Through my years of service in the United States Navy, I have had the… I guess “privilege” is the right word… of experiencing, first-hand, just how unforgiving the oceans of our world are. I have been on a 250-foot ship while it was riding through 40-foot swells and gale-force winds. I have conned the same ship when part of its hull literally came undone and we were taking on somewhere in excess of 200 gallons a minute into one of our primary engineering spaces. I have dealt with wrecks and safety of life at sea emergencies. I have launched and recovered (and been launched and recovered in) more small craft than I care to count, in conditions that, looking back on them, were… interesting. I have executed so many UNREPs and man-overboard drills that they are all a blur. I have drilled for fires, flooding, gas attacks, boarders, small boat swarms, and pretty much every other major event you could probably think of. I have dealt with cranky, archaic machinery and electronics for which spare parts basically do not exist and against which salt water is constantly fighting.
And with all of that said and experienced by me, while this idea unquestionably appeals to me, I will remain skeptical:
It goes like this: Friedman wants to establish new sovereign nations built on oil-rig-type platforms anchored in international waters—free from the regulation, laws, and moral suasion of any landlocked country. They’d be small city-states at first, although the aim is to have tens of millions of seasteading residents by 2050. Architectural plans for a prototype involve a movable, diesel-powered, 12,000-ton structure with room for 270 residents, with the idea that dozens—perhaps even hundreds—of these could be linked together. Friedman hopes to launch a flotilla of offices off the San Francisco coast next year; full-time settlement, he predicts, will follow in about seven years; and full diplomatic recognition by the United Nations, well, that’ll take some lawyers and time.
Power. Fuel. Drinking water. Food. Waste management. Communications. Maintenance. Security. Transportation. Legalities. Medical emergencies. Oh God, the headaches…
To begin with, all countries that can own the waters, in their entirety, from the upper atmosphere down through the ocean floor, 12 nautical miles out from their shore. If you are inside of those 12 nautical miles, you are inside of whatever country is nearby… which is why those “gambling” cruises head straight out and dawdle at 13 miles. However, even more complicatedly, all countries have Economic Exclusion Zones that extend another 188 nautical miles out from that 12 mile marker, which basically means those countries have exploration, maritime resources, and various other rights to things in that area, but not legal jurisdiction over the water (like I said, it is complicated). This means you could set up a gambling island 13 miles off the coast of Long Island, but you would not be able to set up a sovereign fishery until you hit 200 miles. Bit of a commute, that.
Speaking of, office complexes off the coast of San Francisco? I am really hoping that Patri Friedman is talking about doing that inside of national waters, because even with the quickest personnel ferry scooting along at somewhere around 35 knots, you are still considering at least a 30 minute commute from the dock to the platform, not counting whatever time people will need to get from home to the ferry… And that is all assuming calm waters and no weather. And that people do not get seasick. Which they do.
Again, please do not misunderstand me – I absolutely love this idea, and I do believe that a lot of the societal problems facing us at the moment stem from the cold reality that there are no more undiscovered countries, so there is nowhere for folks to run from the creeping authoritarianism that is slowly infecting our country. However, as much as I know that this idea, at its ideal, would provide that outlet, I also know that the technology and willpower are at least a few decades behind the curve. Of course, they are talking a few decades in the future, so maybe their predictions are spot on.
I mean, hell, what are they going to do about one of the most-basic aspects of any seagoing vessel – fire prevention and combatting? Despite being metal, there are so many things on a modern ship that burn, and burn hot, the last thing you want is an uncontrolled flame scooting around your boat. I am not sure how commercial vessels do it, but every single sailor on every single USN ship is a firefighter, period. Sure, some of us still had to drive the boat, and some of us had to man the sound-powered phones, and so on, so forth, but all of us had basic training with extinguishers, hoses, and Halon, and could wade into the scene and drench the decks if we had to. So are the seafarers going to make firefighting training a requirement for all residents, with the additional mandatory requirement to respond in case of an emergency, or are they going to pay the megabucks to fund an offshore firefighting department?
Dunno. That is apparently not a frequently asked question (though they do touch on the “pirates” topic, but I believe they are being a bit short-sighted on that as well…).
I wish Peter Thiel (though the irony of the founder of notoriously-anti-firearms PayPal founding an offshore libertarian experiment is not lost on me) and Patri the best of luck with their Seasteading Institute, but it is going to take a lot more than a few pretty pictures and some carefully content-free marketing documents to convince me it is going to float…