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Isaac Asimov

The Advantages of Underground Living

June 02, 1989|Isaac Asimov

Japan, overcrowded, with land values climbing into the stratosphere, is thinking of moving underneath--below the ground. They are planning to begin with underground sewage plants, then underground railroads, finally underground cities.

It's not so unthinkable, actually. We have underground railroads called subways. Cities like New York have a subterranean world of electrical wiring, sewer lines, gas mains, and so on. In northern cities with long, harsh winters, there is a tendency to build underground shopping malls, veritable cities in themselves.

The thought of living underground, of burrowing in the earth like moles, of separating one's self from the air and sky may seem unpalatable, but, if we stop to think of it, there can be many advantages to living underground.

First, weather would no longer be important, since it is primarily a phenomenon of the atmosphere. Rain, snow, sleet, fog would not trouble the underground world. Even temperature variations are limited to the open surface and would not exist underground. Whether day or night, summer or winter, subtropical or subpolar, temperatures underground would be in the neighborhood of 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The vast amounts of energy now expended in warming our surface surroundings when they are too cold, or cooling them when too warm, could be saved. The damage done by weather to humanity and its structures would be gone. Even earthquakes would be only about one-fifth as damaging beneath the surface.

Second, local time would no longer be important. The passage of the sun, the tyranny of day and night coming at different times in different places can be avoided. Underground, where there is no externally produced day, the alternation of work, play and sleep can be adjusted to suit ourselves. The whole world could be on eight-hour shifts, starting and ending on the same stroke everywhere, at least as far as business and community endeavors are concerned. This could be important in a freely mobile world. Air transportation over long distances, east and west, would no longer entail jet lag. If we leave New York at noon and take 12 hours to get to Tokyo, it will be midnight there, and midnight for our own biological clock, too.

Third, the ecological balance of the Earth would be better off. To a certain extent, humankind encumbers the Earth. It is not only our enormous numbers that take up room. It is also the structures we build to house ourselves and our machines, to make possible our transportation, communication and recreation. All these things disturb the wild, depriving many species of plants and animals of their natural habitat--and sometimes, as a side consequence, favoring a few others, such as rats and roaches. The more of ourselves and our works we place underground, below the realm of burrowing life, the more room there will be on the planet for other forms of life.

Fourth, nature would be closer. It might seem that to withdraw underground is to withdraw from the natural world, but would that be so? Would the withdrawal be so much more complete than it is now, when so many people work in city buildings that are often windowless and artificially air-conditioned? Even when there are windows, what does the eye behold, in some places, but other buildings?

One might argue that there is a psychological difference. However divorced present-day cities may be from nature, we are in view of the sun and the sky, by looking out the window or by stepping out the door. Isn't that right?

But look at it this way. To get away from the city now, to reach real tracts of greenery and of reasonably unspoiled nature, a New Yorker, a Londoner, a Tokyoite must travel horizontally for miles and hours, through heavy traffic--first across city pavements, and then across suburban sprawls.

If we were living beneath, if we had an underworld culture, the countryside would be right there, a few hundred yards above the upper level of the cities--wherever you are within them. The world of nature would be an elevator ride away, and the dwellers beneath would see more greenery, under ecologically healthier conditions, than dwellers of surface cities do today.

And remember, as one more point, that in an underground world of perpetually equable weather, walking would be much more pleasant. There would be less reason to use transportation facilities for short hauls, thus conserving energy and increasing bodily fitness.

Are there disadvantages to life underground? A few. There would have to be a huge capital investment, a great psychological adjustment. There would be the problem of the vast ventilation procedures that would be necessary and, of course, the danger of fire--which may do more damage in the caverns than in the open.

By the way, once again I am not a totally dispassionate observer; I happen to like enclosed spaces. Back in 1953, I wrote a novel titled "The Caves of Steel" in which I described an Earth made up entirely of underground cities.

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