Seasteading: visionary solution or deluded escapism?
Sai Shreya Sunkara
From mythology to modern scientific expeditions, the ocean has always been a source of both mystery and knowledge. Research has begun looking to the ocean more often to answer our toughest questions, from utilizing marine animals in medicinal breakthroughs to the newest point of focus: floating cities. Otherwise known as ‘Seasteading’, the concept of sustainable floating communities may seem nothing but an avant-garde daydream. However, reality and increasingly dire circumstances suggest the unconventional option may come into play soon, as we turn to seasteading for pioneering, sustainable solutions in housing and food production.
In 2019, Danish architect, Bjarke Ingels released designs for ‘Oceanix City’, a conditions-proof, mass-produced city constituted of interconnected, hexagonal floating modules. The settlement is a brainchild of Ingels, the Explorers Club, the MIT Center for Ocean Engineering, UN-Habitat (the United Nations’ affordable housing and sustainable development group), and OCEANIX, a private organization investing in these floating settlements. These hubs would act as housing, workplaces, religious quarters, recreational facilities, equipped with ferries and drones tying them to shores, all self-sustained with renewable energy, independent food production, and recirculating water.
The concept of sustainable floating communities may seem nothing but an avant-garde daydream.
UN-Habitat endorses floating cities as a remedy to growing global housing crises, increasing populations, and rising seas endangering coastal communities. In the United States, cities such as New Orleans, San Francisco, Boston, Houston, and San Diego face dire ongoing challenges of balancing an increasingly dangerous coastline and bustling coastal communities and economies. In San Diego, California, cliffside erosion and rising waters have taken several lives and made thousands of coastal properties uninhabitable.
With such precarious circumstances, others have already looked to solutions vaguely like Oceanix City. Specifically, Dutch engineers have built a ‘Schoonship’ colony in Amsterdam. Completely self-sufficient in terms of water and wastewater treatment, this community suggests a burgeoning exploration into alternative marine sustainable living developments, powered by renewable electricity. These offshore colonies would serve as centers for commerce, recreation, and education, all built consciously to avoid burdening their surrounding marine environments, while simultaneously serving to address these growing issues.
UN-Habitat endorses floating cities as a remedy to growing global housing crises, increasing populations, and rising seas endangering coastal communities.
As we explore any novel, trail-blazing option, the question arises of the emanating consequences. How do we protect these same marine ecosystems we hope will help save us?
Seasteading brings with it aquaculture practices that could actually aid humanity in its ever-growing demands for food and energy. By farming kelp, one of the planet’s most rapidly growing organisms, these communities would be able to help meet the demands for food without putting natural marine populations and resources at risk. Kelp further acts as a powerful tool in reducing CO2 emissions via absorption, as well as in providing food for farmed fish private to the seasteading colony. These communities would thereby have access to nutritious food with no compromise to their own self-sufficiency. Furthermore, according to Ingels’ design proposal, the structures themselves would be built from bamboo, the planet’s fastest-growing plant, mitigating the demands that construction of the fleets would bring.
This bold, new idea is not without its complications and red tape. In terms of governance and leadership, these communities as represented in the Oceanix City model would be tethered to and thus, wholly bound to a nation and its legislation. However, the realm of seasteading has been particularly alluring to those who wish to escape the responsibilities (and likely, taxation) of traditional countries. To some, particularly those who share libertarian ideologies, seasteading offers a unique opportunity: political start-ups. For example, the Seasteading Institute, which is invested in heavily by billionaire tech entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, views seasteading as a method to experiment with untethered innovative libertarian sociopolitical and economic systems.
How do we protect these same marine ecosystems we hope will help save us?
These political intricacies must be fleshed out and likely, regulated; however, the roadblocks do not end there. Psychological boundaries may prevent acceptance of such an unorthodox movement. Simply put, people will likely get nervous at the potentially unnerving thought of living completely on the ocean and far from land. Although they may seem easily surmountable, these technical and emotional nuances are integral to the long-term success of this growing area of research and development.
Despite a few major kinks left to hammer out, seasteading may seem like a blessing. However, while innovative, Oceanix City and its counterparts are humble responses to a staggering set of climate-related issues. While the fruition of these communities may serve to lighten the weight of socioeconomic pressures on coastal communities, their rise would not abolish these burdens or act as feasible permanent fixes. These developments would help with the rising pressures of climate change, but they are a band-aid, not a cure.