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A good time to live on the ocean? 'Seasteaders' double down during pandemic

The seasteading community has for years pushed the idea that living in independent, human-made communities on the ocean is the way to move society forward.
Image: Artisanopolis - Sustainable domes and power-grids
Artist concept: Artisanopolis - Sustainable domes and power-grids.The Seasteading Institute and Gabriel Scheare Luke & Lourdes Crowley, and Patrick White

The seasteading community has for years pushed the futuristic idea that living in independent, human-made communities on the ocean is the way to move society forward.

And what better time than a pandemic.

“The safest place to be in a pandemic is a seastead,” said Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute, an organization based in San Francisco that promotes the creation of new living spaces on the high seas or on far-flung islands.

Seasteaders have always been persistent, saying they will overcome big challenges in ocean engineering with time, creativity and an ethos fueled by Silicon Valley techie libertarianism. The idea began to gain steam a decade ago with help from an ex-Googler and money from Facebook board member Peter Thiel, and quickly became an extreme example of the tech industry's interest in reimagining every corner of society.

An Artist Concept of a Polynesian Inspired Floating Island.
An Artist Concept of a Polynesian Inspired Floating Island.The Seasteading Institute and Bart Roeffen

And now, rather than retreating in response to the global coronavirus pandemic, proponents have been as zealous as ever in the past few months about the drive to start new communities and, eventually, independent nations in remote corners of the ocean.

Advocates have delayed some plans because of travel restrictions, but through social media posts, an online conference and interviews, they said they were confident in their odds of surviving a pandemic at sea rather than land with more traditional access to food and medical care.

“If we lived under water in isolation or in our small groups, and we’re down there for extended periods of time, we wouldn’t have to worry about the coronavirus,” Adam Jewell, co-host of the Colonize the Ocean podcast, said on a recent episode. (Some seasteaders advocate building not on top of the ocean but underneath the water.)

In the Reddit group r/seasteading, people have discussed how they would respond in the event a pandemic came to their sea home, with one suggesting that sick residents could simply “detach and float away to a safe distance.”

In Singapore, one advocate said the pandemic had underscored the need for less crowded housing for migrant workers in the Southeast Asian city-state, and that floating communities near shore were the answer.

“Land use must be reviewed regularly for a compact country like ours. COVID-19 has put the spotlight on an area that needs urgent rethinking,” Lim Soon Heng, founding president of the Society of Floating Solutions, wrote in an opinion piece in the Straits Times, a news outlet.

Quirk pointed to a list of Pacific island nations that, so far at least, are believed to have been largely spared from the pandemic, including the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Samoa.

“Almost all continental nations report COVID-19 cases. Almost all island nations report zero cases,” Quirk said in an email.

Zero cases do not mean, of course, that remote islands will never experience coronavirus outbreaks before the development of a vaccine or effective treatments. Another kind of floating community, cruise ships, were the site of early outbreaks.

But Quirk said that island-based health care systems at least won’t be overwhelmed by a rapid increase in cases, which is more likely to happen in populous cities.

“When it comes to coping with a spike in COVID-19, we should worry more about Seattle than Palau,” he said.

Seasteading communities don’t currently exist — or if they do, aren’t advertising themselves — so it’s not as if people can flock to them even if they wanted to, but there is planning and money behind the dream.

Like virtual reality headsets or trips to Mars, seasteading fits a theme in Silicon Valley of seeking escape from the real world — and unlike the other options, the ocean is close by and the experience lasts longer than a couple of hours.

But the pandemic — and the disorganized U.S. response to it — has also confirmed the fears of some people that centralized institutions aren’t up to the task of governing and should be replaced, possibly where no nations yet exist. They even have an existing motto to go with the idea: Vote with your boat.

“If there’s any moment in history where we’re rethinking institutions, now is the time,” Joseph McKinney, president of the Startup Societies Foundation, told a virtual audience last month in the opening address of an online conference hosted by the foundation.

McKinney added in an interview that new communities could even be hubs of medical tourism and other innovation during a pandemic. “Before it all seemed kind of kooky, but COVID has been a great reset,” he said.

Seasteading combines streaks of various ideologies, including off-the-grid individualism, utopianism and sometimes anarcho-capitalism that values both profit and tax avoidance.

“Not always, but in many cases this is a version of disaster capitalism. No crisis is going to go unexploited,” said Raymond Craib, a history professor at Cornell University who is writing a book on early examples of seasteading.

After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, self-described “Puertopians” arrived on the island seeking low taxes and a dream of turning it into something like a Hong Kong of the Caribbean through bitcoin investments.

Craib, who has criticized seasteaders as “libertarian exit strategists,” said he is not surprised to see its adherents becoming more zealous. “It’s an ideological project that they are not going to relent on,” he said.

The pandemic has caused some delays. In Panama, the firm Ocean Builders was setting up a test near a marina where “tech enthusiasts” could stay for a month or more while contributing expertise, but that has been postponed, Quirk said. Ocean Builders said this week that some construction there continues.

There are significant barriers, including some existing governments. A seasteading effort by an American former bitcoin investor affiliated with Ocean Builders ended last year when the Thai navy towed the structure to shore, and two years ago French Polynesia scuttled a plan to create artificially made islands off Tahiti.

Image: Joe Quirk
Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute.Mario Covic

And there are daunting logistical challenges involved with building homes on the ocean, supplying food and planning for what could go wrong — now with the added pandemic complication, as well as more people getting used to having groceries delivered right to their door.

Seasteaders have discussed possible solutions, such as pandemic-safe drone deliveries and hydroponics systems for growing food out at sea.

“There’s a solution for everything, but they’re not very realistic solutions,” said Isabelle Simpson, a Ph.D. candidate at McGill University who is studying seasteaders. “There’s a way in which the seastead community can quickly become a prison.”

Marc Collins Chen, CEO of Oceanix, a company with the relatively modest goal of creating floating neighborhoods for existing cities minus the libertarian ideology, said he’s begun thinking through possible design changes with pandemics in mind. Permanent sensors inside buildings could detect outbreaks as they happen, he said.

The Seasteading Institute’s Quirk said nobody knows for sure the solution to the coronavirus pandemic, so people should try lots of ideas — including seasteading.

“Humanity can only discover the best solutions by lots of policies exploring the space of possibilities and learning from each other,” he said.