Environmental paradise or dystopian debacle? Promise and peril of futuristic island communities (commentary)
  • Today’s utopianists believe we should build structures that float on the ocean instead of continuing to build on land and modern-day “aquapreneurs” say we can solve housing problems by spreading out across the water.
  • There’s a surge in floating settlements in places like the Netherlands where it’s already a reality with even the U.N. discussing the probabilities to solve housing shortages and rising sea levels among other issues.
  • Nikolas Kozloff, an American academic, author and photojournalist, brings up the drawbacks of the housing’s high price, the use of environmentally-destructive crypto-currency, anti-vaxxers finding these islands advantageous, and the push for right-wing libertarian “techno” vision of societies.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

In an ideal world, perhaps we can learn how to live in coastal areas while coping with climate change and perhaps even pursue cutting-edge technologies in tandem with innovative island communities. In light of global warming and flooding, such aspirations are becoming a social imperative since increased migration puts a strain on cities. 

For some time, utopian ideas have played a significant role in Western culture by informing progressive thinking, providing a sense of purpose to ongoing social struggles, and promoting ambitious city planning. Today’s utopianists, however, are literally “rocking the boat” by arguing we should build structures that float on the ocean instead of continuing to build on land.

To be sure, floating communities can face severe weather conditions on the high seas. Modern-day “aquapreneurs,” on the other hand, believe we can solve housing problems by spreading out across the water rather than trying to fend off the sea from land. Ambitiously, architects are designing floating, raft-like platforms that, in turn, support buildings, roads, utilities and parkland. Some designers have even constructed floating schools for use in waterside slums, as well as shipping containers that are fixed onto floating foundations comprised of plastic bottles. Though land-based cities cannot easily be remodeled without demolishing preexisting buildings, floating cities could ingeniously be refashioned in connection with the seasons and shifting populations.  

Floating homes “surging” in the Netherlands

Some envision floating settlements as extensions of existing cities’ infrastructure, with hexagonal islands deriving power from waves and the sun. Experts have pushed the notion of floating “districts,” in which triangular platforms encourage so-called “aquatic expansion” within overcrowded cities. Such districts, which could be secured together to form even larger settlements, would be home to hundreds of people with space set aside for farming and recreation.

Though it may all sound fantastical, the United Nations sustainable development arm no less has expressed interest in such ideas by recently hosting round table discussions. In the Netherlands, meanwhile, interest in floating homes is literally surging, which perhaps isn’t so surprising given that the country faces worsening floods, not to mention housing shortages. Moreover, Holland is largely built atop reclaimed land, and a third of the nation’s surface area lies below sea level.  

Unlike houseboats, floating homes can cope with rising seas or floods by simply remaining on the surface of the water, with structures fixed to the shore or resting on steel poles. When a heavy storm hit a floating community in Amsterdam, residents simply hunkered down. Though the neighborhood’s steel foundations slid up and down with the water, the rain eventually abated. Perhaps somewhat ironically, neighbors claim they actually feel safer in a storm if they are floating on the water.  

Rotterdam, a city that is 90% below sea level, has the world’s largest floating office building, in addition to a floating pavilion meeting space. Spurred to action after witnessing what had happened in New York during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, designers have even constructed a floating farm. The property produces milk, cheese and yogurt, and houses 40 cows which meander between a dock-side meadow and a floating facility. In the long run, planners hope floating farms will help Rotterdam adapt to climate change, which may lead to disruptions in transport and food supplies. If floating farms gain widespread acceptance, they could inspire other cities hoping to cope with supply chain problems and bottlenecks.   

Floating pavilion in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
Floating pavilion in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Image by Rick Ligthelm via Flickr.

Seasteading movement

In theory, Seasteading Institute could be instrumental in advancing cutting-edge floating cities. Founded in 2008, the California non-profit aims to construct clusters of floating dwellings that rely on solar power, aquaculture and ocean-based wind farms. Ambitiously, planners believe new floating cities can help address affordable housing, while simultaneously promoting wave energy technology, algae-based food and fuel, vertical farms, sea water air conditioning, nanotechnology, desalination and marine education. Though Seasteading would like to make communities more resilient to sea-level rise, the Institute admits pioneers will likely come from the ranks of the affluent. Officially, Seasteading Institute does not push any particular ideology but simply provides a “platform” (presumably both literally and figuratively) for people “to try new ways of living together which they believe will make them happier.” 

Look below the proverbial surface, however, and it’s clear Seasteading is pushing more of a right-wing libertarian “techno” vision of society. The Institute was co-founded by billionaire Silicon Valley Trump-supporter and PayPal CEO Peter Thiel, and seeks to create artificially created island nations free of “heavy-handed” government control. Another co-founder, self-styled “anarcho-capitalist” Patri Friedman, is the grandson of Milton Friedman, one of the most influential free-market economists of the twentieth century. It’s difficult to form new “startup” nations due to lack of space, Friedman argues, and therefore the ocean should be seen as the next frontier. Though pioneer settlers would be free to choose their own government, some might “prefer free-market solutions” or “entrust public policy to technocrats.” However, whether lack of clear regulations like minimum wage, building codes and “libertarian engineers” operating out on the high seas will appeal to the masses is unclear. Never fear, boosters declare, if settlers don’t want to live under a particular government, they are free to simply float off to another island.

French Polynesia debacle

So much for the theoretical realm, but in practice, seasteaders have faced, let us say, “strong headwinds.” In 2017, the Institute signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of French Polynesia to build seasteads in territorial waters. The proposed new venture, which had the look of a high-end resort, featured villas designed by Dutch architects. 

In a nod to Silicon Valley, the project was to be funded through crypto-currency, which itself has fallen under criticism for its environmentally-destructive effects. Despite these drawbacks, French Polynesia seemed to make strategic sense since low-lying islands and atolls are at great risk from rising sea levels and rest on coral reefs. 

Boosters claimed the venture would encourage people to stay “tethered” to their sovereignty, as opposed to having to flee to other countries as climate refugees. Additionally, the project would lead to tourism and provide new “blue economy jobs” for residents.

Perhaps it may have sounded appealing on the surface, but Tahitians weren’t persuaded by the idea. Reportedly, while seasteaders were more interested in libertarian political autonomy, the government sought to address environmental degradation. Moreover, the prospect of a tax-free enclave held little appeal, and the astronomic price tag of $15 million per module meant that housing would be out of reach for the majority. Fearing they would be colonized by futuristic techno-libertarians promoting a “Death Star,” residents opposed the project. Seasteaders, they claimed, were simply trying to flee their host countries in order to avoid taxes, and had little in common with Polynesians, who faced unemployment and a lack of social protection. In 2018, authorities rescinded approval of the project.

Coast of Zanzibar.
Coast of Zanzibar. Colonists have honed in on Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous chain of islands united with Tanzania. Image by Bradclin Photography via Flickr.

From Dr. No to The Jetsons

Facing a debacle in French Polynesia, Thiel grew disenchanted with seasteading and pulled funding to the Institute. Speaking with the New York Times, the Trump booster remarked that floating cities were “not quite feasible from an engineering perspective. That’s still very far in the future.” Undeterred, Seasteading spokesman Joe Quirk is convinced humanity should take to the ocean while experimenting with new forms of governance. In 2017, Quirk published a book on seasteading accompanied by an ambitious subtitle, “How floating nations will restore the environment, enrich the poor, cure the sick, and liberate humanity from politicians.”

In 2018, he and other libertarian crypto-evangelists promoted a residential seastead off the coast of Thailand in the form of a floating white octagonal box. The proposed scheme, which seemed to resemble something out of a James Bond film, ended abruptly when the authorities declared the seastead posed a threat to Thai independence, an offense potentially punishable by imprisonment or death. Somewhat improbably, however, investors refused to give up and moved to Panama. There, pioneers promoted “seapods” resembling gigantic white helmets, with interiors sporting an aesthetic akin to a curved, colorless peppermint straight out of The Jetsons, a 1960s cartoon. Manufacturing seapods, however, proved to be a time-consuming endeavor. 

Welcome to anti-vaxxer paradise 

If anything, COVID has given rightist libertarians renewed energy to pursue new autonomous societies. Living out on the ocean, the argument goes, offers a literal “escape catch” for those fleeing pesky government overreach and health protocols. With the collapse of the cruise line industry due to COVID, investors managed to purchase an actual ship which was christened MS Satoshi, in honor of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym of bitcoin’s enigmatic inventor, or inventors.  

“Sea-vangelists,” meanwhile, hoped to attract digital nomads, startup moguls and crypto-boosters. Going into overdrive, founders sought to literally connect the Satoshi to a floating community in Panama surrounded by seapods. Unfortunately, however, local officials refused to register the ship as a residence, and therefore the Satoshi would be required to discharge sewage at sea. Realizing they would have to “scuttle” the original plan, investors quickly sold off the Satoshi

Turning the notion of hippie counter-culture on its head, anti-vaxxers also hope to establish a commune and private beach estate off the coast of southeastern Africa. Specifically, colonists have honed in on Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous chain of islands united with Tanzania. The country has been a magnet for anti-vaxxers since officials have pursued lax COVID policies. Indeed, late President John Magufuli, who is believed to have died from the disease, fueled COVID skepticism.        

Crypto-pirates of the Caribbean 

Yet another proposal to set up “Cryptoland” on an island in Fiji similarly collapsed when investors failed to purchase the property. Despite such failures, others believe that a new scheme located in the Vanuatu archipelago will succeed. Investors already own the property, known as “Satoshi Island,” which lies between Fiji and Australia in the South Pacific. Pioneers hope to turn the island into a regulation-free “crypto-utopia,” and applicants will be provided with non-fungible tokens (or NFTs) attesting to local citizenship. Presumably, a recent crypto market crash will not do wonders to attract future citizens, though perhaps that’s all for the better, since Satoshi Island features lush rainforest, coral reefs and coconut crabs. Investors, by contrast, would like to transform the landscape into a “smart city” despite concerns that shady politicians, businessmen and fugitives could flock to the area.   

In recent years, the Caribbean has also become a magnet, with crypto-investors particularly drawn to Puerto Rico. This debt-ridden island has pursued short-sighted tax incentives and a hands-off approach to regulation. 

Seasteaders have meanwhile expressed interest in setting up shop in Central America’s Gulf of Fonseca, which borders El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. The latter country, which has set up specialized private zones for employment and economic development, has been a particularly attractive destination. Indeed, crypto-enthusiasts have managed to secure a plot of land on Roatán, a secluded island off the Honduran coast. The development, christened “Próspera,” aims to set up a new society based on notions of privatized startup cities. The venture, backed by Patri Friedman and bankrolled by the likes of Peter Thiel, draws on “the lessons of Silicon Valley to create a new model for urban development where the city is the product.”  

Coast of Puerto Rico.
Coast of Puerto Rico. Seasteaders have expressed interest in setting up shop in Central America’s Gulf of Fonseca, which borders El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. Image by R9 Studios FL via Flickr.

Garifuna vs. “SimCity”

Within Próspera, government services are to be centralized through an online portal, ePróspera, fashioned after a similar system set up in Estonia. In a nod to SimCity, a “Configurator” allows residents to select the layout of their neo-futurist-style apartments before making a purchase. An actual rendering of future apartments takes inspiration from the natural shape of Roatán’s indigenous conch by featuring curves in pearly coral. Government services will be provided through a contractor, and everything from policing to sanitation will be privatized. The hands-off regulatory approach has attracted the medical tourism industry and, in particular, a controversial gene-therapy startup funded by crypto-investors and “bio-hackers.” In the long run, pioneers hope to extend Próspera’s reach by creating an archipelago of “Prosperity Hubs” across Roatán and the mainland, which will be serviced by aerial drone taxis.  

 Not everyone is pleased by such fantastical visions. Down the road from Próspera, native Garifuna people have grown concerned that techno-investors will seize their land. Descendants of slaves brought to Honduras by British colonizers in the 18th century, the Garifuna claim that promised construction jobs have not materialized, and the community has been engaged in an acrimonious water dispute with newcomers. Recently, the political climate has shifted dramatically in Honduras, with a wave of protests organized against privatized economic zones like Próspera. A newly elected government has celebrated the repeal of a law undergirding the zones, and though Próspera has said it will plow ahead, perhaps the best legal option for investors will be to embrace a tourist-free zone without all the trappings of libertarianism.  

Island utopias and the environmental movement

With all of these many fiascos, it remains to be seen whether right-wing tech pioneers will prevail in their quest to promote island micro-states. On the other hand, floating communities seem to be gaining acceptance and now serve as proof of concept for Dutch engineers spearheading other large-scale projects located in Britain, France, Norway and the Maldives. 

In the Baltic Sea, one floating island project aims to provide housing for a whopping 50,000 people. The settlement will be connected to an underwater rail tunnel linking Helsinki, Finland and Tallin, Estonia. In a slightly similar vein, a barge in New York has been repurposed as Swale, a floating forest. Locals are invited to come aboard to pick everything from onions to plums when the barge is docked.  

All of these ventures are to be applauded, though, curiously, there doesn’t seem to be a pronounced progressive counter-point to the standard right-wing-anti-vax-Dr. No-style vision, which has frequently been at odds with the environment, not to mention local residents. Setting up new island communities might seem fanciful at first glance, but the world must re-imagine coastal living in light of rising sea levels. Perhaps it is time for environmentalists to be more utopian, not less.  

Banner image: “To be sure, floating communities can face severe weather conditions on the high seas.” Image via Pexels.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, as well as scores of articles about the environment.

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