A startup country
Amid the turquoise expanse of the South Pacific, a cruise ship glides between a series of volcanic islands. As it approaches Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, the water surrounding it swells into large waves that lick the coast. It’s November 2017, and tourists lying on the beach watch the boat peacefully arrive and deliver more tourists to join their ranks on the golden sand. It’s 30°C. It seems like nothing could possibly disturb this Tahitian tranquility.
These innocuous waves are nevertheless viewed with suspicion by the island’s inhabitants. In February 2015, the fifth volume of a French climate report predicted a sea level rise of 21 cm along the Polynesian coast between 1950 and 2010 (3.5 mm/year). According to a study by CNRS and Paris Sud University, more than 30% of the archipelago’s islands are in danger of extinction. However, the Polynesians “will not accept” to leave them, warned President Édouard Fritch in December 2015.
Almost two years later, on the opening day of the 23rd International Climate Conference (COP 23), Fritch went to Paris to plead his case with Emmanuel Macron. The result was that on November 9, 2017, the French National Assembly adopted an amendment proposed by the French Polynesia MP, Maina Sage, calling for the restoration of a “Green Fund” credit line. Overseas Minister Annick Girardin authorized the fund on October 30. 22 million euros should finally fund projects to fight global warming in the Pacific.
Will it be enough to save Polynesia from a watery grave? In Papeete, there are growing concerns that so-called “climate refugees” will be displaced. The United Nations has said that by 2050, there may be 150 million such refugees worldwide. In a bid to be proactive, the Polynesian government plans to expand its territory by building a floating island. According to a model designed by the company Blue Frontiers at the request of the Seasteading Institute, it could be built off of Tahitian lagoons, not far from the coast.
The $60 million structure, planned for 2020, would consist of metal, recycled plastic, local wood, bamboo and coconut fiber. “Housing costs must be kept low and there must be work opportunities on the island for people to want to live there,” says the Seasteading Institute, a San Francisco-based NGO founded in 2008 by billionaire Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman, the grandson of the neo-liberal economist Milton Friedman. The island wouldn’t just be a technical feat reminiscent of the 1995 dystopian film Waterworld starring Kevin Costner: it’s also meant to reflect its designers’ libertarian ideals.
“Seasteading builds politically independent cities that float on the ocean,” says Seasteading president John Quirk. In the long term, they must have their own rules and produce their own culture. If Seasteading is reluctant to say it’s promoting a specific ideology, members freely admit they imagine a “startup country.” It’ll be up to the citizens to decide whether they prefer “a universal income or a free market.”
As early as 1962, Milton Friedman advocated replacing income tax with a minimum allowance, or a “negative income tax.” Rather than serve as a safety net for certain known risks (sickness, unemployment, old age, etc.) and tackle inequality, this money would go to the poorest. The money allocated wouldn’t be enough to lift them out of poverty – it would just make life more decent. Other proponents of this type of aid went further and argued for a universal income.
In the two decades following Friedman’s pronouncement, not a single state adopted the negative tax, but many, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, did apply other aspects of this so-called liberalization of markets. Friedman was lauded by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and advised US President Ronald Reagan. In 1981, when Reagan took power, the American navigator Kenneth Neumeyer published Sailing the Farm, a book that details how we could live independently, offshore. He introduced the term “seasteading,” or the concept of creating permanent dwellings at sea, which he compared to “homesteading.”
“Since I was 15, I have always known that I would live at sea,” writes Neumeyer. At the age of 28, the young man had already crossed the United States on motorbike and sailed throughout the Caribbean. But it wasn’t enough. He wanted to sail further, and longer. “Gas shortages and mechanical breakdowns inevitably happen. We must keep our spirits up, otherwise we will only ever sail on the weekends and live by ports instead of out there.’”
The book captured the attention of a Silicon Valley developer. To Wayne Gramlich, this was the way he could finally bring his romantic ideals of offshore micronations to life. He’d already witnessed two failures: in 1972, the stillborn Republic of Minerva off the Tonga Islands; and in 1993, the Oceania project. In 1998, Gramlich penned his own proposal in, “Seasteading – Homesteading on the High Seas, to get beyond the grandiloquence.”
Gramlich’s article was passed around Silicon Valley insiders and finally made its way to Patri Friedman’s screen. He quickly contacted its author. Luckily, the two men lived within a few miles of each other, in Sunnyvale, California. Milton Friedman’s grandson was in a polyamorous relationship, lived in community and regularly attended Burning Man, where he experimented with drugs and “self-expression.” He was also a sharp poker player.
In 2001, the two men began writing about seasteading. To prove how serious they were about it, they published everything, even their conversations, and two years later, produced a 150-page document full of practical advice on how to design a floating island. “My father and my grandfather wrote about things, I’m interested in doing things,” Friedman says.
Far from state control
Despite their serious intentions, the duo’s plans remained just words. “We were just two guys with ideas, writing a book and blogging,” says Friedman. The engineer was working at Google then. Finally, it would come down to another California giant to give him credit – literally. With the money he received from PayPal’s sale to eBay, Peter Thiel invested in Facebook, LinkedIn, and agreed to help the two men. Like them, he abhorred state regulation. He’d given money to libertarian Ron Paul as well as to the prophet of immortality Aubrey de Gray. “Peter wants to end death and taxes,” says Friedman.
Ten years after the publication of Gramlich’s article in April 2008, Thiel invested $500,000 into the new Seasteading Institute and put his right hand man, Joe Lonsdale, on the board. There was nothing fantastical about the business. “There’s a long history of crazy people trying to put things together, but the idea is to do something that’s not crazy,” he says. The following year, Peter Thiel explained in a blog post why he “no longer believes that democracy and freedom are compatible. […] The prospects for libertarian politics are bleak.” How does he propose to solve this? Thiel says that cyberspace, other galaxies and, notably, seasteading will do the trick. Because, “it’s more realistic than space travel.”
In 2011, Patri Friedman met Joe Quirk at Burning Man. Like him, this author from New Jersey loved the feeling of freedom that permeated Black Rock City, 1,190 meters above sea level. “Anyone who goes to Burning Man several times becomes fascinated by the way rules don’t apply there like they do elsewhere,” the writer says. But like Friedman, he thought that there might be even fewer obstacles to freedom further down, on the ocean.
“Governments aren’t improving,” Quirk says. “They have been stuck for centuries because there is a monopoly of land control.” Friedman agrees, albeit in more economic terms, using business school rhetoric. “The government is an industry in which there is a very high barrier to entry. We must win an election or foment a revolution to have a new one. It’s ridiculous. And a huge number of customers are stuck. People are complaining about smartphones that are two years old, but think about the time it takes to change citizenship.”
The Seasteading Institute wants to establish an island on the high seas, where states cannot exercise their authority. Beyond 200 nautical miles from the coast, principles of freedom prevail, both in terms of navigation and fishing. Since countries can freely build artificial islands within their territorial waters, Friedman’s team claims the right to do so offshore, independently. Only the economy is imposing limits on his dream.
“Currently, the high cost of construction on the high seas acts as a barrier to entry and hinders entrepreneurship in international waters,” said the institute. “This has led us to consider a cost-saving alternative in the territorial waters of a host nation, while maintaining the goal of political autonomy.” Before going further out to sea, the institute will therefore start off the coast of Tahiti.
An artificial paradise
In September 2016, the institute’s teams landed in Papeete for a tour of French Polynesia led by its president, Édouard Fritch. They came at the invitation of Marc Collins, the former Minister of Tourism, who’s also a businessman. “Our collaboration with the country was initiated by the Tahitians themselves and will bring jobs, economic development and resilience to climate change,” says Seasteading Executive Director Randolph Hencken.
Three months later, the Polynesian government paid him a courtesy call in San Francisco. On January 13, 2017, the government spokesperson and Housing Minister, Jean-Christophe Bouissou, signed a memorandum of understanding stating that “rising sea levels threatens [the island’s] land, its inhabitants and their way of life,” but also that the project “will bring new technologies, new research and new economic activity.” The institute said that Papeete “will not finance the studies nor the implementation of the project, which will not cost taxpayers anything.”
That said, Friedman and Quirk believe the project will ultimately be lucrative. That’s why they called upon a commercial company, Blue Frontiers, to carry it out. It’s similar to Blue21, the designer behind the floating Dutch structures in Rotterdam. While conducting their field study in Tahiti, Seasteading carefully reviewed local legal codes to make sure nothing could threaten the island. All that was missing was “France’s final approval,” says Patri Friedman, as if it were just a formality.
The Polynesian government has already given its approval. They’ve praised the pool of jobs and model of sustainable development that the structure will offer. Its agreement with Seasteady stipulates that it will provide for, “special regulation established under the laws and regulations of French Polynesia.” In other words, Papeete promises to make the island a special economic zone with advantageous conditions. The institute says these are “provisions specifically designed to attract investors.”
“If there are tax exemption measures, for example, it is part of the constitutional jurisdiction of Polynesia, which were recently clarified with the agreements of the Elysee, signed by François Hollande and Édouard Fritch in March,” Christian Lechervy, Ambassador and Permanent Secretary to the Pacific Community for the Overseas Ministry told Liberation. Will the structure be a new tax haven?
In March 2017, Joe Quirk and Patri Friedman published a book titled, Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians. It remains to be seen whether the island won’t actually simply accommodate the same wealthy customers as the cruise ships passing through the area.