Although Blueseed lacks a political component, seasteaders hope it will pave the way for more civic-minded experiments by showing that viable economies can be built offshore. It may also serve as a legal test case. Invoking the United Nations’ 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, Friedman notes that the first 12 miles offshore constitute a territorial contiguous zone that is bound by the same laws as those prevailing on land. The next 12 miles are subject to national laws involving smuggling, immigration, taxation, and sanitation. And every coastal nation has exclusive economic rights in the zone extending 200 miles off its shores, meaning that all the gas, oil, fish, and other resources are under its control. Blueseed reasons that it need set anchor only 24 miles offshore to evade U.S. immigration law. Seasteaders who want to be entirely independent will have
to anchor beyond the 200-mile zone.
“Blueseed certainly won’t be doing anything illegal,” Keenan says, “but it’s going to be an open question how the U.S. reacts.” To advance his agenda, Friedman last year launched Future Cities, a project aimed at studying the practical impact of nontraditional rules and legal systems. He is currently in discussions with the government of Honduras to operate a new city within an autonomous economic zone the country created when it amended its constitution last summer. The zone’s appointed governor and international oversight board will have broad powers to set their own business regulations and establish an independent judiciary and police commission.
An island nation is nothing without its island, and the task of creating one has fallen to the Seasteading Institute’s director of engineering, George Petrie, an expert in offshore engineering and retired professor of naval architecture at the Webb Institute in Glen Cove, New York. In their initial incarnation, seasteading communities would probably rely on existing technologies, Petrie expects. Seasteaders could, for instance, buy a used oil rig that can operate in 3,000- to 6,000-foot-deep water for about $100 million. “You could put everything you need on there, you could put solar panels, wind generators, and you could even put an open platform and still have 30,000 square feet or more of enclosed space,” Petrie says. A used cruise ship might cost tens of millions of dollars. The most cost-effective option would be a scaled-up barge: At about 1,000 feet in length, this type of vessel would run perhaps $350 per square foot, though the rocking and rolling from waves might make for a rough life aboard.
Petrie envisions a number of growth scenarios for offshore communities. Some may spring up the same way pioneer towns evolved on the American prairie, with individual families setting up in an area blessed with good natural resources. Perhaps algae farmers would cluster in a particularly rich patch of ocean. Then, just like on the prairie of old, these clusters might eventually draw enterprising businesspeople willing to open small shops in floating structures of their own, forming a nucleus resembling a village square. Other seasteading settlers might band together from the beginning and contribute to the establishment of a “mother ship,” a floating hub with shops, supplies, and infrastructure.
Petrie’s long-term engineering goal is to develop floating residential modules that could be replicated and connected “like Lego blocks” as the population grows. What these modules will look like—whether they will be connected by water taxis, gangways, or giant hinges, for instance—remains an open question. “If the business model is working, people are going to want to live there, and technology will find a way to attach them,” Petrie says.
In a 50-page study [pdf] first released in 2011, the Seasteading Institute rated the ocean’s most promising locations and focused on two development scenarios. The first, small communities, called shipsteads, would house between 100 and 1,000 people devoted to a single enterprise, much like the model being demonstrated by Blueseed. There is no prescription for who would shoulder the costs; each shipstead would have its own charter. But since the early ones would most likely be economic enterprises, investors or business owners would probably pay for their construction. The second type of
community, representing the Institute’s long-term vision, would be a “full-fledged city on the ocean” with 50,000 residents or more.
The study’s authors found that the most promising locations for the early shipsteads would be within the 200-mile exclusive economic zones of highly developed nations in North America, Western Europe, Australia, and East Asia. These communities would be connected to the mainland by high-speed ferries. They could benefit from access to land-based data links and underwater cables, as well as the nearby markets of high-gdp nations.
The Seasteading Institute study also ranked locations based on average wind speeds, air temperatures, and the possibility of pirate attacks. When evaluating shipstead locations, the authors gave twice as much weight to economic and business considerations as they did to the physical environment. They reversed that ratio for the more self-sufficient floating cities, or “metropolisteads,” concluding that the ideal sites for these would be along the western coasts of Central and South America, off the Brazilian coast, and in the South Pacific.
One of the top threats to any free-floating community is ocean waves. Oil rigs are usually evacuated during major storms, and the devices used to stabilize cruise ships in churning seas can usually tame no more than moderate swells. Even in areas with generally calm seas, waves can sometimes rise two stories high; in stormier areas, they can match the height of a five-story building, Petrie says.
A plausible solution is the floating breakwater, a circular beach that would protect the metropolis nestled inside. The leading models, designed by the Dutch Engineering firm FDN Group, range from simple chains of floating tanks to a full barrier that dampens the effects of oncoming swells. So far, the largest breakwater built by FDN is a 1,150-foot-long parking garage, located a few hundred feet off the coast of Monaco, connected to the mainland by a causeway and capable of blocking 22-foot waves. The cost: 80 million euros (about $100 million). “I wouldn’t say building a breakwater in the middle of the ocean is impossible,” says Dil Tirimanna, an FDN Group managing
director. “It would be extremely expensive, but it could be done.”
Inevitably, a proposal as wildly utopian as seasteading has its naysayers. “To me the question is not whether it’s feasible, but whether it’s wise,” says Vishaan Chakrabarti, director of the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University. “We already have a situation where wealthy people live in huge McMansions with any number of cars and a whole number of resources. If we are going to save our planet, we need to live together. We are not going to do that by going off and living on man-made islands.”
Pragmatic worries have followed the movement as well. How might a community of libertarians opposed to taxes and an organized military defend itself against attacks from pirates? The Seasteading Institute’s Keenan is unconcerned. He notes that pirates today are a problem only off the coast of Somalia and in the Straits of Malacca. More generally, he notes that many libertarians, the group especially interested in the concept, tend to be pro-gun. Any pirates would most likely have to grapple with sizable seasteader militias, getting a potent lesson about new politics in the process.