Seasteading: the quest for a floating utopia

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https://www.hakaimagazine.com/features/t...ng-utopia/

EXCERPTS: The first attempts at open-ocean habitation were obvious larks. In 1964, Ernest Hemingway’s brother, Leicester, declared that a bamboo raft, little bigger than an oversized parking space, was a sovereign nation, New Atlantis. [...] A retired British army major named Roy Bates proved more successful. In late 1966, he climbed aboard an old antiaircraft platform 11 kilometers off the coast of England, declaring it the Principality of Sealand and his family its royalty...

[...] There were also more earnestly political proposals for ocean colonies. Famed architects Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao collaborated on concepts for floating cities in the late 1960s—potential solutions, they thought, to the looming crises of overpopulation and resource depletion. The biggest draw for most would-be seasteaders, though, seemed to be freedom from government rules. The Republic of Minerva, for example—which consisted of nothing more than a flag and a pile of sand atop a South Pacific reef—was launched in 1972 by a Las Vegas millionaire. He wanted a nation free of “taxation, welfare, subsidies, or any form of economic interventionism,” he said. The nearby island nation of Tonga sent its army to clear away the sand within the year.

Ambitions grew over time. Results did not. [...] In 2008, a nonprofit think tank called the Seasteading Institute launched to study and promote the ocean-living concept, recasting seasteading as something more world-transforming—and legitimate. The sales pitch has an intriguing idea at its heart: the country we’re born into determines much about our fate. What kinds of opportunities might arise if we start assembling whole new forms of government at sea?

The institute’s literature suggests that floating city states could mean new jobs that will attract the oppressed masses and may generate enough wealth to address global poverty. (The institute is especially bullish on the algae-farming industry.) Newly formed island nations could solve health crises, too: some could specialize in cheap medical treatments, keeping costs low by jettisoning regulatory red tape.

The challenge is finding a way to get building. [...] Chad Elwartowski is a believer: in seasteading, and in personal freedom. His beliefs began to clarify as a student at Michigan State University. As he prepared to vote in his first presidential election, he attended a talk by Bill Clinton, who was running for re-election. “He’s talking about investing in this, investing in that, investing in that,” Elwartowski remembers. “I knew investing was code word for ‘We’re going to be spending money on this.’” This was not his party, he decided. The country needed to be spending less.

He was more compelled by the ideals of Libertarianism, a political philosophy that favors individual autonomy over state control. In 2002, a few years after he had moved to the state of Georgia for a software engineering job, Elwartowski made a half-hearted run for Congress on the Libertarian Party ticket. He failed to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

On internet forums, Elwartowski bemoaned the failure of Libertarian politicians to gain traction. After a frustrating decade of trying to promote Libertarian politics within the American two-party system, he changed tactics. Rather than convince the unwilling, Elwartowski embraced a different American tradition: he’d leave the problems behind and strike out for new frontiers.

Costa Rica—a state with no army and that doesn’t tax foreign income—was one option. He was inspired, too, by the seasteading tradition. In his spare time, Elwartowski manufactured a few concrete spheres, which he considered strapping together to create an expandable island. [...] In 2015, while working abroad, Elwartowski began to collaborate with four like-minded thinkers on what they called the Marinea Project. There was little new in the concept: just another description of a “village at sea,” billed unironically as “the pilot project for mankind’s colonization of the oceans.”

[...] Many legal experts believe there is no feasible mechanism by which a floating structure could become a recognized nation. Surabhi Ranganathan, a law professor at the University of Cambridge in England, explains the challenges: a country’s national waters extend 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) beyond its coastline. Then there’s another vast stretch where the nation controls the ocean’s economic resources. Beyond that boundary, 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from shore, you are indeed free from existing states, and anyone can build a structure. But construction will be incredibly difficult—there is nowhere to anchor, supplies are far away—and, besides, you will be treated as nothing more than a pirate, entirely unprotected by international treaties.

Much safer than abandoning statehood, then, is aligning yourself with a state whose laws you like. A vessel is like a floating slice of the nation whose flag it flies—which is why cruise ships and fishing vessels choose “flags of convenience,” registering in countries where lax regulations help maximize profits.

In 2017, the Seasteading Institute spun off a for-profit sister company called Blue Frontiers, which aimed to take this strategy one step further: it would build a floating island, under a hectare in size, in French Polynesia. The company’s founders wanted the island declared a “special economic zone”; in exchange for whatever jobs and other benefits the new island might bring to French Polynesia—the particulars were unspecified in the project’s prospectus—they hoped to negotiate a zero percent tax rate.

Soon after Blue Frontiers announced the project, Elwartowski retired from software engineering: he had saved a substantial amount of money, he says, and thanks to the rising price of bitcoin, he could afford to stop working. ... he volunteered to moderate an online forum for the Seasteading Institute while he waited for Blue Frontiers to get off the ground. Elwartowski’s goal was simple: he wanted to be there. As soon as Blue Frontiers’ platform was adrift, he would be sleeping on top.

Within a year, though, locals turned against the project. According to one report, hundreds marched in protest, complaining that the city would float in the middle of an important fishing site. Blue Frontiers’ plans crumbled [...] Then, in early 2019, Elwartowski shocked the seasteading community: he had succeeded where Blue Frontiers—and so many others—had failed. He was out on the ocean. That February, he and Summergirl [his significant other] broadcast footage of their first night in a free-floating, six-meter-wide octagonal box surrounded by nothing but empty water, 26 kilometers off the coast of Phuket, Thailand. “May the seastead be a beacon to freedom lovers everywhere,” he said in a video posted to YouTube.

Elwartowski named the cabin XLII, pronounced “Ixly”—a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a computer determines that the number 42 is “the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.” It contained little more than a bed and kitchen, plus a toilet that dumped waste into the sea.

The design was the brainchild of a German-born engineer named Rüdiger Koch. Koch had designed military weapons systems before shifting into a career as a cryptocurrency consultant, then finally settling into semiretirement in Thailand. Ever restless, he began to pursue plans to build a “launch loop”—a giant slingshot that was conceived by an electrical engineer in the 1980s as a low-cost mechanism for sending objects into space. (It’s become a favorite of sci-fi writers, but remains hypothetical.) Only the ocean provides sufficient space and suitable conditions for the lasso, which would span thousands of kilometers.

Koch and Elwartowski first connected on the Seasteading Institute’s forum... (MORE - details)
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