A white steel pole rises out of the sea off the Caribbean coast of Panama, poking above the waves like the funnel of a sunken steamship. Launched into the water last month, this is no shipwreck, but the base of what will soon become a floating home and, in the eyes of its makers, the first step towards building a brave new post-Covid-19 society, out on the open ocean.
“Coronavirus is an opportunity to show the world that what we’re building is actually going to be very useful in the future,” says Chad Elwartowski, in a recent video post from his beachside base in Panama. The Michigan-born software engineer turned bitcoin trader is a leading figure in the seasteading movement, a libertarian group dedicated to building independent floating cities on the high seas. Along with the bunker builders and survivalist preppers, their long-held ambitions have been bolstered by the current global pandemic. “No matter if you’re scared of the virus or the reaction to the virus,” he adds, “living out on the ocean will be helpful for these situations.”
It is not the first time Elwartowski has attempted to realise his dream of a floating future. In April last year, he and his Thai partner Supranee Thepdet (aka Nadia Summergirl), were forced to flee their first floating home off the coast of Thailand, just moments before it was raided by the Thai navy. They had constructed what they declared to be “the first seastead” 12 nautical miles from Phuket, but the authorities decided that the six metre-wide fibreglass cabin, perched on top of a floating pole, posed a threat to Thailand’s sovereignty. It was an offence punishable by life imprisonment or even the death penalty. “The couple announced on social media declaring their autonomy beyond the jurisdiction of any courts or law of any countries, including Thailand,” said Rear Admiral Vithanarat Kochaseni, adding that they had invited others to join them. “We see such action as deteriorating Thailand’s independence.”
After a few weeks on the run, dodging Thai patrol boats and eventually making their way to Singapore, the couple moved to Panama to relaunch their company, Ocean Builders with the financial backer of the project, Rudiger Koch, a retired German aerospace engineer. “This event has doubled down our efforts,” the group said in a statement, following the Thai ordeal. “We can all clearly see that seasteading needs to happen now as tyranny creeps ever more deeply into our governments to the point that they are willing to hunt down a couple of residents residing in a floating house in middle of nowhere.”
The coronavirus pandemic has given fringe libertarian groups around the world renewed vigour to pursue their dreams of building autonomous new societies. Government-enforced lockdowns and increased digital surveillance have added fuel to their suspicions of state control, while the suspension of day-to-day norms and the spectre of an economic meltdown have amplified their calls to rethink society. “When you’re not sure which virus is more contagious,” says the slogan of a recent meme made by Americans for Liberty, shared on Elwartowski’s Facebook page. “Covid-19, or those fine with complete government control.”
The sentiment lies at the core of the seasteading community, a disparate group that has grown since 2008, when the Seasteading Institute was founded in San Francisco by Patri Friedman. The self-styled anarcho-capitalist (and grandson of Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman) was working as a Google software engineer when he managed to attract funding from PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel to set up the institute. In a founding statement, they described its goal as being “to establish permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable experimentation and innovation with diverse social, political, and legal systems”. Thiel was nothing if not confident: “The nature of government is about to change at a very fundamental level,” he proclaimed.
Seasteading represents the ultimate Silicon Valley approach to governance, conceiving society as a technology that can be hacked and innovated upon as simply as an operating system. It is predicated on the idea that government regulation stifles innovation, and therefore the route to a better world can only be found by unleashing a new generation of start-up societies that are forced to compete for citizens in a free market of ideologies. Don’t like the rules of your current micro-nation? Simply move to another one. “We will give people the freedom to choose the government they want,” said Friedman, “instead of being stuck with the government they get.” Its boosters see it as the route to salvation; its critics say it would lead to “an apartheid of the worst kind”.
Progress has been bumpy. Thiel’s donations soon dried up, and Friedman’s plans never got much further than launching Ephemerisle – a waterborne version of the Burning Man festival, staged in the Sacramento River delta near San Francisco, where rival floating pontoons compete for the attention of soggy partygoers. He has since moved his focus away from the water, recently launching a company to develop experimental cities on dry land instead. But the Seasteading Institute continues without him, headed by author and self-appointed “seavangelist”, Joe Quirk.
“Nearly half of the world’s surface is unclaimed,” says Quirk, who published a book on seasteading in 2017, with the ambitious subtitle: “How floating nations will restore the environment, enrich the poor, cure the sick, and liberate humanity from politicians”. In an introductory video, he describes the planet’s oceans as “a sort of research and development zone where we could discover better means of governance”, and says that seasteading could “provide the technology for thousands of people to start their own nano-nation on the high seas”, giving people “opportunities to peacefully test new ideas about living together”. The most successful seasteads, he says, “will become thriving new societies, inspiring change around the world”.
So far, his own attempts don’t bode particularly well for the future of floating utopias. In January 2017, after years of technical feasibility studies and political negotiations, the Seasteading Institute signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of French Polynesia to build the first seasteads in its territorial waters. The designs, developed by Dutch architects Blue21, looked like a high-end resort in the Maldives, depicting a series of villas linked by an undulating green landscape. It was all to be magicked from the waters by an initial coin offering, a form of crowdfunding through selling tokens of a new cryptocurrency, all the rage among the tech community in 2017. “We’re going to draw a new map of the world with French Polynesia at the centre of the aquatic age,” Quirk declared.
The choice of location was strategic. Comprised of almost 120 dispersed low-lying islands and atolls, French Polynesia is at severe risk of suffering devastating consequences from even the slightest rise in sea level. It also happens to boast the world’s largest exclusive economic zone, an area of sea that can stretch for 200 nautical miles from a territory’s coastline, over which it can claim exclusive economic rights. At five million square kilometres, French Polynesian waters span an area as large as the landmass of the entire European Union, making it an ideal place to experiment with novel forms of aquatic jurisdiction. In theory.
“We explained to the Polynesians how having a quasi-autonomous area nearby was a good thing,” says Tom W Bell, professor of law at Chapman University in Orange County, California, who drew up the legal agreement for the project. “Look at Monaco, or Hong Kong or Singapore – special jurisdictions create a lot of growth outside their borders.” In his book, Your Next Government? From the Nation State to Stateless Nations, Bell traces the projected evolution of a seastead. It would begin “like a coral polyp”, he writes, protected by a country’s territorial waters, where it would start to generate economic activity, “enriching its environment and attracting still more life”, before breaking free to start a new autonomous life on the open ocean. Ultimately, he imagines seasteads nurtured by different host nations congregating in mid-ocean gyres, sheltered within floating breakwaters. “A new kind of government arises,” he writes, “born in Earth’s last free places, fated to advance the human frontier.”
The reality didn’t quite pan out that way in the South Pacific. “There wasn’t a perfect alignment of interests,” says Marc Collins Chen, former minister of tourism of French Polynesia, who co-founded the company Blue Frontiers with Quirk to realise the project. “The government was looking for something to address sea level rise and environmental degradation, whereas the Seasteading Institute was more about autonomy.” He says that the prospect of a tax-free enclave held little appeal for the locals, given that Polynesians don’t pay income tax anyway. One Tahitian TV host compared the situation to the evil Galactic Empire in Star Wars imposing on the innocent Ewoks, while secretly building the Death Star. The libertarian position didn’t help either. As Collins Chen puts it: “It’s very difficult to ask for government support when your narrative is that you want to get rid of politicians.” In retrospect, Bell agrees: “They already had a beautiful paradise in French Polynesia. The local community wasn’t very enthusiastic about the project, and I get it. They didn’t need strangers coming in and ruining their view.”
Collins Chen has since moved to New York, where he has established a new company to develop further plans for floating cities, this time stripped of any libertarian tax-dodging ideology. “I realised that the real future for these sorts of projects has to be closer to cities,” he says. “They have to be an extension of an existing city’s infrastructure, they need to be run by the mayor, and they have to pay their taxes – as opposed to being enclaves for the wealthy.”
His plan, titled Oceanix City, has been designed in slick Ted Talk style by Bjarke Ingels, the Danish architect beloved of Silicon Valley tech companies. His twinkling animations depict a floating world of interlocking hexagonal islands, where power is harvested from waves and the sun, where residents live on a diet of seaweed and fish, and where marine life is “regenerated” by artificial reefs. “If this floating city flourishes,” said Ingels in a presentation, “it can then grow like a culture in a petri dish.” On a screen behind him, the floating hexagons multiplied until they took up an area more than three times the size of Manhattan, a vision of low-density suburbia sprawling virulently across the sea.
“Over the next 40 years, the world is expected to build 230bn square metres in new construction,” says Collins Chen, “the equivalent of adding one New York City every month. This could be a way to accommodate that growth, without the devastating effects of land reclamation or deforestation.” He says part of the appeal is the ability to reconfigure the urban form according to changing needs, in a process of drag-and-drop city building. “You could literally float one a city block away and put a different one in its place, when the need for a new school, hospital or university arose.”
Remarkably, their sci-fi scheme has won the support of the United Nations’ sustainable development arm, UN-Habitat, which hosted a round table discussion for the project in April 2019. As global heating accelerates, sea levels rise and more people crowd into urban slums, “floating cities is one of the possible solutions,” said UN-Habitat’s executive director, Maimunah Mohd Sharif.
Back in Panama, the notion that floating habitats could be an inclusive solution to global housing need seems a long way off, to put it mildly. Despite the country’s coronavirus lockdown, the Ocean Builders team has been at work throughout, laying the foundations for a factory that will soon house the largest 3D printer in Central America, ready to produce what their website touts as “the world’s first 3D-printed, smart floating home with an underwater room wrapped in an eco restorative 3D-printed coral reef” – yours for between $200,000 to $800,000 (GBP160,000 to GBP640,000).
“In light of the global pandemic, we’re really focusing on making the homes feel like a kind of lifeboat,” says the company’s CEO, Grant Romundt, who worked on the Freedom Ship project in Florida in the 1990s, an aborted plan to build a mile-long cruise ship for 40,000 people, topped with a runway. “They should be a safe place to escape to and be totally energy independent, with solar panels on the roof, water desalination on board, waste collection by drone, and aeroponic systems to grow your own food.”
Designed by Koen Olthuis of Dutch architecture practice Waterstudio, the plans for the luxury “SeaPods” look like a row of gigantic motorbike helmets on poles, sticking up out of the sea in pearlescent shades of blue, green and grey. “We wanted to have something that was very futuristic looking, very clean and flowing,” says Romundt. “I didn’t want to have a 90-degree corner anywhere in the house. I think that’s bad feng shui.” The interiors recall supersized sanitaryware, envisaged as white, wipe-clean worlds of free-flowing surfaces, echoing retro-futuristic visions of streamlined space capsules. The similarity is no accident: for company founder, Rudiger Koch, seasteading is merely a stepping stone for trialling exploits in space. He has long harboured plans to build a cable “launch loop” to propel payloads into space without rockets, and he sees the ocean as the perfect launchpad. “There are almost only large open spaces at sea,” he told German regional newspaper, Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung, “and you need them to make sure that nothing goes wrong and nobody is hit by possible flying parts.”
Romundt insists that the company is merely building floating holiday homes, which will be registered as boats under the Panama flag for legal purposes, and likely operate on a timeshare basis. “That would give you the slow adjustment period,” he says, “then more of an economy would start to build as more people come requiring more services, and it would start to self-perpetuate and grow.”
For Bell, the ultimate goal is to see such floating communities raise their own flags in the open ocean. “Right now, a self-flagged seastead would have effectively no status at all in international law,” he says. “The coast guard would show up, assume you were either a pirate or a floating meth lab, and tow you right back in to shore. But if seasteaders can say they have enough people and a big enough territory, and start flagging themselves, that’s when things will start to get interesting.”
And if they fail? “That’s the marvellous thing about seasteads,” says Quirk. “If a government fails, there’s nothing much the people who live there can do about it, but if seasteads fail, they simply disassemble and go away” – seeing all those bitcoin dollars sink into the sea just as quickly as they were conjured.