Seasteading Goes Adrift

The libertarian movement to build independent nations on floating platforms has hit a few snags.

A island with a cryptocurrency flag
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Photitos2016 and Antonio Gravante
/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every piece of land in the world (well, almost every piece) is occupied by one country or another. Wherever you are, there’s a government looking to impose its laws on you. So what are you to do if none of the 193 or so national governments that have carved up the Earth’s landmass suit you? Take to the sea, obviously.

That, more or less, is the thinking behind seasteading, a movement of people looking to create autonomous dwellings or cities at sea, outside the sovereignty of any nation-state. Seasteading has been in the news in recent days thanks to a couple—U.S. citizen Chad Elwartowski and his Thai partner, Supranee Thepdet, aka Nadia Summergirl—who have gone into hiding after being charged by the government of Thailand with violating national sovereignty by living in a small cabin mounted on a weighted spar, anchored 12 nautical miles off the shore of Phuket. The two are currently in hiding and the charge against them theoretically carries the death penalty, though Thai authorities, who have seized the property, say they may end up being charged with a lesser offense.

The home was launched in February, funded by a group of entrepreneurs called Ocean Builders with assets gained from early investments in bitcoin. “I just want to get seasteading [to] happen for real. I want to make it happen here in Thailand,” Elwartowski told Reason in March, saying he saw his home as a proof of concept for more ambitious projects to come. If the project had been successful, the plan was to sell other units to create a sort of colony around Elwartowski and Summergirl’s seastead. A short documentary series on YouTube, The First Seasteaders, shows the raising of the 20-meter spar, during which Elwartowski proclaimed, “To all those out there who want to control people’s lives through force, here’s my big finger to you.”

The seasteading concept has some historical antecedents, notably the Principality of Sealand, a long-standing micronation established on a disused British artillery platform in the North Sea by pirate-radio DJ Paddy Roy Bates in 1967. But the movement’s modern incarnation dates back to the founding of the Seasteading Institute in 2008 by Patri Friedman, a former Google employee and grandson of free market economist Milton Friedman. The institute received early financial backing from the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, though he’s since somewhat distanced himself from the project.

While the eventual goal of seasteading is still the creation of fully autonomous, politically sovereign communities, for the time being, the institute is looking to promote partnerships to build floating cities in cooperation with existing governments. The institute signed an agreement with the government of French Polynesia to build a lagoon in Tahiti in 2017, but the French Polynesian government has since declared that project void after public backslash.

In an interview last week, I asked Friedman, who is still chairman of the board of the Seasteading Institute but says he is no longer involved in day-to-day operations, whether Elwartowski and Summergirl’s fate would be a setback for the movement, a discouragement for those who might want to try seasteading. “I think that it’s more likely to wise up potential seasteaders to make sure they dot their I’s and cross their T’s legally,” he told me. “What I’ve gathered from what Chad and Nadia wrote is that they did notify the Thai government in advance. So I think seasteaders need to make sure that they get things in writing, that they’re talking to the right parts of the government and don’t just assume good will.”

Friedman drew a distinction between small-scale projects like this one and the “larger projects with nation-level partnerships” that have been the Seasteading Institute’s main focus. “Nobody thinks two people on a floating home is a new country that’s going to threaten anyone’s sovereignty,” he said. “It’s a honeymoon, not a country.” He said he believed other countries in the region could be more understanding and that Elwartowski and Summergirl might very well get another project up and running soon, on firmer legal footing this time. “It’s ridiculous that Thailand is saying that it’s treason to try out a new kind of floating home. It’s like threatening the death penalty for somebody not registering their car,” he added.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Elwartowski and Summergirl were bitcoin investors. Friedman said he sees seasteading and cryptocurrency as simpatico movements for “people who believe in decentralization of things traditionally done by a monopoly government using new technology.”

On the other hand, Friedman rejects the notion that seasteading is only for political libertarians. “That’s sort of the most visible group and the easiest branding with, say, Peter Thiel’s funding or my being Milton Friedman’s grandson,” he said. “But I don’t necessarily believe that libertarians or anyone else knows exactly how to make a great new government. The real problem is we don’t have ways to try out new laws and new systems of government at a small scale and scale up the ones that work. I think that I’ll probably like the more-libertarian ones best. But regardless of where I live, the more differenter governments that are out there, the happier I will be.”

When it’s not dismissed outright, seasteading is often ridiculed as a movement of Silicon Valley billionaires looking to avoid taxes or, in the longer term, escape ecological disaster. Friedman objects to that, saying, “There’s already a whole bunch of tax havens. We cannot compete with the Bahamas.” He says he believes that, in the long term, “most of the people who live [on seasteads] are going to be people from countries where the government doesn’t work very well. So even if those of us who have the resources to pursue it now are from that first-world demographic, I think that the people that it will help most are the people in the developing world.”

While it would be a stretch to say that seasteading is gaining anything resembling mainstream acceptance, the general idea of sea-born construction is looking less far-fetched. The artificial islands China has been constructing to bolster its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea could be looked at as quasi-seasteads, though with more of a Tiananmen than a Burning Man political ethos behind them. Friedman also points to a speech from April by U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed in which she suggested that “floating cities can be part of our new arsenal of tools” for addressing the impact of sea level rise on coastal regions and small island states. Ironically, given this month’s events, she used Bangkok as an example of a city that is “sinking by around 2 centimeters every year … while sea levels in the Gulf of Thailand are rising.” Districts of floating houses have been looked at as a potential tool for climate change adaptation. As I discuss in my book, Invisible Countries, small island states facing the prospect of mass displacement due to climate change could resort to something resembling seasteading in order to maintain their political sovereignty, reinforcing “their territory to keep at least some physical structure above water and keep a small group of inhabitants behind, even if the bulk of the population has relocated.”

This is not exactly the original intention behind seasteading. The idea was to allow people to escape the grasp of nation-states, rather than help existing nation-states perpetuate themselves in a warming world. But Friedman is unbothered by the shift. “If the economic driver for improving the seasteading technology is climate change mitigation, that’s great,” he said. “The more companies that are designing and building these things and the more mature the technology is, the easier that makes it for people that want to take to the sea for other reasons. Because it’s a very challenging environment, but, heck, it’s a lot less challenging than outer space.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.