Fall 2012

Utopia on Ice

The Sunny Mountain Ski Dome as allegory of the future

Mark Dorrian

In the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, media outlets reported that the Chinese government intended to use weather modification techniques to ensure favorable conditions for the games. Playing on the story’s science fiction–like strangeness, Western articles tended to locate it as lying somewhere between an amusing manifestation of cultural eccentricity and a much more worrying deployment of a weird and even alien technology, replete with military implications. Such reports show that weather manipulation remains something that is popularly imagined—like thought control, with which it has an obscure relation—as being located within the phantasmagoric domain of the other. Yet it is an idea that is deeply sedimented within the West’s intertwining utopian, military, technological, and science fiction imaginaries. It is striking that in Thomas More’s fable, Utopia is first established in an act of what we would today call geo-engineering, the radical reconstruction of environment by culture, when the isthmus connecting it to the mainland is severed by the legendary founder Utopus.[1] As the island was not already one, and had to be made so, Utopia is from the start presented as a project, a society established within environmental conditions that are at least specified, and might even be “designed.” And this in turn poses other questions, not least ones concerning its weather. It is an issue that would weigh ever more on utopian speculation, to the point where we find Le Corbusier in 1933 declaring, “But where is Utopia, where the weather is 64.4°…?”[2] In general terms, this increasing centrality of atmospheric concerns for utopian thought was closely related to the shifting environmental conditions and contexts to which modernization gave rise and within which it was pursued, but more specifically it had much to do with the post-Enlightenment social vision of Charles Fourier.

As is well known, the architectural fulcrum of Fourier’s social system was the Phalanstery. Home to his associational community tethered together through the bond of “passionate attraction,” it was a people’s palace that assumed the form of—in Walter Benjamin’s characterization—a “city of arcades.”[3] Importantly, however, it was also a climatological mechanism that took its place within Fourier’s larger providentialist schema, which envisaged the transformation of the global climate through human cultivation.[4] This was, in other words, a vast—but divinely ordained—project of planetary air-conditioning. In his treatise The Theory of the Four Movements (1808), Fourier depicted the aurora borealis as a seminal effusion that could not enter into creative conjunction with its southern counterpart until humankind fulfilled the requisite preparations. These involved increasing the global population to two billion, and the subsequent cultivation of land as far as 65° north. This achievement, Fourier declared, would trigger the emergence of the Northern Crown, a fluidal ring, ignited through contact with the sun, which would pass light and heat to the earth and melt the northern ice. With new land thus released for cultivation, the destined human population of three billion could be fully realized within a newly equalized and temperate global climate.[5] (In a “Land of Cockaigne”–like touch, Fourier claimed that grapes would be grown in St. Petersburg, while the boreal fluid would infuse the sea with citric acid, giving it the pleasant flavor of lemonade).[6] All restrictions having been removed, the epoch of the Earth’s harmonic creations could then, at last, begin.

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