Imagine that you are one of the 10 million humans on this planet denied a nationality. If you could build a nation, how would it be?
From Joe Quirk and Patri Freidman’s, ‘Seasteading: how floating nations will restore the environment, enrich the poor, cure the sick, and liberate humanity from politicians.’
‘The Floating Utopias of the Future’ is the title of a previous review on Joe Quirk and Patri Freidman’s, ‘Seasteading: how floating nations will restore the environment, enrich the poor, cure the sick, and liberate humanity from politicians.’ Yet according to its website, ‘The Seasteading Institute is not in the business of crafting utopias.’ Their mission, rather, is to make the world a place where you can try it for yourself.
Michael Strong, in ‘Conscious Capitalism,’ talks of the need to expand the traditional idea of entrepreneurship far beyond business. He advocates the need for legal, political, social, educational and spiritual entrepreneurs on the premise that, while we need innovative ways to create wealth, reform in these other fields are necessary too if global prosperity, peace and sustainability are to be realized. Joe and Patri argue that seastead citizens would become entrepreneurs in this sense, utilizing diverse skills and creativity to build experimental societies from scratch. For the fortunate among us, this may seem a curious idea, attractive to the lovers of freedom. But for those less fortunate, whether due to poverty, war, environmental degradation or suffocating authoritarian rule, seasteading could be a lifeline rather than a luxury.
In this book, Joe and Patri explore the seasteading movement, taking us on a journey of existing realities, imminent plans and long-term ambitions from a variety of entertaining and admirable characters. They explore the political opportunities created by of water’s fluidity, technological advances, the superpowers of algae, and economic success stories to be replicated.
‘Seasteading is not so much an ideology, as a technology.’ Joe comments that if we could put a man on the moon in 1969, we can build floating cities in the twenty-first century. To a large degree, Planet Earth has the technology already. Japan opened a floating airport in 2000, Singapore hosts the world’s largest floating football field, and India launched a floating power plant in 2014. Furthermore, the technology is expanding. One of Japan’s top construction companies, Shimizu Corporation, is aiming to create floating, self-sustaining, botanical skyscrapers by 2025. Another of their megaprojects is to rebuild Kiribati, a collection of small Pacific islands at risk due to rising sea-levels. The book also highlights the advancements in 3D printing. An expert in the field, Chris Muglia, states that within the decade, it will facilitate the construction of ‘increasingly sea-capable floating structures in days rather than months, with comparable profit margins significantly higher than shipyards or contractors.’ These examples, along with a hoard of others detailed in more depth, demonstrate that where the technology is not yet there, it’s coming.
As we all know, environmental degradation and climate change are widely accepted and increasingly urgent crises. Crises which politicians are seriously struggling to efficiently and holistically resolve. Crises almost always associated with financial compromise rather than profit. Seasteading provides a rounded, profitable, and therefore politically desirable solution to what they consider humanity’s grand challenges: sea level rise, fish extinction, poisonous coastal dead zones, food shortages, peak oil, water crisis, resource wars and poverty.
Integrated with more technologically fascinating solutions is the idea that humans need to replicate nature’s cyclical symbiosis: that what goes around, comes around. In human terms, our excreta, leftovers and cadavers must no longer be considered waste but turned into something useful for the future. Cities must be turned into ecosystems, and floating ones would do this most easily due to their access to algae and water. Algae, the gold dust of the twenty-first century it seems, when farmed, will: resolve the lack of phosphate in the ocean (humans have robbed it for fertilizer), produce enough biofuel to allow us humans to capture carbon dioxide and turn it into biofuel (which could then be stored in empty oilfields), and reduce malnutrition (it is highly nutritious and grows rapidly). It therefore has the potential to reduce carbon pollution, clean sea dead zones, feed people, provide power and help alleviate coastal poverty.
A different use of our oceans would also help produce the power needed for the planet: it turns out that the tropical ocean contains three hundred times the amount of energy which the world currently consumes, replaced daily by sunshine. Not only is the ocean a source of power, therefore, but the very process of taking that thermal energy on a large scale would help reduce the warming and rise of the seas.
These solutions are not without their difficulties. Joe highlights the potential of powerful industries, such as corn and cattle, to lobby political officials against algae farming development. Furthermore, while the ocean’s thermal energy could become market competitive in the future; the initial investment required is huge. In the oil and gas industries, the infrastructure is already there. However, in Hawaii in 2015, the vision became reality as an OTEC operation was launched and connected to a US power grid. OTEC aims to produce sell a hundred thousand gallons of jet fuel per day using just sea water and solar energy. Nine other countries are on board.
What becomes clear throughout this book is that economies of scale will be key to the seasteading paradigm. To be a genuine solution to environmental problems and to nudge the world away from oil and onto biofuels, it all needs to happen on a huge scale. A risk is that entrenched interests will restrict these developments before they become developed and competitive enough to grow. Unless it happens at scale, seasteading will graze, rather than solve, these global problems.
‘Koen Olthius plans to float prosperous lands to poor people.’ CEO of Waterstudios, he’s creating ‘city apps’, essentially floating amenities such as schools and health centers which can be ‘plugged in’ to coastal cities, or slums, when needed to provide the given service, and can float off to different destinations as required. They are leased for a monthly fee, and thus remove the expense of building permanent infrastructure on unstable ground or where unaffordable. The first will be installed in the Korail wet slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Yet he’s also building a floating golf course with undersea tunnels for manta ray viewing, and a floating luxury hotel. Dubai, meanwhile, has recently unveiled plans to build its own miniature floating Venetian hotel complex by 2020. Other floating projects are underway in China, the UAE and Europe. While humanitarian efforts do exist within the seasteading movement, they certainly don’t appear to be the focus of the majority. It is stated technologies work their way downwards: a mobile phone, previously available only to the wealthy, will be owned by 90% of the world’s population over 6 years old by 2020. Yet if the seasteading movement is really about creating the solutions claimed in the title, it seems inappropriate that so many projects are appealing to the 1%. In short, they need more social entrepreneurs.
However, their economic models are convincing. Joe and Patri promote seasteads with economies comparable to those of Hong Kong and Singapore to enrich the poor. The book succinctly evidences these models’ successes, highlighting that Hong Kong’s GDP grew 87 times between 1961 and 1996. By 2007, the bottom 60% of earners paid no income tax, while the top 8% paid almost 60% of the total tax burden. It is a free market welfare state. Mauritius’s success is highlighted too, as they have reaped the rewards of integrating themselves into the global marketplace effectively: 87% of the entire population own their own home, socio-economic inequality has decreased and its women and children, a key indicator of social progress, are flourishing. The suggestion is that floating nations with comparable economic models will prosper. With the combination of effective institutions, flexibility and openness to innovation, support of enterprise, commitment to solid investors, and welfare states, there could be a ‘stupendous and unpredictable improvement in the well-being of the world’s poor.’
Yet here too, there are contradictions. While previous chapters were filled with examples of innovative seasteading projects and financially-backed plans, when speaking of enriching the poor with seasteads, Joe is forced to move to the philosophical and speculative. While he highlights that people from the poorest 20% of nations would like to move permanently to another country, there appears to be nobody working towards building floating cities specifically for the world’s poor or stateless. Zhai, a rural Chinese guy educated in the city, whose sense of displacement inspired his loyalty towards the seasteading movement, commented that seasteads would become ‘a place for people who don’t belong to other places.’ Could the Mediterranean become a hub of floating economically and environmentally self-sustaining refugee cities, only where inhabitants are no longer refugees but rather citizens of their own, self-determining nation? Perhaps, but nobody is yet working on it.
75% of the world’s population lives within 100 miles of a port city. Joe highlights how existing models of accessible healthcare will become even more available if placed on floating islands rather than land. Devi Shetty, an Indian cardiac surgeon, philanthropist and entrepreneur, he has expanded health insurance for less than 25 cents a month to over four million rural Indians. He wants to extend the access of his quality, affordable services more widely by building hospitals on the Cayman Islands so it might be accessible to those in Latin America, Cuba and the US. However, if hospitals could float and move to just off a country’s shoreline, this would be even better. Seasteading could become a solution to the world’s inequality in healthcare access.
So far, the projects talked about have been ‘floating’ but not ‘nations.’ Algae can be grown without being owned by an independent floating nation, thermal energy harnessed, the sick cured…perhaps even poverty alleviated. All this could probably be done without the creation of new nations. After finishing this rollercoaster of inspiration, it was the political viability of the idea which I was left questioning.
There are two inter-related political ideas behind seasteading. The first goes back to the social contract, as Joe outlines how floating cities would reduce the ‘cost of exit.’ It implies that seasteading will be the solution to a long-standing issue with the social contract: that we are bound by the rules of the political system we are born into, despite never giving our explicit consent. In the twenty-first century, we are stuck there: even if we dislike the political community we find ourselves in, there is nowhere to go to start a new one: all land is taken up. While some, such as Vit Jedlicka who proclaimed the Free Republic of Liberland on disputed land between Croatia and Serbia in 2015, might say there are a few pockets left available, the options are few. Some philosophers say that one’s tacit consent to a political authority is given by the choice not to leave. Yet David Hume points out, ‘Can we seriously say, that a poor peasant or artisan has a free choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives from day to day by the small wages he acquires?’ In practice, it is difficult to get out of a country, and most difficult to those without educational or financial resources. Not to mention that often, another country may not accept you. And getting into another comparable political authority somewhat defeats the point of exiting.
If made accessible to the masses, seasteading becomes the answer: the chance to leave and DIY your own social contract and political authority. With seasteads easily assembled and disassembled according to where people want to be, they give inhabitants the opportunity to vote with their houses, as they can attach themselves to whichever seastead they find attractive, and make the decision to move to another should they become dissatisfied. ‘Floating cities that best please their inhabitants would expand…Others which failed to do so would decline and disappear.’ Ocean governments, set up by anyone, would therefore compete for citizens, who would have varied, accessible choices in models of governance. The combination of a diminished cost of exit plus competitive governance is both attractive and viable.
Second, seasteading is presented as a method for the decentralization of power. Decentralization is necessary, Joe and Patri say, as political power creates political conflict, and the solution is the distribution of power among many. They suggest that the experimentation facilitated by seasteading would allow the best forms of governance to emerge peacefully, and ultimately help humanity find a way to ‘get along.’
But in the book, they perhaps oversimplify the role of power in international relations. In nation states, the Prisoner’s dilemma often creates an arms race, where, despite wanting peace, states competitively arm themselves as a form of protection, should war occur. That said, we must note that various small and prosperous states, such as Costa Rica and Iceland, have no army. Then I think about the integration of seasteads and traditional nation states, and wonder whether seasteads would challenge established hierarchies enough to be perceived as a threat. Joe disagrees, telling me ‘China doesn’t quash Hong Kong, the US doesn’t quash the Cayman Islands, and Venezuela doesn’t quash Trinidad and Tobago.’ However, Seasteading Institute website suggests that turning floating islands into floating nations is part of the long-term vision rather than the short term plan.
In January 2017, the Seasteading Institute signed a Memorandum of Understanding with French Polynesia to cooperate on the creation of a sea zone with certain levels of autonomy. Tim Potter, an ambassador and advisor of sanitation and ecology to SI, argues that this isn’t ‘an actual seastead’ as it will remain within 24 miles of another nation. To Peter Thiel, who previously funded the Institute, this was a step backwards. Yet under international law, the oceans are not a completely blank slate. Invisible rules exist, and within the community, there is the worry that brash seasteading efforts would be met with resistance by powerful states who could use international law to undermine them. Floating islands could clean up the environment, entice immigrants, and alleviate health problems, acting as a service, not a threat, to existing nation states. Floating nations, though, will require innovation and consensus within a slow, highly bureaucratic organization often inhibited by prevailing state interests: the United Nations. The seasteading movement appreciates that the journey to self-determination of seasteads will not be easy. Then again, it never was for land-based states either. In order to liberate inhabitants from politicians, seasteads will first have to work with them.
In conclusion, there is the need for diverse kinds of entrepreneurs to carve new paths if seasteading is to succeed. While the technology increasingly makes a seastead an engineered possibility, these new societies need creative minds to build the social engineering too. Furthermore, there is the need for entrepreneurs to work on the process of integration and cohabitation with existing states. Legal entrepreneurs are needed to grapple with international law, political entrepreneurs to encourage leaders of existing states to adapt to changing global possibilities, and social entrepreneurs to focus on making seasteading available to those who need it most. While floating islands are, for now, the adjacent possible, they are just the beginning. At the core of this movement is the belief in the ability of human individuals to imagine, and build. My hope is that it will give the chance for everyone, rather than the privileged few, to do so.
A wee thanks to Joe Quirk for that initial conversation, for taking the time to challenge my skepticism, and for the book. Thank you also Max Borders for answering my endless questions and for the editing advice.
David Hume, ‘Of the Original Contract,’ Essays Moral and Political and Literary, Ed. E. F. Miller, Liberty Press, (Indianapolis, 1748), 1985.
Dario Mutabdzija and Max Borders, ‘Charting the Course: Toward a Seasteading Legal Strategy’,
The Seasteading Institute, (2011), (accessible online HTTP://SEASTEADINGORG.WPENGINE.COM/WP-CONTENT/UPLOADS/2015/12/CHARTING_THE_COURSE_-_TOWARD_A_SEASTEADING_LEGAL_STRATEGY.PDF 19/9/07).
Joe Quirk with Patri Friedman, ‘Seasteading’, Free Press, (New York, 2017).
Michael Strong, ‘Be the Solution’, John Wiley & Sons, (New York, 2009).
UNHCR, ‘Ending Statelessness’, (accessible online HTTP://WWW.UNHCR.ORG/UK/STATELESS-PEOPLE.HTML 19/9/07).
Shlomo Angel, ‘The Floating Utopias of the Future’, Wall Street Journal, (2017), (accessible online HTTPS://WWW.WSJ.COM/ARTICLES/THE-FLOATING-UTOPIAS-OF-THE-FUTURE-1490388087 19/9/07).
Startup Societies Foundation, (accessible online HTTPS://WWW.STARTUPSOCIETIES.COM 19/9/07).
Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/53/AnthonyLing.jpg