By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Liz Henry.
We might not have to wait until the polar ice caps melt for Kevin Costner’s Waterworld to become a reality.
The Seasteading Institute, a non-profit think-tank based out of San Francisco, is working on developing homesteading projects throughout the high seas (seasteading). Their vision involves a mass relocation to international waters, where no governing structures yet exist. An ultimate exercise of laissez-faire, those living atop these floating cities would be free to develop their own law unhindered by current paradigms.
The Seasteading Institute was founded in 2008 by Patri Friedman, formerly of Google, and Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal. Though Friedman openly admits his vision may sound quirky, he assures investors that the business model for Seasteading is viable. If you compare governance to technology, each Seasteading entity would be the equivalent of a start-up, the mass of them equating to an open market based on competition for citizens.
For Earth’s 7 billion people, the limited options of today’s “governance market” are cornered and stagnant. Systems like American democracy are now antiquated, having seen little evolution despite the passage of centuries. The Seasteading Institute maintains that the only way to bring new technology to their marketplace is to create it outside of existing governance, and the only place to do that is the ocean.
Seasteading Institute Senior Director Randy Hencken elaborates for BTR.
“We see a world where there are a thousand seasteads each experimenting with a different kind of governance and competing for citizens,” he says. “It’s not that we believe one kind of governance is best for all, or better. We can select how we want to be governed based on our needs and form communities around ideology rather than culture, religion, skin color, or an arbitrary definition of boundaries.”
Originally, the Institute researched cruise ships, modified oilrigs, and floating islands for far out in the ocean, but that goal has too high a financial barrier for entry. In 2013, they modified their research to find a host nation that will allow them to build a settlement in shallow waters while still offering political autonomy in exchange for a percentage of the goods produced by the seasteaders. Hencken reports a handful of possible host countries are in the works, the first of which he’s currently in negotiations with (he wouldn’t say who it is).
Environmentally, the Institute argues that seasteaders will become the “stewards of the ocean,” naturally protecting their surrounding water as one would a backyard. Swelling coastal populations in recent years resulted in urban runoff that is decimating shallow water habitats. Potentially, such ecological damage could be bioremediated by seasteaders who maintain algae and bivalve farms. What’s more, without government interference, deep-sea medical research, a largely unexplored field to date, could yield valuable new discoveries.
One major concern is people creating seasteadings for criminal purposes, far removed from retribution, dissolving into Lord of The Flies scenarios where the strong rule the weak and the weak suffer. Hencken simply doesn’t see it this way.
“Too often people want to go to a theoretical idea that there will be slavery and debauchery. I’m more optimistic. There are already horrible things that happen all over the world but at the same time we live in one of the most peaceful times that have ever existed. We live longer, we have new tech to make our lives easier and more access to goods and services as a low- to mid-income person than kings had years ago. People I know don’t have nefarious reasons to seastead, they want to experiment and push progress forward.”
Still, the possibility of recreating governance based on new ideologies does attract radical groups, such as the neo-reactionary Dark Enlightenment who cite in their doctrine Thiel’s assertion that freedom and democracy are no longer compatible. Hencken points out that nobody, including radicals, wants bad for the world, they just have differing outlooks on what is good, and should be permitted to experiment with those perspectives. Experimentation, after all, breeds the best advancements.
You can get a little taste of the seasteading life at Ephemerisle, an annual four-day floating festival on the Sacramento River Delta, originally begun by the Seasteading Institute. Like Burning Man on the waves, participants experience music, dance, art, and community. Drugs, sex, and free-for-all libertarianism are all available without fear of legal ramifications. First hand accounts cite well-known activists and thinkers—like Thiel himself—mingling with people tripping on acid and running around naked.
That sounds fun and all, but realistically, permanent settlements would have to involve more day-to-day practicalities, like how to procure food and fuel a functioning economy. You certainly couldn’t just forge a society by sitting around getting high (or could you?).
Most likely, the number one barrier of entry would be money, and critics argue that seasteading is just another opportunity for the rich to retire outside of taxes.
“Ultimately [who to allow in is] left up to each city-state, but you can’t just welcome everybody on. If there’s not space for them and they can’t afford to be there, they can’t be there. Some people will export their goods, including inventions and research, and some will be laborers.”
Unfortunately that means the portion of our society that suffers most from our current infrastructure would be greatly underrepresented in the seasteading marketplace.
Hencken predicts the first small settlement to spawn within a decade. As more and more people migrate and the population grows, the political experimentation can truly begin. Then we shall see just how accurate Costner was in his portrayal of life on the high seas.