Friday, February 22, 2008

Polar Cities—Friday Feature

In The Revenge of Gaia (2006), James Lovelock describes a dark future when heating suddenly escalates because of positive feedback. Says reviewer, Richard Mabey of the Times: “At the current rate, global temperatures will rise by nearly three degrees in the next 50 years. At this point, the rainforests begin to die, releasing vast new amounts of carbon dioxide. Algae fail in the ocean and stop generating cooling clouds and absorbing carbon. The Greenland glacier goes into meltdown, releasing enough water to flood many of the world’s cities. Crop failures, human migrations, the emergence of “brutal war-lords” follow. We know the story, but not in our “real world” minds. Global heating is not yet part of our collective unconscious in the way the bomb was.” At some point in his dissertation, Lovelock describes the ragtag journey to and survival of a few humans in the Arctic, the last hospitable place on the planet.

But, as they make their journey there, what do they see? Clusters of modular Polar Cities, designed for this very catastrophe, nestled in the natural fabric of the arctic’s environment. Someone was prepared!

For my Friday Feature, I explore the concept of “Polar Cities” with Dan Bloom, founder of Polar Cities Research Institute. In January, 2008, Bloom’s assembled a team of architects, civil engineers, industrial engineers, urban planners and scientists set up the Model Polar City Project to design and build a model polar city. The city will be built in Longyearbyen, Norway, in 2012 (interesting choice of year; see my previous post) and will be ready for its first volunteer residents by 2015. The project will house up to 100 volunteer residents with the ability to expand.

Bloom lives in Taiwan, where he teaches English and has served as a reporter, editor and author. He credits his idea for polar cities on the writings of James Lovelock, who claimed that global heating was likely to produce an apocalyptic six-degree C. rise in the global average temperature before the end of the century. “Life goes on as usual here in Taiwan,” Bloom contends. “No one is doing anything and they don’t want to talk about it.” Fired with a mission to educate at the least and prepare us at the most, Bloom assembled his team and began to design in earnest, commissioning some interesting illustrations of various aspects such as living quarters, recreational centre, eateries, etc., pictured throughout this post.

Bloom was lately featured in Gizmodo, one of the top 10 blogs (by Technorati authority), who called Bloom a “visionary futurist” then went on to say that it all sounded a little Dr. Evil or just plain far-fetched. Polar cities is an idea many climate change experts refuse to consider, saying that to imagine such a future was not productive when humanity needs to focus on “how the world can drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Bloom insists that he is not a doomsayer or a gloom-and-doom survivalist, but rather “an eternal optimist who cares about the future of humankind.” Bloom confided in Stephen Leahy at IPSNews that “I’m going to spend the last years of my life pushing this idea of polar cities to wake people up. I don’t care if people call me crazy.”

One of those people might be Franklyn Griffiths, Professor Emeritus of Political Science and George Ignatieff Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto. Referring to Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia (2006), Griffiths laments the use of clever technology and new-science to solve global warming without an associated paradigm change: “To think of [preserving] civilization [as we know it] in the Arctic is to have learned nothing. It is to dwell on hard science when it is humanity, its practices, and how to alter them that should have first claim on our attention. The new prevailing narrative ought to be one … in which we treat nature with renewed respect and, in so doing, see whether we might reinvent what it means to be civilized.”

Bloom wasn’t the first person to conceive of polar cities. In January 25, 1959 the Chicago Tribune ran this picture of the “Polar City of the Future” as part of the Closer Than We Think! Series. Said the Tribune: “…How would isolated polar cities ringed by icebergs and mountains be supplied? Our armed forces have a solution—the dirigible. Recently the Navy told how its blimp Z PG-2 successfully flew food and other supplies to an ice island team of scientists only 500 miles from the North Pole.” Now this is the stuff of good old fashioned science fiction! I noticed that the next installment in the series was entitled: “electronic home library”


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Gaia? That's a sinister name!!!

sfgirl said...

Ah.... only in my book, Jean-Luc! Gaia is also the name of the Greek goddess of the Earth, who was the foundation of the gods of Olympus. In Darwin's Paradox, Gaia thought of herself this way but... well... you and I both know that no one else did.

dan said...

Thanks for a great write-up about the polar cities project, you covered it well, both pro and con, and in between, and as I've said many times before, this entire idea is just mere speculation, not a prediction. But it might be a good idea to "be prepared", if only in our minds. Maybe also with some test model polar cities to let humanity get used the idea.

Some observers have called my gadfly idea something like ["Mad Max" meets "The Road"], and others have liked our designs to a Gerbil City with Habitrail images of plastic tubes for gerbils and hamsters. Humor is important here, too, and we need all the humor in this debate we can get.

I've read some articles by Franlynn Griffiths, particularly a very good piece he wrote in "Canoe" magazine last fall, a must-read, I feel. I wrote to him about my polar cities ideas after reading his Canoe article, but he either never received my emails and did not have time to reply.

As for the word Gaia, yes, that is just an old Greek word for Earth, and Dr Lovelock made it popular by naming his theory about the Earth's climate systems with this term. By the way, I heard from Dr Lovelock last month about polar cities. I wrote to him by email, after a long chase to find his address, which was finally supplied by the co-creator of the Gaia theory, Dr Lynn Margulis of UMASS in the USA, and Dr Lovelock saw my imgages posted here and wrote back: "Dear Danny, thanks for showing me the images. It may very well happen and soon!"

Stephen Leahy of IPS news service also did a good job of reporting the news of polar cities and his article has been translated into Spanish, French, Japanese and Korean.


What's most interesting, at this point, for me, is this: and you touched on it as well. The mainstream media (MSM), whatever that term means today, refuses to touch my story with a ten-foot pole; not one mainstream media outlet has dared report on the idea of polar cities, and I have a huge stack of rejection letters to show how they decline: "It's too scaremongering of an idea for the general public." Or: "If you get some PHDs or other top experts in the field to validate your ideas, we might report on it, but not until then." Or: if you can get Sir Richard Branson or Bill Gates to back your idea financially, we might report on it, but not until then." Or: "Your idea has no validity in today's world, and we cannot scare our readers with such gadfly ideas."

So the mainstream media will not be reporting on polar cities for a very long time, not even the Associated Press or Reuters news service or AFP or dpa or UPI. I don't know why. Afterall, I am not proposing the end of the world. It's just an idea, food for thought, something to think about.

If you want to read what many experts in the field have told me privately, you can read their remarks here. Names with-held, since they wrote to me in private emails and I follow Internet etiquette on matters like this:


I thank you for taking my "non-threatening thought experiment" for real and posting this very insightful blog on the story. While we need to talk about ways to stop global warming before it's get very bad, or before it's too late, as some say, we also need to address adaptation issues such as human habitats for survivors of global warming in the far distant future -- if it comes to that.

I hope we never need polar cities. I hope it never comes to that. But why not at least discuss the topic, and maybe even plan, design, site and even prebuild some model polar cities, just to prepare ourselves for the future.

Or, as my most vocal critics have said, in the mainstream media that is, this is a good theme for a science fiction novel and Hollywood screenplay. Maybe that's where polar cities will arise, in fiction and film.

That's okay. I am just exploring our options. But basically, I am with Dr Lovelock here; I do feel humankind is a big big trouble with our "burn! slash! consume!" lifestyle and if Mark Lynas and George Monbiot and James Howard Kunstler are right, our goose may be cooked.

If I knew how to write science fiction, I would write a book about polar city life in the year 2500 AD, but I don't know how to write novels. So I remain a mere public relations consultant on the issue.

I like to say: "It's getting later, earlier and earlier." If mitigation and techno fixes don't stop global warming, we may very well need some kind of "human population retreats" in Alaska, Canada, Russia, Norway, etc -- not at the pole exactly, but along the Arctic Circle dotted line -- maybe in Juneau or Fairbanks, Churchill and Yellowknife and Whitehorse and Ellesmere Island --

O, I don't know. I can't wait to read a good sci fi book about polar cities someday! Actually, a bloke in the UK named Noel Hodson has already written a book about this, in a way, it's titled "2515: After Global Warming" and it was recently reviewed by a top sci fi writer in the UK.

My guess is that some sci fi writers are right now working on books with such themes right now, and while they might not call the "retreats" as "polar cities", the novels will shed light on the future.

-- Danny

dan said...

By the way, just this moment, got an email from a reporter at the Kansas City Star newspaper, who saw your blog post and wrote to me:

"Dan, what an interesting idea. If I was a real estate speculator and
actually had the money. . .! Hope you don't mind if I
keep your email, in case we visit this idea in a future story."

Mainstream media alert!

Oh, and here is the blog that calls polar cities GERBIL CITY:

dan said...

A friend in Florida write today, after reading this: "I thought of something - Toronto will be the Miami of the Polar world!"

Anonymous said...

The Franklynn Griffiths article was in the WALRUS magazine, not canoe. Citation here.

Camels in the Arctic?
« page 1 of 11 »
Climate change as the Inuit see it: “From the inside out”

by Franklyn Griffiths
Published in the November 2007:
The Arctic issue

dan said...

The Doomsday vault in Norway offers some interesting views too:

it will open on Feb. 26 !

Drowsey Monkey said...

This post is one of the reasons why I love coming here! Fascinating!

sfgirl said...

Thanks for your response and information, Dan!

Oh, thanks too, Anonymous, for providing the citation for Griffiths's article (which I have linked to in my post, by the way). At the very least, what Dan and we are doing is getting the word out and forcing people to think about global warming and its consequences in a very real way. Discussion has to happen before action. Most of us operate on inertia...

Hey, Drowsey! Nice to see you here again! I will post the meme you tagged me with soon. I love those kind of memes!

dan said...

A struggling sci fi writer in Scotland tells me:

"Wow, thanks for all these images and resources! This is great material I haven't seen anywhere else before.

And "terriblisma" — what a wonderful word!

As for the polar city, it's a brilliant idea, particularly if it's combined with this project of preserving biodiversity by collecting samples of everything available now — a seed version of Noah's Ark! I can understand why people might be reticent to take up the idea: they're still putting their fingers in their ears and humming "La la la", because they want to pretend that life is going to continue unchanged, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. I suppose the notion of giving up “home” for an unknown environment is frightening to most of us, too.

As an obscure author, I can relate to the frustration of struggling to draw attention to your work, but kudos to you for continuing. Myself, I’m close to finishing this book I’m writing, and I’ll be interested to see what kind of reception it receives."

Thanks again for pointing me to these thought-provoking ideas and illustrations. Now I’m heading out to outline Chapter 14...


- Hamish MacDonald

dan said...


Just to show you how some media reporters react to this polar cities idea...

A reporter for Reuters emails me today, rejection letter:

"Thanks for the mails and for all the interesting updates about
your "polar cities" concept -- one of my colleagues is up in svalbard norway today
looking at the seed vault that will open tomorrow.

Sorry but ... I'm not sold on the idea of the polar
cities as story for us: I feel it would have to get beyond speculation
(even with Lovelock's blessing and comment)...if you had some funding for the idea,
i.e. from a top research organisation or government agency, to promote
"polar cities" as an educational tool to shock the world into action,
etc, it would help make it into a good news story. But for now, I must pass. Good luck with it."

Anonymous said...

A reader tells me today:

"Interesting idea: While more conservative groups are po-pooing the idea of global
warming - the militaries of the world are coming up with plans to control the flood of refugees from heat devastated countries into better areas- especially africa in Europe."

dan said...

Another blogger tells me:

"How about this as an x-files level expose: Secret black ops buying up land to create secure bases in future polar nations
or: Canadian sovereignty subverted by CIA plan to invade Canadian territory."

dan said...

An architect in NYC tells me today:

"Hey Dan,
...yes, I had seen your idea of polar cities - very provocative! I think they do get people's attention and I've seen them mentioned in many places.

I'm an architect actually and my only concern with your polar cities drawings so far conceptually is that they seem to be designed more for the inhospitable climate the poles are now.

In the future they will be more like Vermont or Montana - I don't think they'll need to be "self-contained".

I think they will need to be self-sustaining though.....perhaps like what McDonough is trying to do in China: McD

But I applaud your thoughtfulness and creativity in the Polar Cities - it is great work."

dan said...


word travels fast:

"I am not an expert in
house design and therefore cannot provide professional comments about the polar city images. However, I do think it is fantastic that someone is starting to think about the
future with different kinds of scenarios. The news about global warming is
forcing us to explore new
possibilities," says Dr. Huang-Hsiung Hsu in the
Department of Atmospheric Sciences
at National Taiwan University.

dan said...


Now I find this online:

A thinker in Germany, from USA, named Clinton Callhan, is talking about the same thing as our polar cities idea, but in a different prose:

"Build an Ark: This is the strategy of a small minority, relying on alternative sources of information, who realize that the entire system of industrial civilization is inherently unsustainable. Of these people, most will simply watch helplessly and cynically as the world disintegrates. Only a small subset of this already marginal group will take total personal responsibility for having caused the present conditions in the first place, and will then Just Stop creating them. Out of the ashes of their lives, they will gather in small sustainable social systems beyond the reach of globalization and create parallel culture "lifeboats," the "arks."



Anonymous said...

oh dear, Nina,

did you see JAmes Lovelock new interview today in Guardian, google it link here:

very very ouch!

he is writing new book.

sfgirl said...

No, I'll have to read it. Thanks! Meantime, have you seen the latest article on Polar cities in the New York Times? Here:

dan said...

Yes, the New York Times blogged on polar cities today, Andrew Revkin did a nice intro with graphics. Should be interersting to see the feedback later....

Your initial blog about polar cities helped set the stage for the New York Times picking up the story, so thanks. The blogosphere has legs...