Archive for Seasteading

The Case for Floating Communities

Hot on the heels of the Seasteading Institute’s agreement with the French Polynesian government to develop a legal framework for the first floating island to be inhabited by humans, recent news coverage on seasteading has proliferated. Indeed, the idea of making one’s home on floating islands, or seasteads, is no longer the far-fetched, utterly inconceivable proposition it used to be. These floating islands have been pitched as self-governing communities that hope to spur business creation in a low-regulation environment. In fact, these islands have even been proposed as a solution to governments not innovating sufficiently, and as a panacea for the stifling regulations imposed on innovators by governments.  

However, as I will argue in this article, I believe the free-market, libertarian focus on minimal governance, as well as the hope that such floating islands will somehow become startup hubs that escape the regulations enforced on them by governments, are well-intentioned but end up missing the bigger picture. In fact, I believe that current media coverage is focused on the right topic (building floating communities in the ocean) but that the priorities and raison d’être are incorrect. 

Although there are many reasons why we may want to consider building floating communities, as I like to call them, three reasons in particular stand out for me. The first is to combat the very real problem of overpopulation and the potential resource scarcity in many of the world’s largest cities, many of which, not coincidentally, are near the ocean. The next reason, related to the first, is a controversial reason but one that I do not shy from announcing: the need to reduce the rent-seeking we see in the real estate industry, which concentrates wealth in the hands of a few people and results in backbreaking housing costs for the majority of residents. Finally, I believe that building floating communities can help us counteract some of the deleterious effects of climate change.  

It is no secret that the most desirable cities and regions in the world are also among the most crowded and expensive, the reason for which is simple supply and demand. While globalization and technology were supposed to level the playing field and diffuse some of the power that these metropolises hold, that has not turned to be the case so far. Indeed, we are seeing a movement from rural areas to urban agglomerations, and these megalopolises are becoming bigger and more influential, rather than smaller. One need only look at examples such as Shanghai, Tokyo, Silicon Valley, and London to see that this is the case. Thus, the argument that people could just move to a lower-cost region isn’t very helpful, since many jobs, companies, national governments, and centers of culture and influence are often found in these high-cost regions. There appear to be huge network effects, in which regions that offer greater opportunities for people to get ahead attract more and more talented people, who in turn attract other talented people, thus creating a virtuous cycle in which these regions become more populous and influential. 

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of this is overcrowding, and in turn, an increase in the use of resources. Indeed, while the rate of increase of the global population has slowed, United Nations estimates indicate that we will still see the world population rise over the coming decades; specifically, to 9.7 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. Naturally, this also means that more resources, such as water and arable land, will be required. This is one area where the people at the Seasteading Institute are correct: large swathes of the world’s population lack access to fresh water, and the lack of the mineral phosphorus, which is key to agricultural production, may become an exceedingly important issue in the coming years. Therefore, to account for the increasing populations in these regions, in particular those that are near the coast, it would be helpful to have floating communities where people could live, work, and even use the ocean for sustenance through aquaculture. Of course, since these communities would be near the shore, residents could also commute to work onshore, if need be.  

One more problem caused by overcrowding is the fact that the cost of real estate is sky-high in many of these crowded metropolises such as New York City, Singapore, Tokyo, London, Hong Kong, and so forth. And while I think that we should reward people who take risks and build businesses that deliver great value to humanity, what we are seeing in large regions and cities all over the world is the concentration of much of the real estate in the hands of relatively few people, who charge exorbitant rents. This in turn results in situations in which many people are paying half of their net income on rent, or for those who are fortunate enough to be able to purchase their home, backbreaking mortgage payments for 30 years. In both of these scenarios, people in these regions and cities are living with increasing levels of stress.  

Imagine if people living in large metropolises had other options, such as more government-subsidized housing, or, better yet, floating communities on which they could live, thereby hopefully bringing down the cost of housing, since a greater availability of units tends to lower the price of housing, whereas housing shortages tend to increase prices for everyone. 

Finally, the very real issue of climate change is one that we will have to deal with now, rather than later, especially since we are seeing record temperatures, rising water levels, and a huge chunk of Antarctic ice has broken off, among other threats. One way to attack climate change via floating communities in the ocean would be to experiment with multiple forms of clean energy such as ocean thermal energy conversion, ocean-based wind farms, aquaculture, and more. To be fair, the Seasteading Institute has mentioned climate change as one of the reasons to build floating communities. Specifically, low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean are at risk of losing land as the sea level climbs by 26 to 82 centimeters by the end of the 21st century, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To make matters worse, a Paris-Sud University study in 2013 found that French Polynesia and New Caledonia were the French-controlled islands most at risk of being completely submerged by rising water levels.  

However, no matter how strong the case for floating communities may be, many challenges exist, such as waste management, weather patterns, environmental concerns, building costs, and more. Fortunately, we also have many resources available to us to build such communities. By some estimates, for example, there are nearly 27,000 abandoned oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Suppose these oil rigs were retrofitted, refurbished, and used for housing. These structures are already there, and are not being used at all, so it may be a good idea to see if they could be used. And even if, due to environmental or safety concerns, we deem them to be uninhabitable, we owe it to ourselves to experiment with different options. Thus, we may not even need to build new structures since we could use existing platforms.  

If we were to build completely new structures, there are many different ways of approaching the solution. For example, in its French Polynesia proposal, the Seasteading Institute has suggested three solar-powered pilot platforms, each roughly 50 meters by 50 meters. One rendering of the plan shows a floating island supporting a multi-story building. Furthermore, Dutch design firm DeltaSync has concluded that building modular platforms arranged in branchlike structures would be the best way for these artificial islands to withstand the force of the ocean. However, as I have mentioned, we are not obligated to build floating communities in one particular way, and have a multitude of different approaches we could take. The point is that whether we use existing structures or build new ones, finding a solution to the challenges of climate change, overpopulation, and rising real estate prices requires us to be creative with our solutions and vigilant about building a better future for generations to come.  

Further, rather than attempt to build a utopia for libertarian businesspeople to escape regulations and taxes, and rather than seeking to avoid governments in the planning and building of floating communities, we should be actively seeking their support and assistance. Indeed, the Seasteading Institute abandoned its original idea of creating new countries on floating islands out in international waters, mainly because it is currently unfeasible. Further, its recent steps taken toward build floating islands in French Polynesia with the support and blessing of the government are steps in the right direction. Given the fact that the organization itself has estimated the cost of building its first pilot at $66 million, it may behoove us to obtain support and more importantly, funding from governments, in order to get the floating communities built.  

While the idea of creating a new country in international waters, where we can take our time building a new nation with values that we deem important to us, and at the same time avoid many of the mistakes that governments and elected leaders regularly make, is admittedly an exciting one, I believe that we need to take the necessary steps to get floating communities built as quickly and efficiently as possible, given that we have many challenges to deal with right now. And the best way to get floating communities built would be to demonstrate to governments around the world that this is a realistic and valuable solution to the aforementioned challenges of overpopulation, rising real estate prices, and climate change. Indeed, our children depend on us to make the right choices to secure a better and brighter future, and one way we can do that is to go full-force toward building floating communities.  

And in conclusion, that is precisely why I use the term floating communities rather than floating islands or seasteads – because we are all on this planet Earth together and hence comprise a huge planet full of different communities of people with a shared goal of protecting the world for future generations. And one way to ensure we have a future worth living for is to acknowledge the fact that most of the planet is composed of water, and not just protecting the oceans, but using them to our advantage in building out sustainable, vibrant communities where like-minded people can work on important projects while also contributing to saving the planet.