Putting Civilization in the Sea

This post is a book review. The title is an allusion to another one I wrote earlier this year.

Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians was written by Joe Quirk with contributions by Patri Friedman and was published earlier this year. It is kind of a unique style of book because it is basically a pitch for a dream. The dream—which they call seasteading—is to eventually have cities (preferably sovereign city-states) on the ocean. The book discusses some technologies that are converging that could make this dream possible as well as some problems that it could solve. It is divided into four parts. The first part discusses some precedents for living on the water (e.g. cruise ships, floating structures in harbours, and shipping container homes), the second gets into some technologies that could enable permanent life at sea, with lots of sustainability benefits, the third part goes into some possible business plans to make the economies of seasteads work, and the last part addresses common objections and the prospective benefits of getting some distance from politics on land.

Aside from cruises, which see an increasing number of people spend time at sea every year, a lot of the precedents for seasteading that the authors mention come from the Netherlands. Concerns about rising sea levels and a strong tradition of maritime engineering have made floating buildings (like this pavilion in Rotterdam) a bit of a trend. Because standardized, modular units (i.e. shipping containers) are already so familiar to the marine world, plans for floating structures (e.g. from this foundation) are often reconfigurable and plug-and-play. At one point, reading Seasteading made me think of tiny homes due to the shipping container parallel. There are also some very large structures being built at sea in the present time.

The section about promising technologies was the highlight of the book for me. They encompassed aquaculture (of fish and seaweed), power generation, and construction techniques. In the chapters of the second section, they talk to fascinating people like Ricardo Radulovich, Neil Sims, and Patrick Takahashi. The big, unifying idea was how aquaculture could tie together some nutrient cycles in ways that would have both economic and environmental benefits:

Insert seaweed, otherwise known as macroalgae, into the middle of our eight global problems[*], and the entire snafu transforms into a global circle of life. Consider how each of the grand challenges can be solved by the common weed of the sea.

(*The problems they list are: reducing carbon pollution, cleaning the dead zones, feeding the world, powering civilization, ending poverty in coastal nations, getting healthy, and saving the environment.)

For an example of this perspective, one thing they suggest is that cultivating algae in areas like the Gulf of Mexico with lots of fertilizer runoff could take up excess nutrients (and thus have very high yields) that are currently causing ecosystem problems:

In our debates about planetary pillage, we keep talking about nutrient “runoff” and water “depletion” and carbon “pollution” and food “waste.” But nothing in nature goes away. It’s merely moved. Phosphorus that once nourished the topsoil of farmland has been drained off and poisons the oceans.

They relate this to a neat quote from Buckminster Fuller.

As a New Brunswicker, I was happy to see a mention of dulse—although I've never tried eating it smoked like they suggest in the book—and of a researcher at UNB in this section.

In addition to aquaculture, another technology that is discussed in Seasteading is OTEC (Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion). OTEC can generate electricity from temperature differences between surface and deep-ocean waters. It also has potential synergies with aquaculture, since it brings up nutrient-rich cold water to the surface. The authors explain that,

The oceans are mostly a barren desert overlying a superabundance of fertilizer that the sunlight never reaches. Most sea life flourishes near land, where the ocean strikes the continental shelf and upwells. When this superabundance of nutrients reaches the sunlight, algae start their photosynthetic engines, becoming the foundation of rich marine ecosystems of life. ...
Takahashi asks, why are billions of hungry humans relying on natural upwellings covering 0.1 percent of the ocean? Why not create man-made upwellings, each supporting an ocean city?

In fact, they discuss ways in which OTEC can benefit each aspect of the water-energy-food nexus (it contributes to "fresh water, deep-sea fish harvests, surface fish farming, and clean energy").

Some other technologies they discuss are Aquapods (which were shown in Earth: A New Wild, I think) and Biorock.

After reviewing technologies that could address the basic resources that would be needed for cities on the ocean, Seasteading considers some businesses that could locate there. One of the key ones they mention is medical tourism. This section was the least interesting to me (in comparison to the rest of the book; I'm not saying it was boring), so I'm not going to say much about it in my review.

There is one chapter in the book that is structured as a Q & A where the authors address common objections they've heard. Here is an example of how they come up with a lot of their rebuttals:

Often when we introduce the seasteading movement to audiences or individuals, we are met with the same cascade of questions. Each is easy to answer if you think like a citizen of the aquatic world, especially if you ask, “Has the cruise ship industry already solved this problem?”

One of the philosophical drivers of the dream of Seasteading is that the ability to vote with your feet drives political progress. The end of the book delves into this perspective quite effectively. For example, the authors point out that eras in history with a profusion of jurisdictions have often been very dynamic and innovative (e.g. classical Greece, renaissance Italy, and the westward expansion of the USA). They also discuss how existing small island nations are often more innovative and successful than their neighbours (e.g. Singapore and Mauritius).

The world today is full of people who want to leave dysfunctional countries and seek a better life. The authors think that cities on the ocean could help meet this pent-up desire:

Our long-term plan is to build new city-states for the hundreds of millions of would-be emigrants around the world who are ready to give up on their failed states. After all, it’s the poor who suffer the most from backward governance, not those wealthy enough to rig governments in their favor.


If you take away any message from this book, it is this: Seasteading is about emigrant rights. People should be allowed to opt out of governments they didn’t choose. Seastead pioneers don’t need you to vote for them. They only need you to not petition your politicians to stop them.

One of their chapters is titled "Rights Flow from Frontiers"; they discuss how not only does having a free place to move to help the people who settle there, but it often inspires reforms to eventually trickle back to the places they left:

It was realized in America, but the aftereffect is that all countries in Europe went democratic after the founding of the United States. That’s the essence of seasteading. You try experiments in new places, and people in the old world discover, ‘Oh this is pretty good,’ and they adopt it.

My main criticism of Seasteading is that the authors are true enthusiasts and the book probably would have benefitted from a skeptical editor (on the other hand, maybe contagious enthusiasm is appropriate for the first book on a topic like this). For example, this sentence made me shake my head a little bit:

Part of the challenge is breaking down macroalgae so we can reduce it to the methane and the carbon dioxide, but that’s just a biotech challenge. (emphasis added)

They also use the portmanteau "bluetopia" (semi-?) unironically. However, in spite of the surfeit of enthusiasm, I'd recommend this book. It's worth reading for the descriptions of cutting-edge marine technology alone. I also feel that they're on the right track with the idea that having a new frontier available would bring many benefits.

I'll conclude this review with a quote from Seasteading that sums up the authors' pitch:

Over the horizon, new solutions are being generated at increasing speed, and we need to create a forum where they can be tested. The mounting emergencies of sea level rise, peak oil, peak water, peak phosphorus, peak soil, health care costs, poverty, war, and government gridlock aren’t going away while we cling to the status quo. Governments forged in previous centuries are the institutionalization of the status quo. For the sake of the brilliant children being born right now, we must embrace our ignorance, relinquish our desire to control others, and allow innovators to take the plunge.

Since this book is basically a pitch for a very ambitious dream, as I mentioned in the introduction, my review is just a tiny part of an on-going conversation. Check out some other reviews, from a variety of perspectives, of this book and the idea behind it here.

Finally, a blog note: Seasteading has been the third book I've read this year about life at sea. It covers potential future possibilities, while the others have considered the history and the experience of seafaring (A couple of years ago, I also read a book on wave dynamics and mechanics). So I guess it has been something of a theme. I also have an upcoming post planned with a connection to the ocean, so stay tuned if this theme interests you.