Throughout history, there have been people who didn’t like the way things were in the land where they lived. Sometimes it was religious oppression that drove them away to start their own societies, although the most famous examples (the Pilgrims) ironically denied religious freedom to the natives who they moved in next to. Other times, people journeyed away from their homelands seeking better fortunes, with most prehistoric migrations probably happening for this reason, leading to most modern civilizations. Sometimes, people moved seeking other kinds of freedom, like political freedom, and this made starting a new country particularly attractive.
Whatever the reason for moving, we would be fools to assume that the days of people packing up and leaving established countries to start new ones are over. There is however, one big thing getting in the way of that: we’ve mostly run out of habitable land. Everywhere but Antarctica is claimed by some government or another, and even the claims made there are worthless because it would be incredibly difficult to actually move in and survive there.
That doesn’t stop people from trying to form their own micronations, though. In the 20th century, a number of people tried to start their own countries on floating platforms, artificial islands, and abandoned structures at sea. Some failed for economic reasons, others failed due to weather and other physical problems with the structures. Others failed when a nearby government felt threatened and sent forces to crush it. The only notable exception is the Principality of Sealand, which was established on an abandoned military platform. The occupants there managed to repel British forces and hold the platform to this day.
Other people have tried to form micronations on land, but had even less luck, with government forces either able to easily reach and stop them or, in some cases, ignore them because they don’t really pose a threat.
One small family group tried to leave the US to start their own settlement in 2013. After living in San Diego on their new boat for months, they set sail, but their efforts were frustrated by repeated storms that disabled their boat. After rescue by a commercial boat, they returned to the US.
Another recent attempt at starting a tiny new country failed in 2019, when a small home perched atop a spar was built near Thailand. Once government officials got word that the small platform would be used to start a sovereign entity of some kind, the Thai navy came and tried to arrest the occupants. They had left the previous day, and the Navy seized the home, towing it back to Thailand.
Most recently, an attempt to start a floating city aboard the MS Satoshi, a retired cruise ship purchased by Ocean Builders Central, failed due to insurance. They wanted to anchor it a couple dozen miles away from Panama and sell cabins to residents, who would do business with vendors on the ship. All business would have been conducted in Bitcoin. They couldn’t get insurance for the ship’s “journey” and ended up selling the ship for scrap.
The biggest thing going on right now is the Seasteading Institute. There aren’t any specific plans at the moment, but a late 2020 YouTube video details a design for small floating homes (supported on a spar) that are at least partially being 3D-printed in Panama. The current idea is to take the floating factory out into the ocean near the equator, where storms are far more rare, and start building the homes. They want to use the lower parts of the spar as an artificial reef, and that would make the homes and other future structures an environmental benefit and possibly afford legal protections.
In a screenshot of SpaceX’s Starlink terms of service (uploaded to Twitter by Whole Mars Blog), we see that Elon Musk might have similar ideas for a Mars colony. To use Starlink, one must “recognize Mars as a free planet and that no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities.” The company and others involved in the settlement of Mars are supposed to create their own self-governing principles when the colony is established.
Most people don’t take this too seriously, but then again, people didn’t take Tesla seriously in 2005 or SpaceX seriously until they started doing things nobody else was doing, like land rockets and reuse them.
The above-mentioned Seasteading Institute has aims at space, too, but aren’t nearly as far along as Elon Musk in that regard (they’ve done almost nothing). They hope to eventually build floating cities or collections of cities, and then use the wide open spaces of the ocean to build insane megastructures that allow much cheaper space travel than by rockets.
If I had to bet money, I’d bet on SpaceX. They’re actually putting people in space, launching new rocket designs and are building their own sea platforms, too.
One other possible plan for space colonization involves building giant donut-shaped space stations. This one is backed by Jeff Bezos, the second richest man in the world, who owns Amazon. These plans are derived from prior plans by Bezos’ college professor in the 1980s. While definitely possible, Bezos and Blue Origin aren’t nearly as far along in space travel as Musk’s SpaceX. They also haven’t said anything indicating plans for political independence.
It’s not a race, though. As they say in Wall-E, “There’s plenty of space, out in space!” If Musk settles Mars, Bezos builds space stations, and the seasteaders build their megastructures later, those things can all work together or at least coexist.
It took a lot of time and article space to cover the history and idea of the concept, so I’ll briefly touch on the environmental considerations here and explore them more in depth in part 2 of this article.
Long-term, the most important thing is that sea and space colonization allows us more room for human population growth without building everything to standing-room-only and completely destroying the natural world. The ocean is most of the planet, and there’s a lot of space for people to live in relatively low densities, which should help minimize the impacts of these new populations on the ocean itself. In this way, seasteading could be quite good for the earth’s environment in the long run.
This is going to depend greatly on how it’s done, though. The good news is that a would-be independent sea nation can’t strategically afford to be dependent on fossil fuels from the mainland. The only sane thing they could to to avoid being choked off would be to use renewable energy, which helps them be more sustainable. If you look at the Seasteading Institute’s videos, they’re hoping to do things this way.
It’s possible that people hoping to colonize the ocean might decide to do it with their own oil and/or gas platforms for energy, which would turn this good thing into a bad thing.
In part 2 of this article, I’m going to cover more of the potential impacts of seasteading plus the impacts of space colonization. I’ll also cover some relevant political challenges and impacts that could make things better or worse for those efforts.
Featured image: Render of a floating city. Image by The Seasteading Institute and Simon Nummy.
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