Seasteading, Self-Reliance Utopia, And Our Shared Future

An article recently published in n+1 examines a utopian futurist form of an idea that seems oddly symmetric with Seth’s posts about the history of exploration using Iceland as a case study. Looking back, we see much in common with explorers, pioneerspilgrims and adventurous thinkers of all sorts.  Looking forward, we are inclined to embrace smart, creative, enthusiastic group efforts to resolve seemingly intractable challenges. Especially when they involve living on boats. We recommend reading the following all the way through:

To get to Ephemerisle, the floating festival of radical self-reliance, I left San Francisco in a rental car and drove east through Oakland, along the California Delta Highway, and onto Route 4. I passed windmill farms, trailer parks, and fields of produce dotted with multicolored Porta Potties. I took an accidental detour around Stockton, a municipality that would soon declare bankruptcy, citing generous public pensions as a main reason for its economic collapse. After rumbling along the gravely path, I reached the edge of the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. The delta is one of the most dredged, dammed, and government subsidized bodies of water in the region. It’s estimated that it provides two-thirds of Californians with their water supply. 

At the marina closest to the festival, I spotted a group of Ephemerislers in swimsuits crammed into a dinghy. I approached them, but they were uninterested in small talk: their engine had run out of gas, and the marina was all out, too. They could give me a ride, they said, if I tracked down fuel. I contemplated  the sad marina, its shabby rental boats, the murky water. Almost an hour had passed when the festival’s ferry service showed up. At around noon, six of us took off in a small motorboat, speeding past Venice Island, a private sliver of land where Barron Hilton, heir to the Hilton hotel fortune, hunts ducks and puts on an annual July 4th firework display. Five minutes later, Ephemerisle came into sight, bobbing gently in an area called the Mandeville Tip.

It looked, at first, like a shapeless pile of floating junk, but as the boat drew closer, a sense of order emerged. The island was made up of two rows of houseboats, anchored about a hundred feet apart, with a smaller cluster of boats and yachts set off to the west. The boats had been bound together with planks, barrels, cleats, and ropes, assembled ad-hoc by someone with at least a rudimentary understanding of knots and anchors. Residents decorated their decks with banners and flags and tied kayaks and inflatable toys off the sides, giving the overall landscape the cephalopodan quality of raver pants. Dirty socks and plastic dishes and iPads and iPhones littered the decks. An enormous sound system blasted dance music, it turned out, at all hours of the day.

Each of the two-dozen boats at the party had a name—Bayesian Conspiracy, Snuggly Nemo, Magic Carpet, Mini-ocracy—and each name a personality to match, conveyed by the resident boaters’ choice of drug, beverage, or degree of exhibitionism. When I arrived, the Ephemerislers were partying in various stages of undress. They had been encouraged to make the space their own, to mind their own business, and to do as they pleased. This was, after all, a celebration of the laissez-faire life—an escape from the oppressive, rule-bound grind of dry land. In this suspended, provisional unreality, everybody was a planner, an economist, a designer, a king. Attendees were ready for everything the elements had in store, but knew escape was just a few clicks away, should the experiment go terribly wrong.

It is apparently a coincidence that Ephemerisle’s location shared a name with the 16th-century proto-libertarian philosopher Bernard de Mandeville. Mandeville Tip is a breezy point in the middle of the Delta, flanked by levees and a short boat ride away from a former county park. It’s named after a 19th-century Californian politician, J. W. Mandeville, but the more well-known Mandeville, of the Fable of the Bees, had much in common with Ephemerisle’s freewheeling spirit…

As openers for stories go, we are hooked.  Further in, about half way through the article starts to dig deeper into the who and what that form the substance of the ideas, or ideology, of the movement being described, and some fundamental differences in worldview appear:

…The Seasteading Institute was founded in 2008 by PayPal founder Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman, a former Google engineer best known for being Milton Friedman’s grandson. Although both men are outspoken libertarians, the nonprofit institute insists that it isn’t politically motivated. It claims to want more space for political experimentation—and the beauty of aquatic governance experiments is that they’re free to fail on their own merits. “If we can solve the engineering challenges of Seasteading, two-thirds of the Earth’s surface becomes open for these political start-ups,” explains Friedman, a self-styled cult leader who’s known to the community as just Patri. The Seasteaders have chosen as their motto “Let a Thousand Nations Bloom’—an apparent spin on “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom,” a Maoist policy which encouraged dissidents to speak out and then used their views as a pretext to jail them.

The mantra was repeated many times during the Seasteading Institute’s third annual conference, which took place one week before Ephemerisle in the basement of the San Francisco Grand Meridien Hotel. The Institute hasn’t been officially affiliated with Ephemerisle since 2009, but a number of attendees, many of them Seasteading Institute staffers, had plans to go to the festival and encouraged me to come party with them. A few older donors to the Seasteading cause planned to make appearances at Ephemerisle, expecting to look out of place in the festival’s trippy, offbeat surroundings. There was a rumor that Peter Thiel would go, too, but no one could confirm it.

The crowd at the conference was disproportionately white, male (I counted maybe ten women in the room) and wealthy (tickets started at $715), and the vast majority of attendees needed no prompting to profess their tax-hating libertarian views just minutes into a conversation. The junket also brought together a number of academics, who, I later learned, had been courted by the Seasteading Institute because their expertise—legal, environmental, or technical—happened to contribute to the greater Seasteading project. The experts had no plans to visit Ephemerisle; in fact, the movement’s radical, libertine side seemed to elude them completely.

Like Ephemerisle, the tenor of the conference was scrappy, defiant, and idealistic.  The event was staffed by a group of a dozen Seasteading Institute “ambassadors,” who proselytize for the cause all over the world, and talks ranged from the highly speculative—“Seasteading for Medical Tourism,” “The Economic Viability of Large Floating Structures”—to the practical: “Seastead Security,” for instance, outlined how water cannons and noise machines can protect the cities from pirates and government agents. A panel of legal experts offered a dense explanation of the legal aspects of Seasteading, which is theoretically possible since no one nation has jurisdiction over the high seas. Still, as one lawyer on the panel pointed out, there’s no way of knowing how existing countries will react to this assault on their dignity. The Seasteaders I spoke to were undeterred by the possibility of a seastead shutting down at the hands of a belligerent country or the international community. One Institute “ambassador” who spoke of Patri Friedman in hushed, reverent tones, told me she was confident that the movement was on the right side of history, and that they would be vindicated in the end…

Will the challenges we face be resolved by individualists, and if so is there such thing as collective action by individualists–is this an example? Read the whole article here and feel free to share your thoughts in our comments section.

3 thoughts on “Seasteading, Self-Reliance Utopia, And Our Shared Future

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