SeaSteading makes for great theorizing. It is an idea that has yet to be sullied by the unfortunate limitations of reality. However, while we policy types talk, others are doing the actual work to turn dreams into reality. Sam Bhagwat, the CFO of BlueSeed, and his partners are on the ground floor of the flagship attempt at real-world seasteading. I had the chance to virtually sit down with him on Wednesday, getting an on-the-ground perspective of the attempt to build a 1000 person seastead off the coast of Silicon Valley. We talk about the law, future communities at sea, seasteading’s international appeal, and his personal drive to be involved.
I started out the week with a few of my own thoughts and an interview with Randy Hencken, Executive Director of the Seasteading Institute, who was gracious enough to reach out and participate in our discussion.
In “From Jules Verne to Sir Julian Corbett” Viribus Unitis provided a worse-case scenario for rogue sea-based nations, and along with LT AJ Kruppa’s “Sea-based Nation Security” delved into the issues of warfare and maritime security among city-state platforms. LT Kurt Albaugh took a similar tack and pondered the potential use of sea city-states as Afloat Forward Staging Bases and launching pads for military operations in “Bridging the Moat.”
One common issue posters grappled with was the applicability of international law to the concept of seasteads. As it stands, international law in the form of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) throws up many road blocks for seasteads and sea-based nations.
Ian Sundstrom pointed out that UNCLOS doesn’t grant man-made structures their own EEZs, reducing the resource incentives for a seastead to transition from a flagged vessel to a micro-nation; LTJG Hipple noted UNCLOS has established rules for the mining the deep-sea bed in international waters; and, multiple posters discussed both the necessity of flagging a seastead as a vessel (if only for their own protection) and the restrictive effects of existing states’ territorial waters, contingency zones, and EEZs on placing a new sea-based nation.
All this illustrates the importance and real impact international law can have on maritime security and the health of a nation’s economy. It also suggests the benefits to be gained by influencing international law to one’s own advantage – as Randy Henrickson himself pointed out. This is something done through enforcement of international customary law, for example freedom of navigation transits through international straits, or by having a seat at the table when negotiating the terms of treaties or helping to enforce, interpret, or implement them. True, a nation (even a sea-based nation) can violate the rules, but there are courts and international mechanisms which can make it very painful on the pocket-book to do so (whether or not a signatory), through negative trade rulings, banking sanctions, or exclusion from certain markets. In short, those hoping to seastead or create a sea-based nation have a lot of work to do not only in creating new experiments in government, but in changing or gaining acceptance for new international norms.
The preferable flag for seasteads will vary based both on their location and their future intent. Those seeking to eventually declare themselves a fully fledged micro-nation would do well to choose a flag of convenience. While flags of convenience provide only the bare minimum of legal security against other states and criminal enterprise, they do promise minimal interference both in the short-term and the day when a seastead attempts to gain acceptance as a micro-state. The navies and coercive powers of Panama and Liberia are, sorry to say, not particularly fearsome. Additionally, the lack of security provisions of the flag state can be balanced by recourse to the legal systems (and militaries) of the seatead’s own citizens – at least until they become members of their new micro-nation.
For those seeking to create a seastead near the EEZ of another nation, there are a couple options, each with its own advantage, if autonomy short of independence is acceptable. First, the seastead could seek the flag of the major port – this would greatly lower the cost of doing business with what will likely be the seastead’s major trading partner and critical logistical support hub. Second, the seastead could seek the flag of a “champion powerful enough to coerce non-interference,” as CDR Hodges put it. This could be a nation looking for a major trading hub, a nation looking for a military foothold in the region, or some combination of the two.
Sovereignty and Resources:
No matter what route seasteads take to attempt the transition to micro-nations or harness the resources of international waters, the difficulties they will face are daunting – but not insurmountable.
A clear mechanism for the transition to micro-nation would be preferable. Perhaps with minimum qualifications such as self-sufficiency, a written constitution, a minimum population level (and a hefty “application fee”). Whether or not the sea-based nation was mobile would also factor in, with a permanent residence likely gaining greater acceptance. A successful qualification could be awarded territorial waters an EEZ, and a zone in which it can mine the deep sea bed. These distances could be specifically delineated on a case-by-case just as the 200nm EEZ was created out of whole cloth. A sea-based micro-nation could be its own form of sovereignty with its own legal conditions rooted in international law. Here I turn the question to you – what other sorts of qualifications do you think should be applied?
In reality we are likely to see more muddled development, with some seasteads gaining recognition by one set of nations, and others another. The aforementioned powerful champions will likely aid those with cultural ties, hold out the promise of co-developing resources, or offer a military or economic foothold as described above – presenting seasteads with the trick of charting their course to true sovereignty in a sea full of sharks (but such is the case of diplomacy everywhere).
Lastly, seasteads may also experiment with what are really old models of armed forces, by requiring all hands or all citizens to be ready to defend themselves against attack (see picture), they may require new citizens to spend a spell in dedication to the nation (universal conscription), or they may just hire out mercenaries. The size, economic-base, wealth, technological level, form of government, and relative security will all play a role in determining the form of the armed forces.
It’s also important to remember that not every seastead or sea-based nation will be floating, but many will, and that will make them particularly vulnerable to any sort of attack. The morality of bombing/torpedoing such a target might be equated to sinking dual-use ocean liners and might force the type of hybrid maritime/urban warfare Viribus Unitis discussed – especially if the sea-based nation develops few offensive or stand-off weapons to justify an initial bombardment.
We may hear more about sea-based nations in the future, with another interview or two in the works. And for those of you in the DC area, don’t forget our meet-up Wednesday, from 6-10pm at District Pi Pizza, where you’ll have a chance to meet a few of the posters and discuss in person the writing. We’ll also have an informal poll from the week for the Best Written, Most Original Thought, and Most Persuasive pieces.
Biomining the Sea
Seasteads are intended to be entrepot that trade in the capitol of the mind: new ideas, technologies, and management styles both public and private. Scarcity is the mother of invention, and on platforms with no natural resources, innovation and expertise are the only tradable commodity… but that will not be the case for long.
Innovations in the field of biotechnology are leading to the more efficient use of microorganisms to leach minerals straight from the sea as a byproduct of fresh-water production. I discussed biomining as a tool for commanders attempting to use battlefield refuse for 3D printing, but on a larger scale it produces a duel-win scenario for Seasteads looking for a supply of both water and profits to support their sea-borne society. While many nations have claims to the vast mineral wealth of the sea-floor, none lay claim to the water-borne mineral content of the high seas. UNCLOS does state in general terms the wealth of the sea being for all people’s, but such stipulations would be too vague to implement if even the institutions existed to enforce them. The minerals of the sea are an open resource, without claim or contract, to be claimed by seasteaders.
This brings to mind a society that may look very much like our friends, the Australians. Australia is an innovation hub, most recently producing the first single-atom transistor. This is the primary vision of today’s Seasteaders. Australia is also blessed with with abundant resources. The Australian mining industry is booming supported by the hardy entrepreneurial spirit of prospective miners. There is a hearty internal migration of workers out to isolated mining camps to make their fortune. However, most Seasteads will not be glorified roaming country clubs supported by the existent wealth of their monied passengers; they’ll be commercial experiments. No matter how advanced, they will be constrained and distant places like the FIFO camps of Australia. With sea mining, however, Seasteads can add the mineral wealth of the sea around them to the income from the advances developed onboard.
Glimpses of the Future
Seasteading will lead to a bevy of new technologies driven by self-sustainment and efficiency. From mining the sea to water production to electricity generation and retention to recycling. All these developments inadvertantly make Seasteading a model for future space travel. Although under far friendlier circumstances than a cold, radiation-bombareded death vacuum, the efficiencies found by communities living at sea will no doubt find application to our future missions in space. The same bio-mining procedures for the sea could be used on far-off bodies where it is easier to bring a small culture of microorganisims that can be grown to necessary size, rather than the bulky equipment necessary to process ore. As the conventional modes of business are overturned in an attempt to colonize new portions of our own planet, we will be preparing ourselves to colonize others.
Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
So the trappings of life under the thumb of your home country have finally forced you to the seas. Why not strike out to the pristine, untouched mineral-rich reaches of the Arctic? Climate change in the far north may soon open the long-sought Northwest Passage which will allow ships summer time passage from Europe to Asia a fraction of the travel time. Oil exploration is booming with all the big oil companies vying for their slice of the pie. Increased shipping capacity could mean a black gold mine for your tiny floating kingdom, if you can find a place to put it.
This map shows just how complicated the Arctic seascape really is. Russia has already planted their flag at the North Pole sealed in a titanium capsule. They are still working out the particulars on the definition of their continental shelf, which may validate their claim of the pole and a huge swath of the frozen north. But don’t forget, once clear of Russian claims you still have to contend with Danish, Norwegian, Canadian, U.S. and Icelandic territory. A sea-based nation could benefit from partnership with any of these nations for security and export potential, assuming any of them would be interested in having a little neighbor to the north.
An Arctic sea-base would mean a harsh existence for its inhabitants. Long periods of cold and darkness would require advanced climate control. Keeping the whole thing afloat on or amid constantly shifting polar ice and occasional liquid water would require clever flotation systems. Yet all the expense of setting up this sea-base will be worth it. Othershave made significant investment with seemingly impractical logistical hurdles but still continue to make the far north work, there is such a huge economic incentive to do so.
Creating a sea based nation in the Arctic could provide a tiny floating country with vast mineral wealth and, if the climate models pan out, an easy way of getting it to market. And as of this writing, the Somali pirate threat to the Arctic is pretty much non-existent, good news for security.