Water View


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When Dennis Chamberland looks at the sea, he sees land. He sees a vast unpopulated kingdom that can, and will, become a new habitat for humans. He sees neighborhoods where families will live and work and grow their own food. He sees the future generations that will be born underwater, and he sees these people as stewards of the sea. The time for sea living is here, and Dennis Chamberland — star of the recent VBS.TV episode “The Aquatic Life of Dennis Chamberland” — intends to be its pioneer. This underwater dominion will be named Aquatica. “We are the first humans who will move there and stay with no intention of ever calling dry land our home again,” he writes on his Atlantica Expeditions website. “We represent the first generation of a people who will live out their lives beneath the sea.”


For now, Chamberland’s vision is a blend of experiment and reverie that makes its headquarters in a vessel around Key Largo, Florida. It’s an inclusive endeavor, the more the merrier. While the undersea world is being developed, you can sign up on the Atlantica Expeditions website and become a member of “The League,” short for the League of the New Worlds. As a member of the League, you will be supporting the research necessary for the development of Atlantica, the first undersea colony in Aquatica, currently being built by Chamberland and his team. You can even apply for you and your family to be the undersea colonists of tomorrow.

I take the name “Atlantica” as a reference to Atlantis, that splendid lost civilization under the sea. What we know about Atlantis is what we made up, which is why the details of the Atlantis story vary wildly from account to account. The basics, though, go like this: There was once a great prehistoric civilization called Atlantis that, by act of god or act of nature, was sunk to the ocean depths and lost forever to future generations. Ignatius Donnelly, author of the Victorian classic Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, is generally credited with giving us most of what we think about when we think about Atlantis. Donnelly’s Atlantis scholarship has influenced notables from Madame Blavatsky to Donovan. As a U.S congressman and founder of the failed Utopian community Nininger City, Donnelly held a very special perspective from which to muse on the evolution of civilizations. Donnelly was interested in what makes civilizations tick, and more than that, what made them great. Atlantis was of particular interest to him because he believed it was modern man’s ur-civilization. It had the most advanced government, the most advanced technologies; it was a place “where early mankind dwelt for ages in peace and happiness.” In Atlantis, Donnelly tells us, man first rose from a state of barbarism to civilization. Donnelly convinced many a modern mind that Atlantis was real, and therefore, that it could be located. We’ve been looking for that first lost Utopia ever since.

How Atlantica could come to pass seems much more fathomable than why anyone would want it to. “Why is Chamberland looking for Atlantis?” Chamberland asks and answers that very question on his website: “Why?” it says in large yellow type on the homepage. “Because it is our responsibility…..”

Chamberland wants us to know that the “primary purpose” of the citizens of Atlantica will be “to monitor and protect this most essential of all the Earth’s biomes.” Atlanticans will be “the first citizens of a new ocean civilization whose most important purpose will be to continuously monitor and protect the global ocean environment” (his emphasis). This is not the most satisfying of explanations. It’s not clear how Atlantican-Aquaticans will be better positioned to protect the seas from inside, or what, exactly will constitute their acts of stewardship. (However, they might be well positioned to monitor the seas, being there 24 hours a day.)

The ocean, Chamberland writes elsewhere on the site, is a place “whose human population is now and has always been – zero”. True. The trajectory of human evolution moved us so far away from the sea it might as well be another planet. We can’t breathe underwater, we can’t see underwater. We like to fancy otherwise, but when we move underwater we look crazy, and when we put on the astonishing apparatuses that allow us (in modest measures) to breathe and see and move underwater, we look crazier still. We don’t need to colonize the ocean floor any more than we need to colonize space; the venture is difficult if not totally unfeasible. Yet, the possibility of doing so fascinates some of us like nothing else.

Maybe Chamberland is just making up excuses for the unbelievers. He has a dream, and maybe his desire is justification enough. Then I noticed that the word “new” kept popping up all over the website literature.

The age of a new kind of human civilization has dawned.

…casting off the old landlocked culture and building a new human civilization under the sea.

There is a whole kingdom that lies uninhabited just beneath us. While we live crowded and struggling on a mere 59 million square miles of dry land, this new territory of certain promise spreads out before our very eyes and unfolds to encompass an astonishing 138 million cubic miles of habitable space!

Except that there is lots of space still left on Earth to live. We have crowded ourselves together for good reasons, many of them very practical: to more easily transport goods, to better educate, to get jobs, to combat loneliness. So, the argument that the ocean floor is simply better real estate, or even that life underwater will more spacious and more exciting aren’t the core of Chamberland’s message either. The message, rather, is that life in Atlantica will be a life with greater purpose. An opportunity for discovery. For rebirth. It will be a better life.

This is the subtext behind the schemes of Dennis Chamberland and all the aspiring Atlantians throughout history. The reason to build new colonies undersea or in space or other terra incognita is not because we can, not even because we must, but because this is the next logical step in advancing civilization. Contrary to what some might believe, Utopians, broadly speaking (and this goes for both Chamberland and Donnelly), like civilization. They like technology. They don’t see civilization as fundamentally flawed, either continually improving as it goes or so flawed that it will one day, mercifully, end forever. Utopians love civilization but they think it gets banged up and needs to be remade every so often. Civilization is like a favorite wig — nice until it doesn’t sit right anymore and then you’ve got to toss it out and get a fresh one. It’s no mistake either that the Atlantis story, as it is now understood, sounds so much like the story of Noah’s Ark (Atlantis = Antediluvian World), or that Donnelly and Chamberland look at the ocean as a powerful entity that is fundamental to civilization and yet also has the power to renew it by first destroying it.

Chamberland never talks about the destruction of Earth. On the contrary, he wants his undersea colonists to be Americans, to live under U.S. rules. It makes perfect sense. The secret whispers of redemption and renewal in Chamberland’s efforts are right in line with all the American idealists that have come before him. “We are not running away from anything,” he writes, “but instead are running toward the new dominion of man.” It could have been written by Donnelly himself, but also by the Shakers, or Thoreau, or any number of the founding fathers. Perhaps if we understand “Why?” and “How?” there’s only question left: “When?” • 25 January 2011


Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany's selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.