Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental benefits of so-called “seasteading” as opposed to building more housing and communities on land?
—Marge Weston, Camden, NJ
We’ve all heard of homesteading, establishing homes from scratch with a commitment to self-sufficiency, including growing and preserving one’s own food, setting up your own sources of power/electricity and even making one’s own clothing and supplies. While Americans typically associate homesteading with conquering the western “frontier” during the 19th century—or perhaps with moving to the Alaskan “bush” and building a life out of the wilderness there—a new breed of homesteaders is looking to the sea.
“Seasteaders” as they’re called are a small but committed group of proponents well on their way to planning the next human communities far from the land itself. These autonomous floating communities could be built on modified cruise ships, retrofitted deep sea oil rigs, decommissioned anti-aircraft platforms or custom-built floating islands, among other possibilities. Baked into the concept is the need to innovate new ways of meeting basic human needs. Another common thread among seasteaders is living beyond the reach of sovereign governments bent on regulating and controlling the activities of their citizens in ways that do not necessarily consider the health and well-being of humanity or the planet.
“Seasteaders bring a startup sensibility to the problem of government monopolies that don’t innovate sufficiently,” reports the Seasteading Institute, a non-profit founded in 2008 by activist Patri Friedman, software engineer Wayne Gramlich and entrepreneur (and PayPal co-founder) Peter Thiel. “Obsolete political systems conceived in previous centuries are ill-equipped to unleash the enormous opportunities in twenty-first century innovation.”
Seasteads can be governed and managed in different ways depending on the desires of the individual founders or the laws of countries associated with it. Some might be set up based around a collectivist “universal basic income” while others might prefer free market solutions. Meanwhile, one seastead might be governed by direct democracy while another might entrust public policy to technocrats, while still another might use consumer-choice-based services—or anything in-between and beyond.
In January of 2017, the Seasteading Institute signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with French Polynesia, an “overseas collectivity” of 118 geographically dispersed islands and atolls stretching across 1,200 miles in the South Pacific, to create the first semi-autonomous “seazone”—dubbed the Floating City Project—to develop a prototype seasteading community. While there is some debate whether the MOU is legally binding, seasteading proponents are still pursuing the project, which is partially financed by a crowdfunding campaign launched in May 2018 on the Indiegogo website. To date, nearly 300 backers have chipped in upwards of $27,000 to help get this initial seasteading project “off the ground.”
Seasteading remains intriguing to many as one of the planet’s few remaining alternative social systems. “The world needs a place where those who wish to experiment with building new societies can go to test out their ideas,” concludes the Seasteading Institute. “All land on Earth is already claimed, making the oceans humanity’s next frontier.”