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Seasteading

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…I'm gonna go build my own theme park! With blackjack, and hookers!
—Bender, Futurama[1]

Seasteading is the libertarian fantasy of attempting to establish a society on (or under) the sea. Given that a large swath of the oceans are international waters, outside the jurisdiction of any one country, some people see seasteading as the most viable possibility for creating new, autonomous states with their own pet political systems in place.

Given that international maritime law doesn't, as such, recognize ginormous boats or artificial islands as stateless enclaves or independent nations, diplomatic recognition, if the owners actually need it, is somewhat problematic.

Seasteading is inspired by real-life examples of boat-based provision of services not legal in certain countries. Examples include casino boats (ships that, upon reaching international waters, open up their gambling facilities to passengers) and the organization Women on Waves,Wikipedia which provides abortion services for countries (such as Poland, Portugal and Spain) where abortion is illegal or in which the rules are stricter than they would prefer. Another example is pirate radio stations, which got their name from the fact that many of them operated from boats in international waters.

Several seasteading projects have been started; only two have ever been completed (three if you count Sealand and its 'Prince'), and the vast majority have never even really begun. It is quite possible that herding libertarians is difficult.

Some cryonicists are seasteaders, which implies truly remarkably compartmentalised thinking about the value of large, stable social structures.

As they age, some libertarians are realising that replacing government may be more work than they can personally achieve as actualised individuals.[2] Reason, of course, tells them not to stop thinking about tomorrow.[3]

"Successful" examples[edit]

There have been five seasteading projects that could be considered 'successful' in any sense of the word — successful in the sense of a physical project launch.

Republic of Minerva[edit]

35 Minerva Dollar coin — ooh, shiny!

The longest-lived and most successful was the "Republic of Minerva," an artificial island in the South Pacific constructed by real estate millionaire Michael J. Oliver and his Phoenix Foundation using dredged sand to expand the tiny Minerva Reef. The intention was to establish an agrarian anarcho-capitalist utopia; presumably the libertarian supermen would evolve past the need to drink, as there was no source of fresh water on the island (nor any land at high tide, at least initially). Minerva formally declared independence in 1972 and attempted to establish diplomatic relations with the surrounding nations, though it was mostly ignored. The small settlement lasted for approximately five months, until the government of Tonga sent a military expedition (along with a convict work detail, a brass band, and HRM King Taufa’ahau Tupou himself) to claim the island by force (or rather, re-claim it; the original reef had been considered a culturally important Tongan fishing region). In 1982 a second group of libertarians tried to reclaim the atoll but were again forced off by the Tongan military. Since then, the project collapsed, and the island has since been mostly reclaimed by the sea.

Unabashed, Oliver tried to funnel funds into various separatist groups and revolutionaries in the Bahamas and Vanuatu, but was met with extremely little success. Today, the Phoenix Foundation still chugs on, eyeing tiny islands like the Isle of Man and the Azores and grumbling to themselves.

Rose Island[edit]

Respubliko de la Insulo de la Rozoj

Rose Island, officially the "Respubliko de la Insulo de la Rozoj" (Republic of the Island of Roses) was a 400-square-meter artificial platform in the Mediterranean founded by an Italian casino entrepreneur in 1968. It styled itself as a libertarian capitalist state with Esperanto as its official language, but was in fact little more than a tourist resort complex, and had virtually no space for permanent residents. The Italian government, seeing the project as nothing more than a ploy to avoid having to pay taxes on revenue from the resort, seized the platform with police a few weeks after it opened and destroyed it with explosives[4].

Operation Atlantis[edit]

Deca, the currency of Atlantis — it also sank

Operation Atlantis was an American attempt by Libertarian soap-magnate Werner K. Steifel to create an anarcho-capitalist utopia (noticing a trend here?) in the Bahamas by building a large ferro-cement ship, sailing it to its destination, anchoring it there and living on it. The boat was built, launched from New York in 1971, and (after capsizing once on the Hudson river and catching fire) taken to its final position in the Caribbean, where it was secured in place. Preparations were made for the residents to immigrate to their new floating city-state, but unfortunately for them it sank almost immediately.[5][note 1] After two more attempts and eventually pouring a lot of money into an island off the coast of Belize that he couldn't get autonomy for, the project collapsed.

Sealand[edit]

Their Hoyal Highnesses, Prince Roy and Princess Joan, standing amid the fertile plains and majestic highlands of Sealand

The Principality of Sealand is a cute little boy in a sailor outfit with delusions of grandeur an abandoned British anti-aircraft platform of World War II vintage located in international waters east of the British Isles. In 1967 it was claimed and occupied by Paddy Roy Bates, the self-proclaimed "Prince Roy of Sealand" (29 August 1921 – 9 October 2012), former offshore pirate radio station operator, who also proclaimed his wife Joan Bates (2 September 1929 - 10 March 2016) "Princess Joan". The population of this nation has never been more than one can count on both hands; nonetheless, the Principality of Sealand was invaded and conquered in 1978 by a group of German and Dutch nationals (including the kidnapping of Prince Roy's son Michael) whose coup was promptly reversed by Prince Roy who hired a helicopter to help him retake the artificial island. To this day it's as close as anyone has ever come to a functioning seastead— and that isn't really saying much.

An internet service provider, HavenCo.com, actually attempted to set up its servers on Sealand circa 2000 but the deal fell through when HavenCo's founder had a falling out with Prince Paddy Roy. In 2013, a HavenCo website has appeared, stating, "Havenco is launching new services in early 2013 to facilitate private communications and storage" and boasting "The next generation of online privacy coming soon!"

Prince Roy had listed the Principality of Sealand for sale, but since one cannot technically "sell" a monarchy, it was in actuality being offered for transfer of title or something along those lines.

Such is Sealand's reputation that the nation actually has athletes who represent the country, ships who have attempted to negotiate with Prince Paddy Roy to buy the right to flag their ships under the Sealand flag, the German hip hop group Fettes Brot shot the video for their 2013 track Echo at Sealand, and a phony-baloney outfit based in Germany selling counterfeit Sealand coins, stamps, and passports (not recognized by the de facto Sealand government of Prince Roy, who considers the outfit a criminal gang descended from the earlier coup attempt). It is an inspiration to micronation buffs who see it as an example of a successful micronation. However, Sealand has never been recognized by any other country as a sovereign nation (though a British court decision held that the U.K. had no sovereignty over it).

Sealand is depicted in the anime Hetalia: Axis Powers as a child in a sailor suit,[6] and in the webcomic Scandinavia and the World as a little boy wearing a crown and a t-shirt modeled after its national flag.[7]

Prince Roy died 9 October, 2012, leaving his son and heir, Michael Bates (who had been serving as Prince Regent Michael), as Sealand's Head of State, and the author of the Principality's historical book, Holding the Fort. The Prince is dead, long live the Prince!

MS Satoshi[edit]

The former MS Satoshi in 2021

In an effort to throw in as many libertarian buzzwords as possible into one news story, in 2019 Bitcoin entrepreneur Chad Elwartowski attempted to set up a floating home in what he thought were international waters 26 km (14 nautical miles) off the west coast of Phuket, Thailand. He and his partner Supranee Thepdet (a.k.a. Nadia Summergirl,[8] a.k.a. Bitcoin Girl Thailand[9]) planned to construct up to 20 homes, Chad[10] calling himself "probably the freest person in the world". Unfortunately the Thai navy didn't agree with his interpretation of the law and boarded the floating home, pointing out it was in Thailand's exclusive economic zone and therefore a violation of Thai sovereignty, an offence potentially carrying the death penalty.[11]

Elwartowski is not one to give up easily. After fleeing Thailand with Thepdet, he joined forces with two other seasteading advocates, Grant Romundt (creator of a popular hairstyling series on YouTube and a houseboat owner) and Rüdiger Koch (an engineer with Bitcoin wealth).[8] The three of them set up their business, Ocean Builders, in Panama in 2019, where they began building Seapod prototypes in early 2020. It was a terrible time to start a business, but as it turned out it was a great time to buy a cruise ship since the cruise industry had sunk like the RMS Titanic in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic. In October 2020, the trio purchased, with their new company Viva Vivas, the cruise ship Pacific Dawn for a song ($9.5 million), and renamed it after the — likely pseudonymous — Satoshi Nakamoto who created Bitcoin.[8] Despite starting the business with libertarian ideology, ship purchase and ownership is highly regulated,[8] and that's close to impossible to to escape if one ever wants to dock to refuel or even to leave international waters. After the purchase, the ship had to be piloted across he Atlantic with a professional crew, as the trio had no prior experience in legal or technical aspects of running such a ship. Elwartowski meanwhile tried to talk up potential tenants on Reddit, making some perplexing but detailed requirements for the 'freedom' of life in a cruise ship cabin:[8]

  • There would be no microwave ovens and no cooking in cabins. Only some cabins would have refrigerators, but meals could only be purchased in the restaurant, or perhaps from renting part of the kitchen.
  • Bitcoin mining rigs would be allowed in cabins, with initially free electricity, promising that no taxes would need to be paid for income derived in international waters.
  • Dogs would be allowed only in balcony cabins, and pet waste thrown overboard would engender a $200 fine.[12]
  • Electricity would initially be by the ship's generators, but eventually be provided by solar power.

Some of the more obvious problems with these restrictions are:

  • Microwave ovens are relatively low-energy use and very safe, but Bitcoin mining rigs are very high energy usage and can get very hot if not properly cooled with air conditioning. Imagine every tightly-packed cabin going full-blast Bitcoin mining day-and-night, and someone forgot to turn their air conditioning on full blast before going upstairs to get drunk at the poolside bar — oops, there a raging fire in the bottom-level cabins. If the A/C and mining are on separate circuits, one could even imagine the A/C going out everywhere while the rigs are still heating up in every cabin.
  • Undoubtedly there are wealthy people in the world who view a $200 fine far preferable to properly disposing of doggie doo. This rain of negative externalities dropping from the sky a few times a day is not likely to please the less wealthy libertarians on lower berths.
  • The likely very high electricity usage from Bitcoin mining on the ship is highly unlikely to be powered by offshore solar power in any feasible scheme. Even if the trio was eventually able to concoct such a scheme, they were required by the Panamanian government to sail 12 miles out to sea approximately every 20 days to dump their treated wastewater outside of Panamanian waters,[8] thus likely requiring disconnection and reconnection to a sea-based solar power grid.
  • Packing so many freedom-loving libertarians in so densely under a perhaps evolving set of rules enforced by the landlords is likely to generate a lot of anger and conflict, and bring out the asshole in everyone.
  • The claim that people living in international waters do not have to pay taxes is entirely wrong for US citizens, for example.[13]

If that weren't enough, the promotional materials at one point erroneously referred to COVID as the flu,[14] and also promoted the quack COVID treatment of hydroxychloroquine.[14][15]

After the purchase was finalized, it was realized by the new ship captain that due to the naivete of the new owners, the ship neither had a certificate for seaworthiness nor the insurance required to sail it, so the first stop was a Gibraltar dry dock for repairs to gain a certificate, and then insurance for the Atlantic crossing.[8] Insurance for the Panamanian anchorage proved even more difficult due to the unprecedented nature of a cruise shipped being semi-permanently anchored a few miles from a coast.[8]

Ultimately, the project failed because no one wanted to rent the cabins under the proposed conditions, not even true believers in both seasteading and Bitcoin.[8] But in one sense, insurance is the enemy of libertarianism. One can't easily enroll people onto a potentially life-threatening vehicle without insurance. One can't have insurance without insurance regulation, and one can't have regulation without government.

The Seasteading Institute[edit]

Libertarians Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman (grandson of Milton Friedman) founded the Seasteading Institute (SI) in 2008 with the intent of building a floating city.[16] In 2017 the Institute, by then Thiel-less, signed a deal with the government of French Polynesia, an autonomous territory of France in the south Pacific, but soon thereafter French Polynesia reneged on the deal.[17][18]

Similar projects[edit]

Vietnam's claim on Collins Reef in the Spratlys

Libertarians are hardly the only people to try and colonize the ocean. China, for instance, has used a version of seasteading in order to enforce its claims on the Spratly Islands, an archipelago in the South China Sea that's claimed in whole or in part by six nations (the PRC, the ROC, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei). They've been hard at work using land reclamation to build artificial islands with airstrips, piers, harbors, and helipads, which they say are for military "and civilian" use.[19]

In the 1970s, relatively apolitical seasteading project was proposed for the North Sea, "Sea City", based on the idea that "Man is fast running out of living space."[20]

In popular culture[edit]

The BioShock games[edit]

The video game BioShockWikipedia[21] features what is probably the best-known example of a seastead in popular culture both in form of the underwater city of Rapture and the flying city of Columbia. Spoiler: neither really panned out as intended.

Sea also[edit]

Don't see also[edit]

  • Waterworld — a dystopian seasteading film, that The Seasteading Institute felt compelled to claim was more about the problems of living on land than living on water[22]

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. Really, what else were they expecting? Naming your floating city project after a fictional city famous primarily for sinking is just asking for trouble. The removal of almost all of the ship's original gear for additional ballast and addition of an incredibly heavy concrete deckhouse didn't help.

References[edit]

  1. I'm Going To Build My Own Theme Park With Blackjack and Hookers Know Your Meme
  2. Silicon Valley Is Letting Go of Its Techie Island Fantasies WIRED 16 May 2015
  3. Is the Seasteading Dream Really Dead? Reason 19 May 2015
  4. When Italy went to war with the esperanto micro-nation Insulo de la Rozoj Visit Rimini 5 September 2009
  5. Libertarian Sea-Nations Have a Long History of Washing Up Vice 11 June 2013
  6. Sealand Hetalia Archives
  7. No joints for children Scandinavia and the World 30 September 2010
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 The disastrous voyage of Satoshi, the world’s first cryptocurrency cruise ship: Last year, three cryptocurrency enthusiasts bought a cruise ship. They named it the Satoshi, and dreamed of starting a floating libertarian utopia. It didn’t work out by Sophie Elmhirst (7 Sep 2021 01.00 EDT) The Guardian.
  9. Bitcoin girl Thailand by @ThailandBitcoin, Twitter (archived from 8 Sep 2021 17:48:36 UTC).
  10. [Chad meme] "Yes." by Chad Elwartowski (10:59 AM · Sep 1, 2021) Twitter.
  11. Seasteading bitcoin couple charged with violating Thai sovereignty as navy boards floating home, ABC News (Australia), 21 April 2019
  12. Pet policy (V1.0 5 Nov, 2020) Ocean Builders (archived from September 8, 2021).
  13. Taxpayers Living Abroad Internal Revenue Service.
  14. 14.0 14.1 The company wants to transform a cruise ship into a floating office for technicians (October 19, 2020) FR24 News.
  15. All aboard MS Satoshi—cryptocurrency utopia in international waters by Jon Southurst (20 October 2020) CoinGeek.
  16. About The Seasteading Institute.
  17. An island nation that told a libertarian 'seasteading' group it could build a floating city has pulled out of the deal, Business Insider, Mar 14, 2018
  18. Peter Thiel-founded floating-island plan sunk by the government of paradise?, The Mercury News, Mar 15, 2018
  19. Page, Jeremy. "China Building Airstrip in Spratly Islands, Satellite Images Show." Wall Street Journal, 16 April 2015 (recovered 22 June 2015).
  20. Sea City — circa 1971 by Austin Tate
  21. A comprehensive wiki for the series. (Spoiler warning, obviously, for those looking to play them.)
  22. FAQ https://www.seasteading.org/faq/