Progress and innovation are the cornerstones of The Legend of Korra, which depicted a rapidly modernizing world where old traditions fell by the wayside everyday. Unlike the tradition-bound and generally conservative Earth Kingdom, Republic City is a place of forward-thinking ideas, creativity, innovation and more, but all this comes at a cost that must not be ignored.
By Avatar Korra's time, the Republic City is roughly similar to New York in the 1920s, from radios and battleships to car assembly plants and biplanes. These vehicles are transforming the world, but there is bound to be some blowback, and corporations like Future Industries must be ready to tread carefully. Or disaster may ensue.
Future Industries was founded by Hiroshi Sato, a tireless industrialist with a big dream. He almost single-handedly invented the gas-powered cars populating the city's roads, making mass transit faster and easier than ever. Gone are the days of animal-drawn carts -- Satomobiles can drive a person anywhere without needing a beast to feed and tame, and these vehicles include fleets of taxis and police cruisers as well. For both business and leisure, Satomobiles are here to stay, and Hiroshi Sato oversaw a variety of plants that manufactured thousands of these machines. Asami Sato took over once Amon's Equalist revolution failed and her father was put in prison, but the potential downside of Satomobile proliferation remained. With them around, the world quietly approached a tipping point.
The Legend of Korra has far more real-life parallels than Aang's story did, with modern problems in a modern setting. Even issues as mundane as pollution must be taken seriously, and sweeping them under the rug can wreak havoc in even more ways than it does in real life. As expected, Satomobiles quickly fill the air with harmful emissions, and drilling for their fuel means defacing the natural world to gain access to oil deposits. This will, inevitably, lead to rapid deforestation and other natural habitat destruction, and unlike in the real world, there are spirits who will ferociously object to this endeavor (more so than our planet already is).
The Satomobile Symbolizes Avatar's Rising Pollution Problem
It has long been established that spirits are closely tied to the natural world, to the extent that killing certain spirits can destroy essential parts of life, as Admiral Zhao proved some 70 years earlier. In the original series, a panda spirit mutated into a destructive creature to retaliate after the obliteration of a local forest, and in Avatar Wan's time, the spirits simply didn't trust humans outside the lion-turtle cities at all. Humans tend to be greedy, destructive and shortsighted, rarely giving anything back to the natural world that they routinely exploit, notable even in Kyoshi's time. This problem wasn't terribly acute in the original series, but still, the Fire Nation, for all its progress, polluted the natural world far more than the others.
In Korra, the massive Republic City is the second big power to majorly deform the natural world, on track to seriously upset the spirits. Worse yet, it is highly likely that Future Industries' Satomobiles will worsen this problem by exporting its product. As the gasoline-powered vehicles travel across the globe, the ecological devastation required to gather resources for their production will scar everything it touches — as the car and oil industry has done to our world — upsetting the natural balance of the world. It might even escalate into an Avatar-worthy issue, one that could affect the very existence of the world and bending.
Of course, one would assume the obvious solution to this problem might be lightning-bending-powered vehicles. However, Republic City is already powered by lightning-bending, but the hours are long, conditions poor and pay very low. A bending-powered solution to the Satomobile problem would likely still exploit Firebenders, beyond being unsustainable in other ways.
Zaofu NEEDS To Be the City of the Future
Satomobiles have already profliferated enough that it's too late to turn back -- nobody wants to go back to rickshaws and ostrich-horses. The solution, then, to the Avatar world's burgeoning problem might be similar to one posed for our own world: public transport. Republic City is a sprawling, pedestrian-hating metropolis, meaning people need Satomobiles to travel from end to end. But, using modern technology and metalbending to create public transit infrastructure who result in a solution that matches the transport capacity of Satomobile fleets, but without the heavy-duty pollution.
Already, there is a lead: the all-metal city of Zaofu. Designed by Suyin Beifong, this unique city embodies harmony, progress and, since it was created with the pedestrian in mind, no Satomobiles run through its streets. Instead, the city has a series of monorails that move people around and, while they are indeed powered by engines, this transport method is far more fuel-efficient than Satomobile fleets, and in real-life terms, these monorails take a lot of cars off the street -- all of them in fact. In Zaofu, people get around either on foot or by monorail, and the landscape surrounding Zaofu is gorgeous and pristine, as any and all industry is kept within the city's domes.
In Korra's world, more and more cities may be designed with Satomobiles in mind, featuring square city blocks and wide streets rather than the winding, narrow streets of towns where foot traffic and animals are typical. This is an opportunity for cities to modernize themselves with monorails in mind, with Satomobiles coming in a distant second place when it comes to personal transit options. However, the ever-growing popularity of Satomobiles, paired with the oddity factor surrounding the free thinkers of Zaofu, might mean the next Avatar will inevitably have to deal with the ecological fallout of thoughtless "progress."