Hanna-Barbera released a cartoon in the 1970s called Sealab 2020. It imagined a world where scientists and technical experts studied ocean life, protect the environment and go on adventures. Undersea mining and oil drilling are shown in this future.

Skip forward a few decades, and SeaQuest DSV shows an even grander future under-the-sea. There are cities on the ocean floor under domes and in connected habitats, partially there due to population pressure. Floating sea farming platforms, undersea mining and research are all part of this world.

That potential future hasn’t quite come to pass. The whole thing is similar to the grand vision of flying on hoverboards a la Back to the Future deteriorating into an argument on what constitutes a hoverboard. The Maldives proudly announced that it opened the first underwater hotel residence in 2018. It only gets to claim the title of first by admitting it is a luxury facility, whereas long-standing locations like the Utter Inn Hotel in Sweden are far simpler. The Jules’ Undersea Lodge in Florida is similarly Spartan; the two bedroom retreat has showers, beds, a kitchen and food delivery. What we’re lacking is large-scale, permanent residences that have long been predicted but haven’t arrived. And I know why.

Humans are rather biased in favor of comfortable living arrangements. To paraphrase Thomas Sowell’s book Discrimination and Disparities, people prefer to live in temperate climates, near the ocean and where there is greater prosperity due to higher rates of cultural interchange. Areas near the sea with traditionally fertile land and in temperate areas account for 8% of our inhabited land area and 23% of its population. We’d rather be packed in like sardines in Houston or Hong Kong than live on rather along a depopulated Siberian coastline.

And that doesn’t even take into account the preference for breathing.

Shows like SeaQuest were right in that we’d be exploiting the ocean’s resources. Over-fishing is truly transforming the oceans into paradise for jellyfish. We are, slowly, correcting that. We’ve been drilling for oil off the coast for my entire lifetime, and we’re now deploying floating platforms the size of small cities. They float in mile deep water to harvest natural gas and oil often a mile deeper still. But they’re floating, because we have a bias for breathable air. The mobility of floating platforms, though, also helps explain their popularity.

It is interesting to see the evolution of a dream. While artificial islands have been created, whether with dredged up sand off Dubai or trash in Japan, we built more land instead of under the waves. Libertarians have thought about annexing an uninhabited island for years. Sealandia arguably became a minor war for a man-made one. Yet the recent incarnation is floating islands and massive city-ships like those proposed by the Seasteading Institute. That isn’t implausible when you realize how big the latest cruise ships are.

But none of these are proposals to build domes under the ocean. People are legitimately afraid of earthquakes, unexpected impacts with ships and attacks breaching that protective barrier, letting water flood in. Instead, you get underwater farming where the plants are kept in three to ten foot wide bubbles, visited by scuba divers who live on land. The main benefits here include scalability, low cost per item and portability.

What does all of this mean? We can expect to see more underwater hotels catering to tourists, but new development will be the lower-risk manufactured islands. Expect more trials with underwater farming where there is limited arable land in the surrounding area, but economics will favor water-sipping hydroponics like those the Israelis have pioneered. After all, it is easier to farm the desert with advancing technology and local farm labor than send scuba divers to tend exotic plants. And there’s a lot of desert we could develop that way without the risk or cost of underwater domes.

The biggest lesson we could draw from this can be applied off-world. We’re always going to be biased in favor of breathing. Don’t expect people to settle on alien ocean worlds when they’re reluctant to do so here – most won’t even go to Siberia where it is thawed out two months of the year, you can breathe, and warmer climates and big cities are a plane trip away.

For these reasons, I think we’ll see cities in Antarctica before we see cities on Mars… or under the sea.

*****

Photo by PublicDomainPictures (Pixabay)