If you want to make the world a more sustainable place look no further than the Venus Project, a technology-based Utopia that for two decades has been proposing a radical overhaul to the way we think about the future. Does today’s technology take the dream any closer to reality?
Brainchild of engineer and futurist Jacque Fresco, the Venus Project has some radical ideas about how to make the world a better place. Its ideas are familiar: they should be, it’s been around for two decades now. Getting rid of jobs, the monetary system and governments is a major part of the plan for overhauling our social systems. It’s the sort of thing that the self-styled neo-revolutionary Russell Brand tweets about as if he invented it, and it’s all very trendy. But as technology advances, we’re starting to see that some of the original proposals dreamed up by Fresco might not have been as far-fetched as was once thought. Maybe it’s time for a reappraisal.
In order to change how we live, the project has some interesting proposals around housing, transport and energy that would have to come first to enable that societal transformation, while also making how we live more environmentally sustainable. Called a ‘Resource-Based Economy’, the project’s ideas for transforming society would mean a complete mindset revolution the whole world over, How likely it is that we would ever see such fundamental change is open to debate. But the ideas it has around renewable energy generation, sustainable housing and emission-free transport seem, on the surface, to be more feasible. Is that the case, however, when you look a bit closer?
Part of the move to this new world order involves demolishing the homes, villages, towns and cities that we already have and building new circular cities. For those of us that don’t want to live in these cities there are stand-alone modular homes that can be easily built anywhere, even on the sea, and will be completely self-sustaining.
Jenny Pickerill, Professor of Environmental Geography at Sheffield University, author of the ‘Green Building Blog’, editor of Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography and chair of the Participatory Geographies Research Group, points out that while some of the building ideas themselves are feasible and viable with the technologies we already have, the project is not taking into account the human attachment factor: “It argues that cities would have to be built anew, and old cities levelled. I doubt society would choose this option. Even when cities encounter major periods of decline, such as Detroit, people remain and still care about them. This project ignores the depth of feeling people have towards their cultural and architectural heritage.”
But that aside, are the ideas the Venus Project is putting forward for alternative housing a good solution? The proposed modular homes would be self-contained residences with their own thermal generators and heat concentrators that have photovoltaic arrays built into the skin of the building and into the windows themselves. This design would apparently supply more energy than the house would need to run.
The buildings would be prefabricated from a new type of pre-stressed, reinforced concrete covered in a flexible ceramic external coating that would be relatively maintenance free, fireproof, impervious to the weather and capable of withstanding earthquakes and hurricanes with very little damage. Seems like it really would be the ideal home, but is it realistic?
Pickerill says: “Self-contained homes autonomous in terms of generating and collecting all the energy needed are already possible with the technology we have today. The Venus Project talks of using thermal generators, heat concentrators and photovoltaic arrays but the problem I see is the lack of consideration of place; or rather how renewable energy sources vary so widely across place.”
Although a good idea in principle, albeit not a new one and not one unique to the Venus Project, has the project taken into account the various climates that people may want to build these modular homes in?
“While it is possible to build houses anywhere which generate their own energy, the way this is achieved will vary between, for example, the New Mexico desert and the hills of north Scotland,” says Pickerill. “Such climatic differences do not just require the use of different technologies, but that the structural house itself is altered. Houses in cold temperate climates need highly insulated walls, whereas those in tropical rainy climates might be structurally open to allow natural cross-ventilation. Furthermore, there is little discussion of water and sewerage provision. In other words, these designs are probably feasible, but would only work in a few places.”
The Venus Project begs to differ and claims that homes would be created by residents, according to their specifications, in an architectural design centre using 3D images projected into a hemisphere and incorporating computerised suggestions to optimise building performance. When the design for the location and requirements has been finalised, then the prefabricated construction begins. The best materials for energy efficiency would be computer selected and none of the architecture is permanent, so it can be adapted and updated as required. How this will be achieved has not yet been expanded on.
Pickerill questions the nature of the prefabrication and the materials used for these homes and how they tie into the project’s ideas about sustainability and resource management: “The idea that a generic eco-house design would be replicable across the whole world is doubtful,” she says. “The Venus project suggests that these houses would all be made of reinforced concrete with a flexible ceramic external coating. This is a robust material that could be quickly produced, but it is still likely to have a limited lifespan, all materials do. Relying on just one material to provide the structure, with no discussion of insulation or maintenance is questionable. Though I am sure that concrete would last longer than the 1970s fibreglass experiments in building dome housing, I am unsure how suitable it would be for all places and all climates.”
“Determining concrete as the sole building material also seems to contradict other elements of the Venus mission, which argue that resource availability would be determined by automated computers and sensors established worldwide. It cannot be assumed, then, that there would necessarily be enough calcium, silicon, aluminum, iron, limestone, shells, chalk, shale, clay, slate, blast furnace slag, silica sand, iron ore, aggregate, chemicals, and water available to make all houses from concrete. A resource-based economy would surely need houses built from whatever materials were most abundant in particular places.”
The major residential element that the Venus Project proposes though is that the vast majority of the world’s population would live in new pollution free, energy efficient and self-sustaining circular cities. It suggests building a research one first that at the heart will have a central dome housing the core of the cybernated decision-making system, educational facilities, communications, networking systems, health and child care facilities.
Surrounding this dome will be the cultural area where there’ll be galleries, theatres, exhibitions, concerts, and other forms of entertainment. Next is the design and development complex for this research and planning city. Then there are the eight residential districts, each with a range of unique modular homes in gardens, with privacy from neighbours provided by lush landscaping.
The next circle contains renewable clean sources of energy such as wind generators, solar heat concentrating systems, geothermal, photovoltaic and others. These are surrounded by the indoor hydroponic facilities and outdoor agricultural belts for growing organic food, which in turn are circled by a waterway system for irrigation and filtration. Finally, the last circle is where people can have fun: biking, golfing, hiking and riding, etc.
While it all sounds very nice, is it realistic that our densely populated cities could move to such a concept? Beyond the fact that we are all quite attached to the cities we have, with their unique personalities and charting of cultural history, there’s the amount of space that would be needed if each city was to give every family and single person a detached home, which is what seems to be suggested.
But if the project was to go ahead, these cities would remove the need for cars and buses to get around them and planes to connect them to each other.
In the Venus Project’s own words: “Transportation will be rapid, clean, silent, and safe. In the new cybernated cities, maglev transveyors will move horizontally, vertically, and circumferentially within and without. Over long distances, people can travel in trains inside tunnels. The trains could electrically repel air away from their surface, thereby diminishing skin resistance and permitting speeds up to three thousand miles an hour. This could replace most aircraft.”
You have to admit that it sounds like a science fiction story. But a version of the maglev train already exists in Japan. Test runs of this levitating train in late 2014, on a 42.8km route between the cities of Uenohara and Fuefuki, saw it reach speeds of 500km/h. It floats on an invisible cushion of repelling magnetic forces, which dramatically reduces friction and enables it to achieve such high speeds.
Permission has been granted to the Central Japan Railway Co. to build a maglev line between Tokyo and Nagoya. The new line is expected to be open and carrying passengers by 2027 and will cut the travel time between the two cities to just 40 minutes, from the 110 minutes the bullet train currently takes. But the magnetic track is going to cost an eye-watering £5 trillion, so not the kind of transportation project that many countries can afford to undertake. If the Venus Project’s dream of abolishing money comes to fruition though then it doesn’t have to be a stumbling block and we could have levitating maglev trains connecting the entire world.
Completely renewable energy
To make our cities, homes and transport sustainable the Venus Project has put forward a number of ideas for renewable energy generation, including solar, geothermal, underwater turbines and building a dam across the Bering Strait. But how realistic is it to completely end our reliance on fossil fuels with the technology we have in place today?
Professor Jim Watson, research director of the UK Energy Research Centre, says: “In principle it is possible to move to a largely fossil-fuel-free energy system in the medium to long term. But, to replace fossil fuels entirely with today’s renewable energy technologies would be difficult. This would not only mean generating all of our electricity from renewables, but also generating all of our heat and running our transport systems too. Perhaps just as important, more sustainable energy systems will need much more attention to the demand side, through radical improvements in energy efficiency. This will mean that less energy would be required to deliver the services people need.”
The underwater turbines proposal relies on converting part of the Gulf Stream. But as UK weather patterns have shown recently, its course can change dramatically. Despite this, Watson believes it has potential: “Tidal stream turbines are a viable technology in principle, but in common with many other wave and tidal technologies they are at a very early stage of development. Unlike some other renewables, they could generate electricity in a relatively predictable way. The UK has some very good tidal energy resources – for example in the English Channel. Harnessing significant amounts of energy from it would require significant advances in tidal stream technology and scaling up from the current trials to much larger arrays of turbines. It also assumes that the Gulf Stream remains in a relatively stable position, or that the generation technology (and cables) can be moved quickly and easily.”
A big question has to be whether the combination of energy generation tools that the project proposes are a realistic and workable option for making our societies emission-free and sustainable.
Watson says that in principle, they could be: “There are enough renewable energy resources to meet our needs if we can harness them. The suggested technologies could make a major contribution to this, but only in the medium to long term. The hope expressed in the Venus Project video that nuclear fusion could one day be the main source of energy is not new – fusion has been subject to well-funded international research programmes for over 50 years. However, estimates for the date at which it will be commercially viable have remained in the long-term future (around 30-50 years away, depending on who you ask) for a long time.”
Watson also raises questions of cost, which in today’s society we do of course have to consider, but not in the one that the Venus Project envisions. But beyond what it would cost, what about the idea of damming the Bering Strait? “This proposal is interesting, but is likely to be extremely controversial. I have no idea whether it would be technically feasible and it would be very risky to get a large proportion of our energy supplies from just one mega-project like this.” he says.
Back in the real world, Watson has seen some exciting developments around renewable energy. He notes the continuing dynamism of technologies like solar as photovoltaic costs fall,meaning that PV could play a much greater role than many people thought possible just a few years ago. “Of course, there is no guarantee that solar cost falls will continue or that solar will start to play such a significant role. In common with other new technologies, it is very unlikely to be the only solution to our energy challenges. But it is a good example of a low carbon technology that has developed very rapidly due to strong government support for markets in a large number of countries.”
The Venus Project accepts the premise that a sustainable renewable energy network has to come from more than one source. Currently, many of the technologies used to harness renewable energy sources also rely on using materials that are already becoming scarce. Which means we need progress in many areas before we can say we’ve nailed it, if we will ever be able to make that claim.
A sustainable future?
Does the Venus Project provide a sustainable future? As has long been discussed, it always comes back to the fact that sustainability has to come from societal changes not just energy generation sources. While the project has proposals for radical society reforms, it doesn’t appear to take into account individuality and human behaviour, nor to have sound structures in place for managing a cybernated society.
Despite its claims to the contrary, when you look what it proposes the term ‘utopia’ springs to mind. It’s worth remembering that the word isn’t a synonym of ‘paradise’ as so many think, but actually the Greek for ‘nowhere.’ And one person’s utopia could turn out to be dystopia for many others.