Joe Quirk wants humans to make their lives on man-made islands in the oceans. The author and “aquapreneur” at the Oakland-based think tank The Seasteading Institute says that the imminent threats of climate change, namely some six feet of sea-level rise by the year 2100, demand radical solutions. His new book, Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians, argues for a unique and controversial one.
According to Quirk, floating islands, or seasteads, would serve multiple purposes: housing people, generating ecological stability, and making money. And they may soon become a reality. In January 2017, The Seasteading Institute signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of French Polynesia to establish a pilot project in the South Pacific that would both test the viability of seasteads and attempt to boost tourism jeopardized by climate change. It is not clear how much it would cost to live on these seasteads, or who exactly might profit from them. Says Quirk, “Seasteads are a technology for anybody to form whatever kind of society they choose. If you have a plan for a nonprofit society where people can join for free, seasteads will allow you to test whether your plan works in reality.” The Seasteading Institute itself is a nonprofit organization.
The tone of Quirk’s book, co-written with Patri Friedman (grandson of Milton Friedman) is in keeping with the imperialist attitudes that have led to so much of the land in the world being colonized by white men who have no claim to it. Indeed, The Seasteading Institute and movement are vastly dominated by men. Those “seavangelizing” appear to be suggesting that now that they have run out of land to colonize, the seas are next.
Though there is an entire section of the book devoted to pointing out the differences between claiming Mars for human settlement and taking over the oceans, the agendas and funding sources of these movements are markedly similar. While SpaceX is a pet project of Paypal and Tesla founder Elon Musk, libertarian tech billionaire Peter Thiel was an early investor in seasteading. Seasteading advocates maintain that living on man-made islands will bring about a total release from politics—but it seems more likely that in forming floating nations, they would simply be trading one form of politics for another.
Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians relies heavily on the imagination. Mostly, what the book asks us to do is to envision alternative economic and political systems to the ones we have now—which, regardless of one’s views on seasteading, is a vital exercise.
—Maya Weeks for Guernica
Guernica: How does seasteading differ from, say, living on a sailboat in a marina?
Joe Quirk: Seasteads are man-made islands that float permanently on the ocean with any measure of a political autonomy. They would essentially be startup societies where people could form whatever kind of community they wanted.
Our prototype for the first floating islands in French Polynesia already floats in the Netherlands, an ultra-innovative nation when it comes to adapting to sea-level change. The Floating Pavilion in Rotterdam is sustainable and powered by solar energy. It was built by our Dutch partners DeltaSync/Blue21, who joined our seasteading team in French Polynesia in March to meet with local marine biologists, business leaders, government officials, and the Tahitian press.
Guernica: Can you explain what you mean by “startup societies”?
Joe Quirk: Nearly half the earth’s surface is unclaimed by any country, so seasteads would be startup countries on the blue frontier. Patri Friedman is a Google engineer and theorist of political economy who realized that if society floated, it would completely change the nature of governance itself. If seasteads are modular and can be moved about, allowing people to choose new societies, we’d create a market of governance providers, competing to attract residents.
The first seastead happened fifteen centuries ago. The result was the most beautiful city in the world, Venice. People who were sick of their violent governments fled to the water, where they built civilization on stilts. That startup society—a free city-state on the water—became so successful it dominated the Mediterranean for a thousand years. By the time of the Italian Renaissance, Venice was filled with some of the richest merchants in the world, and they supported artisans and architects and every imaginable form of business, attracting poor farmers to move to what at the time was called “the floating city.”
Nobody could have imagined Venice until it was tried. Seasteaders want to create as many twenty-first-century Venices as possible. If Venetians can seastead with muscle power and firewood, we can do it with hydraulics and 3D printing. We just need the courage.
Guernica: How did you get started thinking about this? What draws you to the idea of living on floating islands?
Joe Quirk: I’m a novelist and science writer. I wrote a book about human impacts on marine mammals caused by agricultural drainage of nutrients on our coasts, and another book about evolution. Seasteading captivated me because it incorporates both evolution and environmental restoration.
I’ll explain evolution first. Evolution is variation and selection. If you can vary alternatives, and select among them, improvement emerges. It works in technology, in apps, and in life itself. What stunned me about seasteading is that it’s a technology for variation and selection in governance itself. The reason some two hundred nation-states do a poor job of governing seven billion people is that they don’t vary, and people don’t select. They’re just big monopolies that can’t be changed without a war or revolution. But with seasteads we don’t need revolution because we have evolution. If seasteads are modular and can be disassembled and reassembled according to the choices of the residents, we will have variation by governance providers and selection by residents. As long as people can create, choose, and leave seasteads voluntarily, the best solutions for governance will emerge. We could have a vast diversity to choose from, setting better examples that will change the world as dramatically as Venice changed the Mediterranean, or Hong Kong changed China, or the United States in the eighteenth century changed the entire world.
My other book is about the problem of agriculture creating tremendous amounts of nutrients that drain into the seas and negatively impact marine life. When I spoke to aquapreneurs like Ricardo Radulovich, I learned that though agriculture can pollute the ocean environment, aquaculture can restore it. Ricardo has plans to use seaweed to absorb nutrient runoff and transform it back into food and fuel. Imagine if your floating seaweed farm actually restored the local ocean environment, and provided a food source more healthy than corn, wheat, or soy. Ricardo’s vision so inspired an agricultural businessman named John Guido, he volunteered to serve on The Seasteading Institute business advisory board and work with me to establish a company called Restorative Foods. Imagine eating not to sustain the environment, but to restore it.
This is an example of how seasteading requires us to throw out all the assumptions we bring to land-based problems. Floating ocean-cities are fundamentally different from land-based cities.
Guernica: What role do you see community playing in seasteading?
Joe Quirk: Seasteads are a technology for anybody to form an alternative community based on their unique values—for communities to organize themselves however they want. Seasteads are their chance to demonstrate their vision can work. All that matters is that people can create, join, and leave seasteads voluntarily. As long as people can choose among seasteads, the best ways of living together will prosper, and the ones that people don’t like will fail.
Guernica: What are the financial, energetic, and social requirements for such communities?
Joe Quirk: If people prefer seasteads to their land-based nations, they’ll move there. Floating eco-cities will rely on people choosing them. Each seastead will have to profit by providing an [original] service to the world. In my book I feature some of the aquapreneurs who plan to offer these unique services, like algae-based food. Many of these involve energy technologies that would be better than sustainable. In fact, they would be environmentally restorative.
The world is full of innovators who want to work beyond obsolete paradigms. Algae farmers want to absorb carbonic acid from the oceans. Fish farmers want to re-populate the oceans with fish. Aquapreneurs reach out to The Seasteading Institute every week asking to be a part of a community that’s testing these blue technologies on a floating innovation hub.
Ocean civilization requires us to completely rethink the assumptions we bring to land-based civilizations. Imagine if your floating ocean-city actually improved the environment.
Guernica: How would that work, for example?
Joe Quirk: Our Dutch engineer Bart Roeffen proposed this idea to the president of French Polynesia and his cabinet: What if you could restore coral reefs simply by the presence of your floating island? Not many people know that much of coral bleaching is caused by a rise in water temperature. Bart’s company, Blue21, is working on a technique to position platforms to create shadows on the seafloor which reduce the temperature of the local water by a few degrees. A slight temperature reduction will allow the the local corals to recover.
When we visited French Polynesia, we dove to inspect the corals so Bart could determine whether a strategic positioning of seasteads could allow the corals to rebound. It was tragic to see the colorful fish swimming among corals bleached white. It was obvious these fish evolved in an environment of colorful coral. Bart concluded that a scattering of floating islands could be beneficial to the local coral, and we’re conducting the environmental-impact study this year.
This is just one idea. On land, we’re so accustomed to cities being destructive to the environment, we don’t realize how floating water cities can restore it.
Guernica: How are seasteads different from traditional cities and governments? Once a seastead has its own governing structure, what makes it distinct from a land-based society?
Joe Quirk: Choice. People can leave seasteads, or people can choose them, and people can create new seasteads if they want. [This fluidity] will engage an evolutionary market process that’ll allow a diversity of societies to emerge that will in principle be superior, simply because people chose them. Governments on land don’t allow this fluid dynamic of choice.
Guernica: What portion of the world’s population do you see seasteading?
Joe Quirk: DeltaSync/Blue21, which are constructing our first floating islands in Tahiti, calculated that with 13 percent of humans living on the oceans, humanity will achieve ecological balance with nature. They hope humanity will accomplish this by 2050. Seasteading could be the means by which humanity will live sustainably.
Guernica: Who would fund the seasteads?
Joe Quirk: Companies and individuals have already expressed interest.
Guernica: What are the problems you see with the way we’re organized now that you think seasteads could circumvent?
Joe Quirk: The problem with the way we’re organized is that people aren’t allowed to organize something new in a totally new space. As a service provider, all I need to know is that people identify problems with governance, and propose solutions, and they have no place where they can try them. Seasteads are a technology for them to try.
I think of seasteads as being analogous to the iPhone. We provide the platforms; you supply the governance apps. Thinking about seasteading requires us to free ourselves of these broad political categories we’re stuck with on land. People can make whatever community system they want on a seastead. What emerges will totally defy the broad categories we debate about now.
Guernica: So seasteading positions governments as sources of competition and seasteads as alternatives that offer people choice and mobility. How do you see social services traditionally offered by governments and employers, such as healthcare, childcare, and eldercare, working on seasteads?
Joe Quirk: In my book I feature an entire section on medical professionals who plan to provide faster, cheaper, better healthcare from floating hospitals at sea.
Since floating islands don’t exist yet, we have to use real islands as examples. Mother Teresa’s former heart surgeon, Devi Shetty, founded a Health City in the Cayman Islands, less than five hundred miles south of Miami, where he offers faster, cheaper, better healthcare to both Americans and the Caribbean poor. It’s build to withstand Category 5 typhoons, and solar energy cuts energy consumption to 50 percent. This is a stupendous humanitarian achievement.
Dr. Shetty told The Economic Times in 2014, “The best location to build a hospital on the planet today is a ship that is parked in the US waters just outside its territory.” The essence of seasteading is to let successful models spread around the world. Seasteads could allow Dr. Shetty to build more floating hospitals offshore the United States. He should be empowered to take his successful model anywhere people need inexpensive care.
Guernica: In the culture of mobility proposed by seasteads, how will people maintain the cultural and social ties that lead to meaningful lives?
Joe Quirk: It’s up to the people who live there. Americans are very mobile and move around and choose the communities they want. On the ocean people would be even more mobile and empowered to link up with people they enjoyed, and detach and move away from people they did not. Increasing choice is a way to foster fulfillment in people’s lives. I choose my friends and I’d prefer to choose my neighbors too.
Guernica: Might that encourage discrimination and segregation? Is that a concern for you?
Joe Quirk: Should people be allowed to choose their friends?
Guernica: What do you see relationships between wealthy and poor individuals looking like on seasteads?
Joe Quirk: If you google “the eight great moral imperatives of seasteading,” you’ll find a video called “Enrich the Poor,” where are you’ll meet Michael Strong [an educational entrepreneur, seasteading enthusiast, and co-founder of FLOW, an organization of “conscious capitalists”]. If seasteads advance blue-energy technologies, they’ll create blue jobs. Millions of poor people living under exploitive governments are looking for a better choice. Seasteads won’t attract them without offering them better options.
Guernica: Earlier this year, The Seasteading Institute signed a memorandum of understanding with French Polynesia. Can you explain what that means?
Joe Quirk: The memorandum of understanding is an agreement to, among other things, create a special governing framework so people can experiment with innovative societies. French Polynesia sees itself as the center of the blue frontier, and its leaders have the vision to initiate the blue economy. It’s an extraordinary place with an extraordinary vision of the future rooted in its culture of ocean navigators, and we are honored they asked us for our services. Seasteading is simply a continuation of what Polynesians have been doing for thousands of years, which is moving among islands and founding the kind of communities they want.
Guernica: Why seastead instead of addressing the root causes of climate change and associated sea-level rise?
Joe Quirk: Pacific island nations need solutions right now. Seasteads can provide them fast.
Guernica: The tone of the book is optimistic and speculative. It asks the reader to imagine a world in which seasteads are viable options. Can you speak a little about the role of imagination in seasteading?
Joe Quirk: You can’t create the future unless you imagine it. A few years ago The Seasteading Institute imagined floating sustainable communities. Then we learned that the maritime engineering firm DeltaSync/Blue21 had imagined the same thing and had worked out the technical details. Now in partnership we’re working to build floating sustainable communities in French Polynesia under the banner of our company Blue Frontiers. Every practical aspect of our lives that we enjoy somebody had to imagine first. If you want to create something fabulous, you better start imagining.
Guernica: I understand Peter Thiel believes seasteads are less realistic now than when he began supporting The Seasteading Institute in 2008. Is there a need to modify the expectations of seasteads given what the Institute has learned about the ruggedness of the open ocean?
Joe Quirk: Peter Thiel kickstarted The Seasteading Institute in 2008 as a philanthropist but he is not currently involved with any seasteading project. Seasteading is happening much sooner than we anticipated, because so many capable, extraordinary people are volunteering to make it happen. Someday I hope to see a seastead embodying your values.
Guernica: You can probably tell that I’m skeptical about the ways that seasteading could increase equality. Is that something you’ve encountered a lot?
Joe Quirk: Let’s assume that solutions to inequality are available. I bet dozens of brilliant, compassionate innovators have amazing ideas for how to reduce inequality in societies. Where can they go to demonstrate their solutions will work? They can reconceive societies on seasteads. If anybody has an idea for how society can be done better, seasteading is a technology for them to demonstrate it to the world. We don’t need to argue about it when we can demonstrate it. This insight is why we work at The Seasteading Institute wearing T-shirts that say, “Stop arguing. Start seasteading.”
But I assume you want a concrete example. How can choice among polities solve the problem of inequality? I recommend the section in the book called “Shesteading,” based on a scholarly paper by Patri Friedman and Brad Taylor. I’ll sum it up real quick.
How did women earn the right to vote in the US? In 1800, most women were considered inferior citizens who were not competent enough to vote. Today women have equal voting rights. How did that change? It wasn’t because the existing government decided to be nice. Suffragettes advocating for women’s voting rights in the eastern states before the Civil War had very limited success. They wrote books and pamphlets, engaged men in public debates, and often won those debates according to the crowds who attended them. But it made little difference. Few established states were willing to change their policies.
Voting rights for women emerged not because women had voice in an old government, but because they had choice among new governments. As new territories and states opened up on the Western frontier, many women refused to go. Once frontiersmen realized they needed a way to attract wives to the new Western states, their newly formed governments competed to offer women more expansive voting rights. At first the voting rights were very limited, but the more rights the territories offered, the more women showed up. Many women moved to the frontier states and territories explicitly for voting rights. This started a competition among frontier states. Only after most of the frontier states had offered women voting rights, starting after the Civil War, did the country as a whole adopt the policy, much later, in 1920.
If half the US population can earn voting equality by choice among new polities on the Western frontier, imagine what we could achieve with choice among new polities on the blue frontier.
Guernica: One could argue that seasteads embody a pay-to-play format characteristic of our current neoliberal economies and governments and that life on seasteads won’t be accessible to people with very limited money. Aside from pointing to jobs like farming algae, which would keep poor people subordinate to business owners, how would you respond to this?
Joe Quirk: How do poor people become rich? Relatives of my great-grandparents starved to death during the Irish potato famine. My grandmother was so poor, she fled Ireland for a job as a housecleaner in the United States. She was definitely subservient to her employers, but suddenly she could afford enough food to eat. She had six children, most of whom went to college and became wealthy professionals. Among them was my father. My grandmother lived to see me go to college.
Seasteading continues this process. Without a better place to go, impoverished people stay where they are, suffer, and often die. When they go to a better place and accept jobs, they often put their kids straight into the professional class.
Poor people take jobs on cruise ships, and they will take jobs on seasteads, and it will improve their lives. This is the story of progress.
Guernica: Have you lived on a boat before, or spent extended time at sea?
Joe Quirk: I was first exposed to the possibilities of private governance at sea when I boarded an Alaskan cruise ship. I was a middle-class American who got to live like a fabulously wealthy American for a week. Most of the people serving me were from impoverished countries who got to live as middle-class American waiters for a week, and their jobs included healthcare. Were we more equal? We were all definitely more prosperous. Everything was cheaper for me than in my land city. And the jobs paid better than what the poor could get in their home countries.
Why was a night on a cruise ship cheaper for me than a night in a land hotel? And why were the wages better than what developing-world workers could get in their home countries? It occurred to me that the cruise ship was, in practice, privately governed. And it was governed well to the extent that residents and workers could leave and choose a better cruise line. What if it stayed at sea permanently?
Years later I boarded a National Geographic cruise of the the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, which are populated by unique species and which Charles Darwin revealed as a classic laboratory of evolution. All the tour guides on my ship grew up on the Galápagos Islands. They trained to be marine biologists so they could teach tourists about the majesty of the local environment. This created a tremendous economic incentive for the people of Ecuador to preserve their local environment and protect the marine mammals—at profit.
These two examples showed me that fresh ocean governance can do a much better job of governing human relations than old government monopolies, and that variation among islands can accelerate evolution not just in life, but in governance. Today I count among my colleagues mariners, marine engineers, and maritime attorneys, who all see the same vision. Seavilization will be better than civilization, and we have nearly half the world’s surface to discover it.
Guernica: What do you say to people who are reluctant to embrace societies without traditional governments?
Joe Quirk: In the 1700s, European monarchists were reluctant to embrace American societies without traditional governments where men were allowed to vote. In the 1800s, men in established eastern states were reluctant to embrace frontier societies without traditional governments where women were allowed to vote.
If you like your government, you can keep your government. Seasteaders are going to keep moving west on the blue frontier, and show that solutions come not from fighting but from creating.