Joe Quirk and Patri Friedman would like to see independent floating city-states born on the world’s oceans. In Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians, they lay out their vision of how this might be done. It’s one of the most interesting and inspiring books I have read in years.
The authors discuss many aspects of ocean colonization, including key technologies involved, such as open sea mariculture, ocean thermal electric conversion (OTEC), desalination, and methods of naval architecture for enabling very large floating structures. They also introduce us to many of the entrepreneurs who are pioneering one or another of these fields. But perhaps the most profound aspect of the book was its wide-ranging and deeply humanistic discussion of the implications of ocean colonization for humanity as a whole.
For example, they are fully aware of the damage that modern industrial society is inflicting on wildlife in the oceans, forcefully making points about issues such as pollution and depletion of fish stocks that environmentalists frequently make. But rather than use these issues to make an ecological case against human progress, they make one for it.
Specifically, they point out that most “pollutants,” including CO2 emissions and nitrate and phosphate runoff from industrial agriculture, are actually fertilizers, if properly applied. Too much fertilizer, as we see dumped into the Mississippi delta, can cause excessive local algal blooms that are fatal to fish. Moderate amounts, properly distributed across the underfertilized parts of the ocean could lead to extraordinary increases in marine life. The open oceans are deserts because of lack of trace elements necessary for phytoplankton, which in turn provide the food for fish.
As a result, more than half of all seafood used by humanity comes from the less than 0.1 percent of the area of the ocean that are properly fertilized by nature. Were we to provide similar nutrients to the open ocean, we could make its desert bloom, increasing the world’s potential food supply hundreds of times over.
This has been demonstrated by maverick scientist-entrepreneur Russ George, who tripled the salmon catch in the Pacific Northwest in one year by an experiment involving distributing a few hundred tons of iron sulfate into previously barren offshore water, thereby creating a plankton banquet that greatly increased the growth and survival chances of baby salmon. An alternative method of fertilization would involve bringing cold, nutrient-rich deep waters to the surface. If done as part of an OTEC system, both a fishery and power for an ocean colony could be produced in the process.
Such fertilization of the oceans would both take advantage of, but also act to counter, increased amounts of CO2 released to the world’s oceans by industrial combustion of fossil fuels. According to the authors, farming a region of the ocean equal in size to the state of Missouri would sequester all the CO2 released by human fossil fuel use worldwide. This assertion surprised me, so I did the calculation myself, assuming 1 percent efficiency in algae using solar energy to transform CO2 and water into biomass. I get that about ten Misssouris worth of ocean would be required. Still, the point is clear.
In addition to open sea mariculture, the authors say, ocean colonies could draw income from OTEC power generations, positioning themselves as strategically located ports, and by serving as liberated research labs and medical treatment centers, making available lifesaving cures years or decades before they are permitted by hidebound state bureaucracies ashore.
Even more important than their role in offering freedom for medical research would be the role of ocean colonies in providing places for what America’s founders might have called “noble experiments” in new forms of governance. The authors point to the immense benefits that Hong Kong conferred on mainland China by the example of its radically superior economic performance, which convinced the Chinese leadership to liberalize that country’s economy – thereby lifting hundreds of millions of people out of hopeless poverty.
The authors, who lean towards classical liberalism, which is unsurprising since Patri Friedman is Milton Friedman’s grandson, point to other exemplary economic miracles demonstrated by small enterprising nations, including Singapore, Taiwan, and Mauritius. They also include social democratic Scandinavian nations as examples to be considered.
Their point is not so much that free enterprise is better than socialism (although they clearly hold that to be true), but that the freedom to experiment with novel social forms is a powerful driver for progress. Different groups with very different ideas on how to organize societies might choose to start ocean colonies. Those whose ideas are unworkable will fail. But those that come up with better ways will prosper, draw immigrants, grow, and be copied, leading all of humanity forward by their example.
I have often made this point with respect to the true value of human settlement of space. New worlds offer a chance for new starts, whose founders can attempt to bring the best of the old world with them, leave the worst behind, and add important innovations of their own, showing everyone elsewhere the example of a better path in a place where the rules haven’t been written yet.
This, in a sense, is the great gift America gave to the old world. It needs to be given again. The seasteaders say we can do it on the oceans well before we will be able do it in space. That is probably true. But we can do it without limit in space.
So perhaps we should start with the oceans, and astonish the world with what free people can do. Then there will be no further question about what we might gain from space. There is nothing more valuable than freedom.
With backing from Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, Quirk and Patri have created the Seasteading Institute to further their vision. They put out a newsletter and hold periodic conferences to gather and network the financial, political, and technical forces needed to advance the seasteading agenda. I plan to be at the next one, and more people should be paying attention to this idea’s potential.