would be the ability not just to predict but to manage the weather. Though often wished for and frequently assumed by science fiction writers, this goal has proven elusive, and there is little immediate prospect of much progress toward it. There has not even been agreement on whether the climate is warming or cooling, what the major factors in such changes are, whether human activities have had a great effect, or if there are long term cycles over which little control can be exercised. There is presently a warming trend, and sea levels are rising. Some call this the greenhouse effect and pin the blame entirely on carbon dioxide pollution; others cite sunspot cycles and assert that major climate changes are caused by forces far larger than anything humans have yet deployed. Whether these are short term fluctuations, and whether anything can or ought to be done about them is not known. There is always the possibility that any large-scale attempts to change global climate will make things worse. When a complex dynamic system is ill understood, it is perilous to make dramatic changes to any part. On the other hand, some argue that the industrial society has already made just such major changes, and that these must be reversed before it is too late.

On another note, there may be modest efforts made to establish living places underwater and even off the planet. The former could substantially increase the size of livable areas even in the short run; the latter would have little immediate impact but possibly a dramatic long-term effect. Some suggest that if the mining of raw supplies from the moon and asteroids can ever be done economically and space or moon-based manufacturing becomes feasible, there could be a third industrial revolution that transfers a substantial percentage of human resources and a sizeable population off the planet entirely. Since some manufacturing has already been done in space, it could be argued that this new industrial revolution has already begun. Optimists suggest that facilities in orbit, on the moon, and on various asteroids or artificial planetoids would in all likelihood make the earth a wealthier and more livable place. At the same time, a new frontier of indefinite size would be created and another age of expansion begun. At some point in the distant future, some suggest the earth might hold only half the inhabitants of the entire solar system, and that long before that stage is reached there may well be attempts to reach others. The colonization of space has an important side effect. Once self-sufficient communities exist off the planet, it will no longer be easy to destroy the whole human race in a nuclear war--even if the earth itself becomes uninhabitable. Whether this factor would make war more or less probable is impossible to guess.

On the other hand, more pessimistic voices point out the high cost of doing anything in space, and demand that the money instead be used to improve conditions here on earth. Others don't want space to be used at all, reasoning it will only be exploited as the earth has been. Still others point out there would be little need for a substantial population to leave Earth, as (presumably) automated factories located there would need few human workers to staff them in any case. This illustrates an interesting point--in the long run, profitability will drive all but the most modest of space exploration and colonization. If there are no tangible benefits, the lure of science alone cannot indefinitely sustain the kind of expenditures necessary for such adventures. What is more, the prohibitive cost makes it infeasible to move any significant percentage of Earth's people out of its deep gravity well. The only way large numbers will populate extraterrestrial regions is to be born there.

Back on earth itself there probably will be advances in genetic engineering and other techniques that improve the ability to feed and clothe a larger population. Other applications of the same techniques have the potential to trigger dramatic changes in living space as well. For example, instead of planting trees, fertilizing them, thinning them, and then cutting them down after fifty years to build houses, it would be much simpler to develop genetically modified trees so that they would grow directly into living spaces. Perhaps various species could be grown as specific types of rooms that could be harvested and joined together in modules to make complete houses.

If that proves too ambitious, there are far less spectacular ways to achieve manufacturing efficiency and modularity. One is by applying mass factory techniques to housing. This is now being done on a small scale, with encouraging results. Houses are built in pieces, trucked to the site, and assembled on a prepared foundation. Widespread use of such methods promises to improve quality, decrease building time, and dramatically lower costs. It would also cause many old trades and professions to vanish, and new ones to come into being. Far fewer blue collar workers would be needed to assemble a house in an even partially automated factory than on the site. On the other hand, there might be a need for used-room salesman and house junkyards. Certainly, these methods would lead to changes in the way people live; tract row houses of older subdivisions would give way to more customized homes on rugged terrain. New transportation and communication methods would be required as well, and all of these would change the physical surroundings--the space part of the biospace.

For the technology in the home itself, there is already a substantial automating trend. This trend can be expected to continue, at least for those homes that "must" have the latest machines. In time, refrigerators, ovens, home heating systems, lighting, and even the distribution of electricity will be microprocessor controlled as part of the invisible infrastructure. One technology with promise is the so-called smart electrical system, wherein outlets for appliances, and telephones for both high and low voltage use are all identical, but power is delivered only as requested by a "smart house" client device plugged in to one of the outlets. This system eliminates shock, short circuits, and multiple hardware and wiring types and is programmable to improve its utility. To some extent, houses may well look very much like they do today, for there are few floor plan styles available that were not four decades ago, and taste in such things tends to repeat cyclically in a manner similar to clothing styles. However, any increase in the number of people working out of their homes would cause a shift to a more functional residential architecture. When both husband and wife were working away from the home, it could be more decorative than functional. If one or both use it as an office, it must have appropriate facilities for work and not just for play. Formal living and dining rooms may tend to be deprecated, and the minuscule dens now included in new construction may grow into useful offices, perhaps with separate entrances. There is no reason other than zoning bylaws and personal preference why most professions--and these are the model for future work--cannot be practised from the home office.

Another new technology with domestic implications is the use of broadcast energy, such as electromagnetic radiation, to provide operating power directly (no plug) to small appliances such as televisions, radios, and computing devices. Very low power chips are now being manufactured, and prototypes of such devices have been shown. Whether the necessary electricity will be converted from power broadcast here on earth or from stations established in near orbit remains to be seen; the present experimental devices use the radio waves already available. In the home, this technology would reduce consumption of power transmitted by wires, but away from it such devices would be even more important, for they would make many appliances truly portable, with no need for batteries. The most important effect, however, would be the elimination of overhead or underground power servicing, an enormous reduction in costly infrastructure required by industrial age housing. Removal of this requirement would also lessen the need for houses to be clustered in urban subdivisions, further reducing the need for cities in the information society. What would be the health implications of using broadcast power is unknown; there are those who claim deleterious effects from levels already present in radio, television, and cellphone transmission.

Other technologies not yet guessed at will subsume some of the ones discussed here or render them irrelevant before they develop. It is difficult to see exactly how market forces will drive them, but it is worth observing that population pressures are pressing. Such pressures in the past have only been reduced in a limited number of ways. Three of the oldest ones are war, which today could destroy the whole earth; famine, which might be eliminated with international cooperation; and plague, which it is hoped will be eliminated altogether. Other ways are wholesale abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and genocide, all of which are at worst abhorrent or at best problematical. Another way is birth control, but society may well hesitate at making this compulsory. The last method is to continuously expand the available living space by creating new frontiers and new livable areas in the old living spaces.

Of these options, most are unacceptable in any global strategy with a claim to an ethical base or are unenforceable even by the most totalitarian of governments. Only the methods of expanding living space seem workable in the medium term, and even these will generate new problems that cannot now be foreseen. However, increasing living space might postpone some of the harsher alternatives and the need for the less desirable forms of population control. New living space and the technology to achieve it and use it effectively may also bring other important benefits. The very existence of new frontiers could provide a refreshment and revitalization, new kinds of innovation, and an outlet for the creative and restless. It might also help prevent stagnation in a dreary status quo, because it would provide for fresh starts, new opportunities, and a place for youth and enthusiasm--all of which are in jeopardy if the future were to hold only a stable population of gradually increasing life span. Moreover, it would postpone, perhaps forever, Ellul's amorphous totalitarianism of maximal technique, for it would ensure that expansion and change were the prevailing models rather than efficiency alone.

It is important to realize, however, that deployment of new technologies for the creation and improvement of human living space has an effect on the earth as a whole. Animal species are displaced or extinguished, natural vegetation is destroyed, soils are paved over and made forever useless, and the climate itself is altered. For example, it was once conventional wisdom that large hydroelectric power dams were an unmixed blessing for the state that built them. They would improve living conditions for ordinary people, attract industry, and provide much-needed downstream benefits in the form of flood control. However, in some cases where large areas were flooded, the lack of downstream overflow reduced fertility and increased salinity, industry still found conditions unattractive, and silt buildup behind the dam ensured that it would have a very short life. The High Aswan dam built by Egypt with Russian help has all these problems and is also contributing to the reduction in size of the Nile delta, the fertile bread basket of that nation.

In the future, it will become more important at all times to consider long-term environmental effects of building large housing projects, converting land to other uses, or constructing massive utilities. There will be more people to accommodate, but there will also be more at risk when things go wrong. Moreover, advances in habitat technology in the affluent West will not go unnoticed in the rest of the world as it struggles with the older problems of wide-scale poverty and continuing urbanization. In an effort to catch up, there will be pressure to take short-cuts--parks and wildlife preserves could be threatened, and the very magnitude of short-term people problems will ensure that long-term considerations are de-emphasized. While it will always be impossible for the West to solve the people problems of the third world by donating money (because such difficulties are cultural and relate to a state of civilization), it may be possible to assist in the financing of park and wildlife preservation until such time as the industrializing nations can afford or are ready to use other help. Whether such a global view of the environment will ever be politically feasible in the West is another matter, but highly targeted aid of this type at least has a higher probability of accomplishing its goals than do unspecified handouts of money.

These and other considerations lead once more to the observation that new civilizations are both enabled by and subsequently demand new techniques, even while the new techniques bring mixed blessings. They have great potential for raising the standard of living and human comfort, but an equal potential for causing long-term deleterious effects. The challenge is to achieve the benefits and plan to minimize the harm. Such planning has not always been done in the past, but it cannot be done without in the future.

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises