Book review: Seasteading, by Joe Quirk, with Patri Friedman.
Seasteading is an interesting idea. Alas, Quirk’s approach is not quirky enough to do justice to the unusual advantages of seasteading.
The book’s style is too much like a newspaper. Rather than focus on the main advantages of seasteading, it focuses on the concerns of the average person, and on how seasteading might affect them. It quotes interesting people extensively, while being vague about whether the authors are just reporting that those people have ideas, or whether the authors have checked that the ideas are correct. Many of the ideas seem rather fishy.
I suspect that seasteading’s biggest need now is businessmen and/or VCs who can start cruise-ship-sized projects. Yet the book seems aimed more at creating broad, shallow support among ordinary readers than it is at inspiring competent entrepreneurs.
“Humanity is poised to plunge in 2050.”
Billions of people will face famine in 2050! We’re destroying cropland at a sickening pace!
But that’s not a problem, because more than half the earth’s surface is water that can be farmed!
These are examples of the mix of doom-saying and plans for salvation that pervades the first half of the book. For most of these alleged crises, they fail to convince me the danger is sufficiently high to be a strong reason for seasteading.
The parts about about needing to farm the seas are moderately plausible, but not convincing enough to tempt me to invest in such ventures. And I’m a bit unclear on the connection between farming the seas and having lots of non-farmers live there.
The authors want us to imagine that seaweed is also going to solve our obesity problem. That reflects a pretty confused understanding of what causes obesity. The availability of healthy foods isn’t going to stop us from overeating food that is more addictive. The book is also somewhat misleading about seaweed nutrition: “Spirulina is more than 60 percent protein, more than triple the amount in beef, with more than triple the amount of vitamin B12 found in animal liver”. But there’s some controversy over the bioavailability of that B12, and the protein comparison would look rather different if they compared dry spirulina with dried beef or fresh spirulina with fresh beef. The benefits of seaweed are a small part of the book, but I’m picking on them because I know enough about the topic to criticize misleading claims, and because the book’s problems with this topic seem fairly representative of the book’s quality.
Energy and the environment
Scattered throughout the book are occasional hints that something related to seasteading will replace oil as fuel. “If biofuel technology had no future, fossil fuel giants would not be investing so heavily.” How heavily? They don’t say. They left me skeptical that biofuel will be competitive with oil – aren’t falling solar energy costs going to drive down oil prices?
The authors claim that pessimists say peak oil has happened, and “the most optimistic analysts say [peak oil in] 2050”. Huh? I predict peak oil around 2020 because we’ll switch to better energy sources soon. I expect peak oil to be about as important an issue in 2050 as the Y2k problem is today.
The book’s subtitle mentions “restore the environment” first among the benefits of seasteads. It suggests ways that seasteads could solve the problems of rising CO2 levels. The book convinced me that those solutions are worth trying. But we’re not suffering from a shortage of plans to mitigate global warming. There are promising charities such as Cool Earth that haven’t attracted as much money as people spent to see An Inconvenient Truth. That suggests the main obstacle is translating symbolic opposition to climate change into useful results.
I expected someone such as Patri Friedman, who comes from a family of good economists, would do a competent job of focusing on incentives. Yet the book talks about climate change while paying virtually no attention to the incentive problems. Was Patri captured by pirates before that section of the book was written?
The book often cites cruise ships as evidence for the feasibility of most aspects of seasteading. Yet the book is fairly silent about the uninspiring environmental impact of cruise ships.
There are good climate-related arguments for seasteading. Seasteaders won’t face as much risk from climate change as landlubbers. Few seas have dangerous heat waves. Seasteads will barely notice rising sea levels. Maybe increased hurricanes will force seasteaders to move to slightly less convenient places. The main threat would be acidification, which might force seasteaders to use expensive farms that have their own pH-controlled water. But the book’s focus on apocalypse 2050 leaves these more modest arguments shrouded in fog.
Let a thousand nations bloom?
The second half of the book is more impressive, pointing out the value of experimenting with new political systems.
The book’s version of this argument relies too much on ancient Greece and the U.S. western frontier as examples. It’s quite possible that the decentralized political structure there contributed to the dominance of western civilization. But it’s hard to verify that hypothesis: the good results could have been due to good European culture or genes or something.
The argument for more experiments is more convincing when supplemented with examples from industry. Lessig’s book The Future of Ideas has a good perspective on this, with good evidence that (pre-breakup) AT&T would never have chosen to adopt the internet, but rules limiting its choice over phone line uses enabled more innovative entities to do so.
The case for more experiments with political systems depends somewhat on the claim that nobody knows what types of government work well. The authors provide good examples of political disputes where we should doubt our wisdom: some countries do well with low taxes, some do well with high taxes. Examples of good government span much of the left to right political spectrum (Scandinavia, Mauritius, Singapore).
But some of this confusion over good government comes from people focusing too much attention on issues that help us signal our ideological affiliation (tax rates, transgender bathrooms, etc). Those issues are selected for being somewhat immune to easy empirical tests that disprove one side.
When I try to look for patterns among the more successful new nations/city states, I see some common features. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Mauritius all adopted a British court system (and Dubai partly did that) around the time they started outperforming their neighbors. Other nations that I’d be ok with living in tend to have somewhat similar court systems.
Low corruption seems like another pretty good indicator of how good a country is (see Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index). Maybe that’s a large part of what makes a political system work well. It’s unclear what causes some nations to have less corrupt governments than others. So I can’t tell whether more experiments will cause us to stumble on good ways to produce low-corruption nations, or whether the next Singapores and Dubais will mostly require seeding new nations with residents who have high moral standards.
Another approach I’d try if I were designing a seastead city-state would be to figure out what Silicon Valley did right. Annalee Saxenian’s Regional Advantage suggests that there are a few key differences in laws (e.g. non-compete agreements are mostly unenforceable), but that most of what made Silicon Valley excel was culture: greater willingness to share information with potential competitors, more willingness to hire people who previously worked for a failed startup, etc.
So it’s a bit less clear than the book wants us to believe that we need lots of experimentation with new legal systems.
There’s also a chapter on health that talks too much about projects that are only marginally related to seasteading. Medical tourism is a good idea, both as a means to help finance seasteads, and as a means to improve medical care (mainly via incentives for existing hospitals to be more competitive). But I doubt it will become a large industry (at least in the developed world), due to the inconvenience of travel (especially when sick), and due to most people in developed nations having care paid by insurance and/or government.
Where are the people who will pay to live on the first big seasteads?
The book often mentions cruise ships as evidence that seasteading is feasible. Yet cruise ships are also evidence that there isn’t strong demand for the benefits of full-fledged seasteads – if there were such demand, why aren’t cruise ships trying to satisfy it?
I want lots more choices of political systems to exist, so that I’ll have more options, but I’m not in any hurry to try them out. I’m sufficiently risk-averse about political systems that I want to wait until new ones are proven.
Also, I want to live near interesting people, and it’s hard to get a group of interesting people to move to a new location.
There are lots of poor people in developing nations who would benefit from moving to seasteads. But it’s unclear whether they have enough capital to arrange that. How about a charity to help the third world poor emigrate to a seastead? It’d be a great way to offset the harm done by Trump. But most Trump opponents want to fight Trump and/or control a powerful government. Where are the altruists who want to just bypass the problems created by Trump’s immigration policies?
In sum, the book has some parts that are worth reading, but it often flounders by aiming for an unimportant audience.
A better book on seasteading was available online in 2004. See it on the wayback machine. It helped start a movement of activists, which fizzled due to the difficulty of attracting enough money for a cruise ship sized experiment.
This year’s book seems like a buoy to mark the shoals where the movement ran aground.