Bucky’s dome spurred systems-based thinking about inputs, flows, and outputs. Authors Janette Kim and Erik Carver and their colleagues recognize the challenge of scaling up from closed-system scenarios to open systems that include political power as well as renewable power, social interactions as well as economic exchanges, mimetic implications as well as material transformations. Facing tension between local problem fixing and systemic ambition, the contributors grapple with it gamely—and shrewdly enough to recognize when the challenges cease to resemble a bounded game.
After provocative table-setting essays by the Underdome Sessions’ moderators, each section includes a set of agendas (brief, elegantly diagramed overviews of 48 site-specific actions, real or conjectural, capitalism-compliant or resistant, scaled from a “personal responsibility” children’s game up to geo-engineering), followed by panel transcripts. The book’s format is logically organized—but enough so, one wonders, to overcome an inherent vice of futurist manifestos, an internal coherence too tight to map real-world conditions purposefully?
Aware of that hazard, the moderator-essayists address questions of scale and network complexity early and frequently. Reinhold Martin’s “Power” introduction provides an essential backstory on the rise of the anthropogenic concept in the writings of biologist Eugene Stoermer and climatologists Paul Crutzen and Will Steffen, among others. Martin emphasizes that the planetary crisis reflects a convergence of multiple accelerating variables, not just the global temperature measurements of Michael Mann’s famous hockey-stick graph. Jonathan Massey on “Lifestyle” highlights the social transformations Fuller envisioned in the Dymaxion system—not just a prefab housing design, but a component of an entirely reworked domestic economy that would liberate workers from scarcity and debt bondage just as deliveries by dirigible would liberate their mobile, replaceable houses from specific sites. Michael Osman, considering “Risk,” stresses definitional distinctions to ground risk analysis in objective recognitions of hazards requiring collective action, apart from any one organism’s subjectivity. One observation that deserves to be shouted from rooftops, incidentally, appears in the “Risk” panel transcript: J. Scott Holladay notes that top economists, though widely considered fatalistic about social action against anthropogenic damage, share “a strong consensus that the risks of climate change were several orders of magnitude greater than the cost of reducing emissions… The unpriced externality is so significant that it wipes out all profits.”
The relation between the agenda diagrams and contributors is unspecified, though some schemes match areas of expertise (“Make Do: Work with Sprawl,” a “Territory” item on the mixed-use adaptation of a 1950s North Seattle mall around a light-rail station, presumably reflects input by Retrofitting Suburbia co-author June Williamson; in the “Risk” section, “Decouple: Individual Response,” on Mormon resource-storing practices, matches historian Jonathan Levy’s interest in religious, mathematical, and societal frameworks for understanding risk). Tension persists, particularly in the “Territory” discussion, between a focus on the achievable (e.g., the glass-half-full observations of America 2050’s Petra Todorovich Messick on the efficiencies catalyzed by regional rail networks and PlaNYC-scale retrofits) and on rewiring of entire systems (Denise Hoffman Brandt’s extension of biological sources-and-sinks analysis into the socioeconomic realm as well as the carbon cycle). Likewise, the “Lifestyle” panel airs author Heather Rogers’s arguments from Green Gone Wrong about the limits of solutions within a market framework, in bracing contrast to cases that are often isolated, under scaled, or merely symbolic. However, one, Bjarke Ingels Group’s W57, offers an encouraging mix of hedonistic amenities and high-performance technologies operating beyond the single-building level.
Certain case choices imply more provocation, or perhaps desire to de-emphasize the usual suspects, than purpose. The Citadel in Benewah County, Idaho (erroneously rendered as “Beneway” in the “Power” section) is a strange representative of “smash the state” alternativism: it’s a walled settlement of gun enthusiasts (assault-rifle ownership isn’t just allowed: it’s mandatory), screened for extreme-right ideological purity and supported by a firearms firm. Its proprietor, not mentioned here, is a felony-level extortionist; it may never exist beyond the fevered websites of militiamen who speak in code of sheeple, Threepers, and SHTF (look ’em up, though you may not want to accept these people’s browser cookies). Arguably Arcosanti, Twin Oaks, or even Drop City would be more credible heterotopias, certainly greener though shorter on shock value.
A few quibbles—Masdar City’s diagram, for example, shows “driverless electric-car drop-off sites” beneath its podium, a feature trimmed from its post-Foster iteration—do not seriously compromise the impression of widespread action on multiple fronts. In some respects, this manifesto addresses the already-well-informed more effectively than it expands its potential readership; the essays condense considerable debate, and a reader may be excused for wishing contributors would explicate entire icebergs rather than just their tips (a full-scale bibliography would help). Still, The Underdome Guide is both a handy overview of improvisations against accelerating crises and a cogent set of arguments why no sane inhabitant of Earth can consider conditions anything but critical.