A floating techno-libertarian city might be coming to the Pacific

In May, a group will gather in Tahiti to discuss building floating cities off the French Polynesian coast. 

That’s right. The men of the Seasteading Institute (and something suggests, it will be mostly men) dream of building extra-national platforms in the ocean. 

The organisation has been derided as a techno-utopian pipe dream, or more prosaically, as a means of tax evasion since it was created in 2008. Still, its appeal has proved enduring.

The micro-nations movement is nothing new, but the idea of creating permanent dwellings at sea found a regulation-rejecting Silicon Valley incarnation thanks to PayPal founder and Donald Trump backer Peter Thiel, as well as Patri Friedman, economist Milton Friedman’s grandson. 

The seasteading idea came to Friedman out of his “personal dissatisfaction with the range, as a consumer,” he told N+1 in 2013. The range, of course, being countries.

Thiel is no longer officially involved, and these days, he seems a little less bullish on the idea. Maybe because he’s got a secret New Zealand passport to fall back on. “They’re not quite feasible from an engineering perspective,” he told the New York Times in January. “That’s still very far in the future.”

Nevertheless, the project continues. Thiel’s comments came just as the Institute announced it had an agreement with the French Polynesian government to explore creating sustainable islands off the  coast. 

Originally intended to be in international waters, the deal with French Polynesia will require the institute to produce an environmental and economic analysis before it can get started. 

As it turns out, creating an extra-legal island still requires some paperwork.

Who would still be a seasteader?

Ashley Blake is the Seasteading Institute’s unpaid Australian ambassador. Speaking at the Myriad startup festival in Brisbane on Friday, he acknowledged the broader seasteading idea remains “one of those long shot things.”

Joining the Institute around two years ago, he said the appeal of a “kind-of secessionist, creative movement” is in finding a way to live where the whims of government can’t wipe away progress. 

“I worked in carbon trading for the early years of my career, and a lot of the businesses died just because of the sign of a pen,” he said, referring to political changes in Australia that saw it get rid of the government-mandated price on carbon in 2014.

“For some people, society is not changing fast enough, for others, it’s far too quickly,” he said. Seasteading, clearly, is strictly for the former.

Humans will always dream of new ways of living. The question of who gets to lead the way must follow. Society is already purpose-built to benefit select white men, so why trust them not to simply build the new world in their image? 

Blake acknowledged the majority of those interested in seasteading are young men. In an email, the institute’s executive director Randolph Hencken said his best estimate is, “that we have been supported by 2/3 males and 1/3 females and numerous folks who would decline to be binary classified.”

There’s also the strong libertarian slant to the project. Blake, for his part, doesn’t like the label: “I’m a fan of good ideas. Libertarians have some good ideas. Do I think people should be roaming the streets with guns? Maybe not.”

He likes to think of the project as a startup — a place to test new technologies and ways of living with a small, willing cohort. 

“Swimming City” Design Contest Winner.

Image: The Seasteading institute

It’s also been suggested these cities could be the place to experiment with climate change adaptation. Not least by a new book Friedman contributed to along with Joe Quirk, called Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians.

Still, it’s unclear how they would immediately help climate refugees, particularly in the Pacific where the pilot floating island project will take place. There are also concerns in Tahiti about tax evasion and its environmental impact, the Guardian reported.

“These millionaires, lulled by an illusory desire to free themselves from the existing states, seem to have much more to gain than we do,” Tahitian TV host Alexandre Taliercio told the outlet.

Blake likes to characterise it as “social enterprise” — a chance to find ways to create a new, more environmental society from scratch. But not for everyone.

“It’s not a solution for a complete full stack of society,” he said. “Maybe the model that ends up working is a floating aged care home, we don’t know. Or maybe it’s a place where young entrepreneurs can go.” 

So will Blake be the first man on the floating platform, should it ever be built? 

“I’ve got a wife and a one-year-old baby, it’s not immediately practical for me,” he said. “Three or four years ago I would have jumped at the opportunity.” 

Is micro-nation building for the young and single? We may find out.

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