Oct 29, 2010


"Law of the air" fans have a lot to learn from our friends at sea. So we consider today "Seasteading." That is the term Patri Friedman coined for his project, creating “land” that can float on the ocean, out of bounds of current borders. This aim is very similar to our aim, to create dwellings floating in the air.

Brian Doherty summarized the status of Seasteading in 2009. He attended theirconvention and wrote,

I am struck by how few would-be seasteaders have actual nautical experience, as opposed to lots of clever ideas about flotation, breakwaters (to protect floating domiciles from waves, including the dreaded, superpowerful “rogue waves”), and transportation of seastead-sized objects. One attendee—Mikolaj Habryn, who works for Google—tells me hetook a sailing course out of his interest in the topic, but for the most part these are not people with saltwater in their veins. They are computer types, social and physical engineers, and visionaries who for various reasons think experimenting with new social forms is an exciting challenge. Many of them tell me they are not likely to be early adapters living on small-scale experimental seasteads; instead they plan to wait until the business environment offshore has room for their careers, or until the comfort level for landlubbers rises a bit.

This lack of high-seas experience might be just fine. While ocean living creates unique challenges and costs—Friedman refers to these as the “ocean tax,” recognizing that seasteaders must eventually make the cost lower than the “government tax” you suffer on land—most prospective seasteaders think the obstacles can be largely overcome through money and thought. Human beings already know how to generate power on isolated locations off the grid. Wind, solar, and diesel strike Friedman as the most obviously feasible, and the ocean will probably provide a particularly suitable environment for wind power. Although seasteads probably will try to grow their own food, it can be shipped in if needed; the ocean is all about moving big things cheaply.

What about that most time-tested vessel for living on the sea: the boat? Modularly connecting the vehicles into larger communities seems tricky. Friedman’s ideal seasteading community can start small, grow marginally as the idea or the techniques improve enough to attract more people, and be able to both expand and contract as social experiments succeed or fizzle in the judgment of each individual seasteader. He fears boats don’t provide much room for self-sufficiency in food and power, let alone comfortable long-term living, given their space limitations. Finally, he’s leery of the “Just useboats!” line of thinking because ships are simply too old-fashioned to capture the visionary imagination in the way he thinks seasteading must if the movement is to thrive. Still, Friedman has been moved enough by the obvious immediate advantages in cost and proven legal status to think that living on retrofitted old ships might be a reasonable starting point for experimenting with his ideas.

Oil platforms, another existing model of ocean living and working, are cost-effective because they extract a valuable commodity. But seasteaders cannot, and don’t expect to, begin with resource extraction. That would certainly run afoul of both the Law of the Sea Treaty and any number of existing government and corporate interests that claim to have a say over how ocean-based resources should be used and allocated. For the same reason that taking over existing land is a bad idea for nascent seasteaders, anything that suggests a challenge to existing wealth and authority could hobble the movement while it’s still trying to find its sea legs.

Indeed, this aspirationally lawless bunch muses throughout the conference in Burlingame over the extent to which the world would view all seasteaders as a part of the same team, and thus whether seasteads would have to, gulp, police each other to prevent one bad apple from spoiling the bunch. They do not reach a conclusion.

Seasteaders do have a legal adviser: Jorge Schmidt, an attorney who has experience with the Law of the Sea Treaty. Schmidt is careful to tell me there are plenty of unknowns awaiting future floaters, although he approves of Friedman’s basic framework: get your seastead out of the 12-mile range that countries claim full sovereignty over, don’t mess with resources in the 200-mile exclusive economic zone that most nations also assert, and emulate existing ships in international waters by arranging with some nation to obtain a “flag of convenience” marking seasteads as under its protection. In open waters, only nations have rights. Individuals without a stable flag are considered pirates and outlaws.

The seasteading project benefits from the fact that many poorer countries are willing to sell their sovereignty to the highest bidder in a flag-of-convenience process that works to the buyer’s advantage. “I definitely think at the start those countries will want a cut [of whatever economic benefit a seastead produces], but keep in mind we’re in a good negotiating position,” Friedman says. “We can talk to every country in the world and only need one to give us the deal we want, and we can have them bid against each other for how low the cut can be.”

Schmidt speculates that full sovereignty might never happen for seasteads, but that it might not matter. “Maybe we’ll get 95 percent of what we want just paying Tuvalo,” he tells me. “If that’s the case, why go the extra step?” Reality is nine-tenths of the law: “What’s most important is to get things running, to have something concrete that works. Once we have that, the actual dynamics fuel themselves, rather than expectations and theory.”
Seasteading is currently considering life on ships, as opposed to anchored off-shore drilling platforms. This vision is closer to ours of un-anchored domiciles bobbing on the atmosphere's waves.

The passive air-dwelling community can learn a lot from these seasteaders--perhaps they will teach us to become airsteaders.

Seasteading Institute, http://seasteading.org/
Reason.com article by Brian Doherty discussing Seasteading and its political aspects: http://reason.com/archives/2009/06/08/20000-nations-above-the-sea/print

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