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World Science Festival: Creating Wall-E's World, Minus the Endless Waste

By Allison Bond
Jun 15, 2009 3:48 AMNov 5, 2019 8:51 AM


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The 2008 blockbuster Wall-E won heaps of awards and made over 150 critics’ lists of the best movies of the year. But the also movie made a statement about how we treat the planet today—and how we can make sure that it’s habitable tomorrow. That was the basis of the event put on Thursday night by the World Science Festival, entitled "Wall-E’s World: Design for an Invisible Footprint," which was moderated by DISCOVER’s own Carl Zimmer and held at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. In the first scene of the movie, the intrepid Wall-E rolls through streets filled with garbage, crushing waste into boxes and constructing skyscrapers with the refuse. Ben Schwegler, Walt Disney Imagineering R&D’s chief scientist, offered a more hopeful view of the future during his presentation and the subsequent discussion with two other panelists. "Could we really be overwhelmed by waste" he asked the audience of around 150 people. "Not in the long run, because things will evolve to eat the waste we produce." He showed the audience a few photos of what appeared to be the metallic cores of laptops. It was then he revealed that cockroaches had stripped away the plastic casings in about a year and a half, upon which researchers halted the experiment because they were too grossed out. Perhaps another part of the solution to keep garbage at bay is to change our attitude toward refuse. In a view called renewable urbanism, we would consider waste a valuable resource. That was one suggestion by Mitchell Joachim, who works at Terrefuge, an organization for ecological design in New York. "If I were an alien looking down," Joachim said, "I would see the city as something meant to produce waste." That must change in the future, he said, and the ideal futuristic city is one with no inputs or outputs—it would be self-sustaining, with productive uses for its own garbage. Some of Joachim’s ideas seemed pretty far-out, such as the meat house… and yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Scientists can already grow specialized tissue, such as a bladder, in a lab, and Joachim thinks that in the future, meat could be engineered to join together building materials. It would take the place of the traditional metal screws and nails. "The windows would essentially be an anus-like structure," he said. Joachim presented a computer-generated model of the meat-based home, which looked like a gigantic human heart, with holes where veins and arteries would connect. "We know it’s ugly, but we don’t know how a meat house is supposed to look," he told the audience. I was less concerned with how it looked than about how it would smell on a hot summer day. Or maybe, like in Wall-E, we humans should leave this planet altogether: "Mars is a world with the potential for life," said NASA’s Christopher McKay. One of McKay’s projects is planning for future Mars exploration, but before humans can live Mars, we must first establish a long-term human base on the moon. Related: Discoblog's Full Coverage of the 2009 World Science Festival

Image: flickr / Just Because iCan Flickr

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