Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

As Noah Knew, Designing the Future Is *Not* Whatever Floats Your Boat

Written by: Jeffrey J. Cohen

The human future as a design space – what does that mean to you?

Noah’s ark is the story we tell whenever we narrate human survival in a hostile climate. Sometimes the ark is a boat. It can also be a spaceship. But every ark is an invitation.  It’s an escape device, as well as an opportunity to begin again, freed from what precedes.

Every ark’s story is formed from ancient plots.  It’s a shelter built with hope against the return of storm.  Populated through a grim and selective summons, too many arks bolt their gates against a world left to drown. The rainbow toward which such vessels are launched always seems singular and predetermined.

An ark may take the form of a museum, chancery, seed vault, biosphere, starcraft, zoo, library, database, or repository. To engineer such a structure is to perform a gesture of despair and desire at once: despondency for an Earth relegated to wasteland, not to be saved; and confidence – after disaster abates – in a better time to come.

Yet that “better” conveys a narrowness.   Better for whom?  Every ark preserves at cost. Selective and small, its spaces are closed against a cosmic diversity of humans and nonhumans.  Arks aspire to exclusive origin.   All but one preceding story will be lost to the waves. Arks easily become prisons. The prospects they are built around will prove lethal to many, inside and out.

Yet as its door slams shut, quiet possibilities arise – a realm of hazard and hope.  An ark is a provocation to dream yet another world.   Not a utopia exactly – most  certainly not a heaven – this is a wave-tossed, beleaguered expanse we are talking about.  Climate catastrophe brings acute and unevenly distributed suffering.   But there is also the possibility of another kind of world – where the relentless forward trajectory of the ark towards Mount Ararat and starting over with a small community yield for a moment to lingering in the world condemned to the rising waters. 

Dissonant stories endure.

An ark is a fortress; its price of admission too high.  Yet every ark is a life raft, a refuge, a temporary haven. Every ark is fuller than intended. The same vessel that reduces boisterous lives to storable units will inevitably open the imagination even as it closes pens, cages, windows. As the waters rise and the ark begins to lift, quiet invention emerges.  It is a provocation to creativity in disaster’s midst. Though its destiny is mountain and rainbow, Noah’s ark has a tendency to remain at sea. The trajectories it sails will veer unexpectedly, will offer the unbolting of the unforeseen. An ark conserves against present disaster and promises the resources necessary for beginning over.

Yet an ark also asserts human agency, refusing containment, engendering entanglement. Creatures, elements, storms, oceans, climate, toxins, atoms, time and every other force and object placed at the exterior of the structure environ, push back.

As Noah came to know when he constructed his box of preservation with a precise number of cubits, the vessel’s form can be constricting – its interior dark, claustrophobic. Yet the creatures housed within are not frozen in time: they live, they breathe, they eat and shit and struggle.

As his ark organized its denizens and narratives, its walls proved far from watertight. Possibility and dissension seeped inside. Stowaways were discovered. Space aboard this millennium-crossing transport constantly opened for vexing perplexities and the unfolding of unexpected dramas. As Noah’s menagerie of origins and carefully loaded hoard of prospects sailed towards unforeseen narrative destinations, the ark assumed a flotilla of forms that have kept it available for boarding, remodeling, and relaunching.

Every ark attempts to populate the world otherwise.   Thereby it extends an irresistible provocation to think about the world’s contingency and capaciousness, the chance to escape confinement and tell better stories.

To begin again without obliterating what precedes.


About Jeffrey J. Cohen

Jeffrey Cohen is the dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University.  With Julian Yates he is writing Noah's Arkive: Towards an Ecology of Refuge.   His research examines strange and beautiful things that challenge the imagination, phenomena that seem alien and intimate at once. He is especially interested in what monsters, foreigners, misfits, inhuman forces, objects and matter that won't stay put reveal about the cultures that dream, fear and desire them. He is widely published in the fields of medieval studies, monster theory, posthumanism and ecocriticism.  In collaboration with Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration, he recently co-wrote the book Earth, a re-examination of Earth from the perspectives of a planetary scientist and a literary humanist.