Solving Cities

Is Occupy Wall Street a model for the post-apocalyptic future of cities?

Is Occupy Wall Street a model for the post-apocalyptic future of cities?

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If the more cynical projections of the fate of the human race are realized, it's entirely possible that the future of cities will be more directly informed by what's going on at Occupy Wall Street protests worldwide than the protesters themselves could have ever imagined.

If the more cynical projections of the fate of the human race are realized, it's entirely possible that the future of cities will be more directly informed by what's going on at Occupy Wall Street protests worldwide than the protesters themselves could have ever imagined.

Visions of the future are diverging -- at one extreme there is a techno-utopian rapture in which we're all dematerialized and hoovered up into the machines, and at the other, a post-peak-energy planet wracked by resource shortages and climate change.

To the extent that Occupy Wall Street and the countless other Occupy protests are unique experiments in setting up off-the-grid encampments with limited finances, but using 21st-century technology, they have unintentionally become an almost unprecedented experiment in seeing just how close you can get to "going back to the earth" without giving up on the accelerating urbanism that defines the modern age.

That's why we shouldn't be surprised that OWS protestors in Toronto are beating back Canada's coming winter with real Yurts made in Mongolia as opposed to more modern tents made of synthetics, while Occupy Wall Street has switched from gasoline generators to bicycle power for its electronics. It's the past, re-imagined with the resources of the future.

That means laptops, cell phones, cameras -- all the trappings of the connected world that civilization will probably be the last thing we give up even in a worst-case scenario -- are now powered by the most basic power source humans have ever employed. Here's what that looked like in the Middle Ages, in case you're not up on your 15th century technology.

Unlike slums / favelas / tent encampments in the developing world, which currently house about 1 billion of the world's human beings, Occupy protestors have access to fresh water and adequate sanitation, which we can expect to remain intact in at least some cities. (New York City's water supply, for example, is filtered upstate by nature in reservoirs, and descends into the city by gravity.)

Does this mean the future is all of us living in temporary shelters, clinging to our iPhones? No -- but it does mean that many of the most dire visions of our future aren't as nuanced as they should be.

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Photo: David Shankbone

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Christopher Mims

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Christopher Mims has written for Scientific American, WIRED, Popular Science, Fast Company, Good, Discover, Slate, Technology Review, Nature and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Formerly, he was an editor at Scientific American, Grist and Seed. He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure