Seasteading: Are Independent Floating Micro-Nations The Next Big Wave?

Images: Seasteading Institute

Seasteads -- offshore, oil-rig-style 'micro-countries' built out in the ocean, outside the laws of land-based nations -- are making the news again, thanks to a $1.25 million investment boost last week by PayPal founder and tech billionaire Peter Thiel. Supporters of seasteading believe that conventional laws and politics are too restrictive for true innovation, and consider these conceptual city-states as a fast-track alternative to developing the societies they want. But is this futuristic vision the way to cutting-edge self-governance or is it potentially dystopic?

'Innovative governments on seasteads competing for citizens'
Seasteads are the brainchild of Patri Friedman, executive director of the Seasteading Institute, who is also a libertarian blogger and grandson of the late economist Milton Friedman. The Seasteading Institute describes their mission as creating "next generation governance" that is better able to respond to crises, with competition as the underlying crux:

Seasteaders believe that government shouldn't be like the cell phone carrier industry, with few choices and high customer-lock-in. Instead, we envision a vibrant startup sector for government, with many small groups experimenting with innovative ideas as they compete to serve their citizens' needs better.

Seasteading advocates envision millions living out in open sea colonies by 2050, with a few hundred per colony. There will be no welfare, no minimum wage, looser building codes and little restrictions on weapons (better for defending against pirates, we assume).


Is seasteading sustainable?
The assorted renderings of seasteads outfitted with ships and helipads are glossy and slick, but is seasteading actually sustainable?

At first glance, no. Though there have been proposals for passive solar designed seasteads that can grow their own food and regulate their own micro-climate, the seasteading FAQ admits that the point is not "material self-sufficiency." Rather, the initial majority of these sea communities will be diesel-powered and rely mostly on imported food and fuel, although the Institute contends that it's in a seastead's own interest to be environmentally responsible in the long run.

The initial seasteading economy in a large part will be based on tourism, services and aquaculture -- which could help relieve pressures that conventional aquaculture places on coastal areas. If managed right, seasteading could provide new frontiers for developing more sustainable modes of farming fish -- or on the flip side, contribute considerably to ocean pollution. Ultimately, seasteading as a whole could be potentially more sustainable by taking cues from other similar projects.


'Offshore gated communities' or nerd orgy?
Of course, the scheme is not without its critics, like Slate's Jacob Weisberg, who quips that seasteading is

the most elaborate effort ever devised by a group of computer nerds to get invited to an orgy. (Let's build our own Deepwater Horizon with legal prostitution!)

Plus there is Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey, characterizing seasteads as enclaves of wealthy elitists who believe that

America's tax system and gated communities [have let] them down... These offshore gated communities are the next logical step.

What will seasteading have to offer in terms of a new urbanism? Not much, as Margaret Crawford, professor of architecture and urban planning at Berkeley was quoted in Details, calling it

a silly idea without any urban-planning implications whatsoever.

And as Wired's Chris Baker chronicles in a piece detailing the infancy of seasteading, these sea nations will probably have to depend on fringe industries to survive:

Seasteaders can depend on like-minded benefactors for only so long. Ultimately, these nations will need to pay the bills. Friedman notes that some enterprises--like euthanasia clinics--would incense local authorities, but almost all the ideas [seasteading conference] attendees [came] up with would capitalize on activities that skirt existing laws and regulations: Fish farming and aquaculture. Prisons. Med schools. Gold warehouses. Brothels. Cryonics intakes. Gene therapy, cloning, augmentation, and organ sales. Baby farms. Deafeningly loud concerts. Rehab/detox clinics. Zen retreats. Abortion clinics. Ultimate ultimate fighting tournaments.

Hmm, brothels and baby farms...? In the end, we won't know what real implications seasteading will have until the first prototype is established sometime during the next few years. After all, there's no shortage of failed ocean utopias which met their end by hurricanes, international disputes or plain lack of organization. At its best, seasteading could be the vehicle for driving eco-technology, innovation and marine conservation -- or another dysfunctional, man-made problem at its worst.

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Tags: Cities | Communities | Designers | Oceans

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