Libertarians plan to build floating islands to house casinos, hospitals, hotels, offices—and even new societies. Will the “seasteading” movement sink or float?by Eamonn Fingleton / March 26, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
András Gyõrfi’s The Swimming City, winner of the Seasteading Institute’s first 3D design competition in 2009
The year is 2020 and I have just turned 72. Not far off the California coast, I and several other wobbly-looking people are on a boat, chugging towards a bizarre floating structure. From a distance, it looks like a luxury hotel, or something from a James Bond movie—but it’s an orthopaedic hospital. Beside fond memories of 1968, one thing most people of my generation now share is aching bones and, in the US at least, inadequate health insurance. Hence my decision, and that of my onboard companions, to visit the first purpose-built floating hospital. Its offshore location, and the tax and labour cost advantages that brings, means it can radically undercut its onshore US competitors.
It sounds far-fetched, but a small number of influential people are talking up a future in which the high seas will be increasingly commandeered for unconventional purposes. “Seasteading,” as it is called, seems to have been coined as a term by Ken Neumeyer, whose 1981 book Sailing the Farm pioneered the concept. Besides hospitals, there could be casinos, hotels, prisons, aquaculture businesses or simply new homes for communities who want to live in isolation. And new technologies could make seasteading a reality within a decade.
Why bother? For some enthusiasts the answer is pragmatic: certain types of business can be conducted more efficiently at sea. But others, such as Patri Friedman, view the idea in a political light. He is director of the Seasteading Institute, founded in Palo Alto in 2008. A personable former Google engineer, he was once named one of “the sexiest geeks alive” and is a grandson of the economist Milton Friedman.
Unsurprisingly, given his heritage, Patri Friedman is inspired by libertarian ideas—particularly those of the philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand—and views the sea largely as a last refuge from taxes and regulations. So do others on the institute’s board, including Michael Strong, head of the non-profit organisation Freedom Lights Our World. Friedman believes seasteaders will establish independent nations—“micronations”—in international waters beyond the reach of governments. These could be peopled by economic migrants from developing countries, or ethnic minorities fleeing legal oppression in their homeland. A micronation could be a potential haven for religious sects such as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a small pro-polygamy offshoot of the Mormon church. Or, perhaps, for gay people from the Muslim world fleeing sharia law.
These ideas have been batted around US libertarian circles for years. But one man has recently lifted seasteading from the realm of fantasy. The high-tech tycoon Peter Thiel provided the initial $0.5m capital for the institute and is its chief bankroller. Born in Germany but raised in the US, Thiel is a serious chess player whose intellectualism would not be out of place in an Oxford senior common room. In 1998, he backed Confinity, an e-commerce company which later became the PayPal payment system. Thiel was a billionaire before he reached 40 and is still only 42. He was on the moderate right in his college days at Stanford, but is now “way libertarian.”
Thiel’s interest in seasteading is entrepreneurial as well as political. Seas make up 71 per cent of the world’s surface, but are home to a tiny fraction of its people: some on oil rigs, most engaged in shipping or fishing. Those at sea enjoy tax breaks (provided they stay offshore for long enough and, in the case of Americans, renounce their citizenship) and can cherry-pick the regime they live under. The ocean lacks home comforts but has an unique selling point: enough lebensraum for even the most cantankerous people to stay out of each other’s way.
But first a number of obstacles must be overcome. Even the most optimistic visionaries think it could take half a century before made-to-measure micronations are common. The biggest problem is that the world’s most habitable watery real estate is already spoken for. The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Seas grants each country with a coastline an exclusive economic zone extending 200 nautical miles from its shore.
This puts seasteaders in a tricky position: caught between territorial rights near to land and dangerously rough seas further out. Yet there is a loophole—the same one that spawned the “flag-of-convenience” shipping industry, in which most of the world’s oil tankers and cargo ships are registered in obscure countries like Liberia. In much the same way, sea-steaders might build structures legally classified as ships and registered in places like Panama. So long as the “ships” keep moving, however slowly, and stay at least 12 miles from land, they would be free from most forms of terrestrial oversight.
Even if the rules can be bent there are other potential problems. To start with, the record of “intentional communities” is not promising. From George Rapp’s “harmony society” in early 19th-century Indiana to Henry Ford’s Brazilian city of Fordlandia in the 1920s, it seems that such oddball groups flourish for a time, then fade. Most have utopian ideals which attract dreamers and freeloaders rather than the hard-workers that a new society needs for lasting success.
Another problem is the engineering challenge of building sustainable sea-based structures. Wayne Gramlich, a software engineer who co-founded the Seasteading Institute with Friedman, is confident that this will soon be mastered. As far back as 1998 he published a paper giving the first practical account of how seasteading might work. He sees a parallel between the history of computing and seasteading. Forty years ago, computers were mainly the prerogative of a few deep-pocketed corporations. Yet as technology developed and costs dropped, personal computing began its spectacular rise.
Gramlich is the first to admit that the speed of development in seasteading will probably be a lot slower. “We are constrained by basic physics—our structures have to have a certain strength and mass, and concrete and steel cost money,” he says. “But over time we can do things less expensively. We will get some cost savings because the things we design don’t have to be as mobile as ships.” Already technological breakthroughs are making life on the ocean easier. Cheap satellites and the internet also mean it now costs little to keep in touch even at sea. This is of more than psychological significance: seastead-based managers and telecommuting workers will need to do business with those on shore.
A prototype of sorts already exists in the form of The World, a £175m luxury cruise ship which is a fully functioning working base for its wealthy residents. It is divided into condominiums; many of the owners are in early middle age and still active in business (typically financial services). There is also a less inspiring precedent for seasteading: prison ships. In existence since the 18th century, they are still used as a last resort when onshore prisons reach breaking point.
The closest precursor of seasteading, however, is the pirate radio industry that began in European waters in the 1950s. Pirate stations were based on ships flying flags of convenience, anchored just outside national waters. In 1958, the first pirate station Radio Mercur was launched to serve the Danish market. Others followed, including Britain’s Radio Caroline in 1964. For a time, pirate radio was a licence to print money. But then governments struck back, with new laws that made it illegal for companies to supply pirates or advertise with them. Within a decade, most pirate stations were history—but not before forcing major changes on the radio industry.
Meanwhile the oil industry provides a model for how to build cost-effective offshore operations. The first seasteads (see the image above) will likely amount to oil platforms with homes plonked on them. These draw on a tradition of engineering that goes back to Maunsell forts: defensive sea structures improvised by the British during the second world war. Designed by the engineer Guy Maunsell, they were huge concrete towers secured to equally huge concrete barges. The barges were steered into position and sunk, so that only the towers protruded above the waterline. The forts, which incorporated gun towers, were operated by the navy. (The Principality of Sealand, founded in 1967, began as a pirate radio station broadcasting from an abandoned Maunsell fort in the North sea. It has its own stamps, currency and constitution.)
Maunsell’s concept was adapted to build the first offshore oil rigs, and more recently to create “semi-submersible” rigs. Because these rigs float on huge air-filled chambers rather than rest on the seabed, they can work in much deeper water. By filling the chambers with water, engineers can vary the level of the main platform, useful in contending with stormy weather. The latest semi-submersibles can be anchored in depths of up to 5,700 feet: nearly ten times deeper than the deepest point of the English Channel. They open up large areas of the ocean to the oil industry—and to seasteading.
Where could seasteads be built? Climate may be a decisive factor. A huge sector of shallow water east of Newfoundland and near the Canadian coast, for instance, may never be suitable because of its bleak weather. The seas off the southeastern US are a better bet. Extending for several hundred miles east and west of Florida, they are relatively shallow and are largely in international waters. Also a possibility is an area to the west of Spain, where conditions are equally favourable.
Those aren’t the only options. Friedman points to the sea’s “garbage zones”: stagnant areas at the centre of the gyres of the great ocean currents. Because surface currents converge from all directions, flotsam is herded into these areas and then permanently trapped. Seasteads placed in these zones wouldn’t have to expend energy maintaining their position.
Given the right location, micronations could rely on renewables such as solar and wind for most of their power, minimising their dependence on onshore energy. Recent progress in materials also bodes well. Since antiquity, seafarers have faced the problem of saltwater corrosion. Carbon-fibre cables—now so strong that they are preferred to steel ropes in supporting suspension bridges—may be the answer. Alexia Aubault, a naval architect and adviser to the Seasteading Institute, believes that similar cables could be used to lash buildings to semi-submersible supports. This would minimise the need for steel and other heavy materials above the waterline. Similarly, “cathodic” protection, a technique pioneered by the 19th-century British inventor Humphry Davy, has become a widely used technology for slowing the corrosion of steel. Finally, advances in welding mean that engineers can now build stronger steel structures.
Harnessing breakthroughs like these, the Japanese shipbuilding industry has been experimenting with huge steel pontoons, which are tied together to create very large floating platforms (VLFPs). One much-discussed proposed application is a floating airport runway in Tokyo Bay. Alexey Andrianov, a Russian-born engineer, thinks VLFPs could be used as oil storage facilities. The latest supertankers have become so large that they can no longer reach depots in major ports. If they could discharge their cargo into floating facilities close to their destinations, smaller vessels could complete the trip.
Andrianov believes that VLFPs could create spillover space around a seastead. Most of the time, residents could have the run of these areas, which could be used for recreational facilities such as tennis courts or football fields (without which cabin fever would be a hazard). While this space would be subject to buffeting in severe storms, improved satellites have made weather forecasts more reliable and seasteaders would get some warning. On the rare occasions when a terrible storm struck, they could retreat to a small, more-or-less indestructible oil-rig type structure (in much the way that medieval British villagers repaired to the local castle and upped the drawbridge when the Vikings were on the prowl).
But mid-ocean VLFPs face a hazard impossible to guard against: “rogue” waves as high as 110 feet, arising when smaller waves travelling in different directions intersect. Waves on this scale emerge only once or twice in a lifetime, but wreck anything in their path. Friedman thinks people will have to run the risk. “In California, we have had to live with earthquakes,” he says. “Like rogue waves, they cannot be predicted and if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time it’s just tough.”
What about cost? Alexia Aubault estimates that a typical seasteading structure might cost $100m for 400,000 sq ft of space. This works out to a price of over $250 per sq ft: more expensive than all but the most exorbitant housing markets. (Although asking prices for run-of-the-mill apartments in Manhattan, even in these times, still run to more than $600 per sq ft.) A typical seasteading structure might last only 20 years before it would have to be refurbished in a dry dock. Then it might be good for another 20 years—although there would be hefty ongoing maintenance bills.
But let’s say you can build them. What then? The political and social problems may prove at least as formidable as the cost. One obvious problem is piracy. Friedman argued recently that: “You rarely hear of cruise ships getting attacked by pirates, only cargo ships. There’s a huge difference between attacking a container ship with ten or 20 crew and a sea colony with hundreds of people who would be defending their homes.” Piracy is mainly confined to a few hotspots such as the Gulf of Aden, which could be given a wide berth. Even so, Friedman concedes that people would have to keep their guard up. “There are cost-effective defences like ship-to-ship cruise missiles which we will want to investigate.” Pugilism aside, many other questions—not least how communities will be policed—remain unclear.
What might happen onboard? Near the top of the list of promising ventures are “sin” industries, of which the least unmentionable is gambling. Hotels could work too, though their novelty value will soon pale in comparison with Buckingham Palace or the pyramids. Gramlich sees a market for hayfever sufferers in summer, and for aquafarming. That industry is already well established in inshore waters but requires expensive systems to minimise the problem of “fish poop.” A fish farm operated in deep water on the open seas would suffer no such drawback: the fish would simply be kept in a netted zone open to the ebb and flow of the ocean, and effluent would be irrigated away at virtually no cost.
Most other proposed businesses, however, depend on using cheap developing-world labour to undercut US competitors. Perhaps the most plausible of these is medical tourism. Each year, an estimated 85,000 Americans are medical tourists, travelling to locations as diverse as South Africa and Thailand for everything from hip replacements to heart valves. A seastead hospital located close to the US coast would have the advantage of convenience. The only onshore competitor offering similar convenience is Mexico, but recent kidnappings are likely to deter medical tourists.
Jeff Winner, a former engineering director at Netscape who is raising capital for a venture called SurgiCruise, argues that convenience could prove a disproportionately powerful selling point. Offshore hospitals can also escape the burden of regulatory and institutional factors that have rendered US medicine something of an economic basketcase. As you know if you have tried to pour a yacht-board martini, there will be drawbacks to surgery on water. But Friedman argues that, in the main, this problem will prove more psychological than real. He points out that the US Navy has been doing ship-board surgery for years, and argues that many forms of cosmetic surgery are well suited to seastead-based hospitals.
And not all applications need be so market-driven. How about a seastead-based university? It could start as a boarding school but quickly add undergraduate courses in, say, engineering, aquafarming and oceanography. Later it could become a fully fledged global brand—the nucleus for a Stanford-like university town, complete with high-tech spin offs and sea-related enterprises. The venture could perhaps cater to a particular developing nation and be staffed by teachers from that country, or from nations sharing a similar culture. The unapologetic intention would be to create an elite network whose members, by virtue of a shared education, could effectively lead their home country towards a better future.
As for the US and other developed nations, the real significance of seasteading may be indirect. Even if seastead-based businesses achieve only modest success, they would still affect their onshore competitors. Friedman cites the example of healthcare. “If just 2 per cent of American healthcare went offshore, the competition would force major change on the remaining 98 per cent.”
But the real barrier to seasteading isn’t technology or business, but ideology. The political case for seasteading is almost entirely driven by libertarians. Whether or not it takes off is thus a most intriguing test case for their beliefs. If enough people agree that they want to be left alone and pay less tax, the movement has a fighting chance of taking root. But if too many people worry about the problems of isolation or governance, micronation living will surely remain a fantasy.
Peter Thiel believes that over-regulation is at the root of America’s long-term decline—and that seasteading is a way of breaking the mould. Patri Friedman sees it as a chance to road-test different political systems in a high-speed version of Darwinism—one in which libertarianism is assumed to win out. He explains: “Each seasteading community will both decide its own rules and enforce them. More importantly, each community will decide its own procedures for deciding its rules. The point is not just to create one political system or type of system, but to make a turnkey product for creating new countries… As long as people are freely choosing their society, then as far as I’m concerned the society can pick whatever rules it wants.” May the best micronation win.