In anticipation of Triple Canopy’s MD/NY events tomorrow (October 26th) and November 23rd, be sure to read Peter Fend’s exciting essay “This Can Happen Now”, which was previously published by the organization in May. Fend proposes to make an island off the coast of Somalia called Socotra into a “model of ecological development—beyond petroleum, beyond nuclear, beyond industrial farms, and full of healthy savage beasts.”
Societies today depend on hydrocarbons—mostly coal, oil, and gas, which are becoming harder and more costly to extract. Energy companies want to extract all that can be found, whether from the Arctic, or tar sands, or deep offshore, or shale. They want to do this regardless of the fact that using fossil reserves causes global warming. But there are also renewable hydrocarbons, from living sources.
Off the coast of Somalia sits an island called Socotra, populated by 40,000 people and strange, beautiful plants and animals that exist nowhere else on earth. A territory of Yemen, Socotra was once the location of a Russian naval base, and now a US air base. In recent years, Socotra has become dangerous to approach by sea due to pirates. My proposal is to make Socotra into a model of ecological development—beyond petroleum, beyond nuclear, beyond industrial farms, and full of healthy savage beasts.
In Socotra, biological fuel, and then hydrocarbons, could be generated using the renewable resource of marine algae. Socotra receives a constant stream of cold, nutrient-rich water from Antarctic upwellings.
Additionally, the island is near the equator, and so the sun shines brightly almost every day. This combination yields unending bioproductivity. Fish thrive. Shellfish, on rocks and in pools, thrive. Birds thrive. So does seaweed—a variety of bladder kelp that normally can be found only in the polar and temperate waters of the Southern Hemisphere. The algae’s bladders float near the surface of the water; due to the sunshine, the bladders build tissue, and thus produce carbon, doing so at a faster rate than any other plant on earth.
I first recognized the potential of Socotra in 2010, while explaining an Antarctica-centered map of the world to someone in a newsroom in New Zealand. Given Socotra’s position on the globe, I could tell that its environment was ideal, and that its remoteness would enable its entire energy economy to become local, including its auto-fuel market. This island can change the game.
I am one of five stakeholders in Ocean Earth, a company registered in the US and New Zealand that has been researching new environmental technologies for decades. I propose that Ocean Earth stakeholders go to Socotra, in coordination
with ecological scientists, in order to build a hydrocarbon economy based not on petroleum but on biofuel—and not on any biofuel, but on biomethane. We could be the first to establish a methane economy. Moreover, Socotra could become the world’s first biology economy. The methane would come from seaweed and other biomass, not from fossil reserves. Because it has very few roads, very few inhabitants, very few cities (or villages), and a very rich biological base, Socotra could achieve market saturation, which is necessary for a successful conversion from fossil fuel to biofuel. One hundred percent of the vehicles, homes, and even aircraft could run on methane.
I founded Ocean Earth in 1980. Coleen Fitzgibbon joined me, and soon after so did Eve Vaterlaus, Wolfgang Staehle, Paul Sharits, Taro Suzuki, Bill Dolson, Joan Waltemath, and Jonathan Crary. Sharits, Fitzgibbon, and I decided to begin with satellite monitoring of global hot spots. We considered satellite observation a form of civil defense, or “Space Force,” a “well-regulated militia” alerting the public to dangers. In the next decade, major contributions came from Dolson, Staehle, and two newcomers, Ingo Guenther and Sante Scardillo. We began working primarily in Europe, where the firm could act on its New York corporate charter to produce and sell “media services“ (such as satellite imaging for mass media) and “architectural components” (such as earthworks, megastructures, and lightweight-architecture elements for eco-efficient cities).
Following many battles with government authorities, the company was re-formed in 1994 as Ocean Earth Development Corporation. In 2008, it was turned into a firm consisting of five director-stakeholders: myself, artist Eve Vaterlaus, and architects Kevin Gannon, Heidi Mardon, and Catherine Griffiths. Along with Bernie Dent, I am also the principal stakeholder in a subsidiary organization, Ocean Earth NZ Limited. The offshore techniques described in this proposal were developed by Griffiths, Vaterlaus, and Mardon, who in 1994 secured a site in New Zealand where we could implement our work with bladder kelp, which was the reason for Ocean Earth’s incorporation in that country. When I was invited to exhibit in New Zealand in 2008, I turned the occasion into a three-year collaboration with Mardon and others. We acquired substantial hands-on experience in growing and harvesting algae.
The goals of Ocean Earth are a revival of those defined by Leon Battista Alberti in his Ten Books on Architecture (1452).
(1) Clean air: hence, biomethane as the main fuel.
(2) Living waters: hence, structures to restore rivers and streams.
(3) Circulatory space: hence, buildings, pipes, and roads that interfere little with the native animals and plants, while allowing access.
(4) Defense: hence, gathering knowledge of incoming threats through the use of satellites.
We discovered Alberti more than one decade after Ocean Earth was formed, but all along, the company was addressing all four goals of architecture as Alberti defined them—what architects are supposed to do, but generally don’t at all. And these goals can now be pursued on the island of Socotra.