Earlier this year, I wrote an article about the prospects of colonising Mars. There’s a tremendous amount of interest in this concept and chief amongst its promoters is Tesla founder Elon Musk. But as I had pointed out in my article, making Mars a habitable place is such a challenging task. It would make far more sense trying to make inhospitable places like the open seas liveable.
Much of the Earth is covered by water with 71 per cent of it being the ocean. We harvest the ocean for seafood and seaweed but so far there hasn’t been any real attempt to create homes on the ocean. The reason is obvious. The ocean is hardly an easy place to build structures. But with the Earth’s population steadily rising every year, it’s just a matter of time before we run out of land for people to live in.
Beyond land reclamation
Land reclamation projects are ongoing in many places throughout the world, including here in Malaysia, but to really make full use of the vast expanse of the ocean as liveable property, we need to look at building structures on the ocean.
This idea has been around for a long time, going back to 1967 when American architect, author and inventor Buckminster Fuller developed a concept for an offshore floating city named Triton City, in Tokyo Bay, which would house some 5,000 people. The idea received a lot of attention but it was never implemented.
“Three-quarters of our planet Earth is covered with water, most of which may float organic cities. Floating cities pay no rent to landlords. They’re situated on the water, which they desalinate and recirculate in many useful and non-polluting ways,” Fuller wrote in his book, Critical Path.
Now, 50 years since he introduced Triton City, the concept of floating cities is starting to take shape. In fact, the concept is now so mainstream that there’s officially a new word to describe it. “Seasteading”, or the practice of establishing permanent settlements in areas of the sea outside the jurisdiction of any governments, was added to the Oxford English Dictionary this year.
There’s even an organisation called the Seasteading Institute which is working towards making the floating city concept a reality. Its Floating Island Project calls for the use of concrete structures to float platforms chained to the ocean floor. The islands are meant to be modular and can be moved around and rearranged according to the needs of the inhabitants.
Proof of Concept
Its first ever floating community is likely to be off the coast of Tahiti, the largest island in French Polynesia. The Seasteading Institute’s associate company, Blue Frontiers, earlier this year signed a memorandum of understanding with the French Polynesian government to build a US$60 million (RM245 million) floating village with a target starting date of 2020.
Although the company’s ultimate aim is to create cities out in international waters, practical realities require that its proof-of-concept be done closer to land. The cost of building even a small township in the middle of the ocean would be prohibitive with today’s technology, which is why Seasteading Institute has partnered up with French Polynesia, which will establish an offshore special economic zone for the floating village.
It will be just inside the island’s protective coral reef and about 1,000 metres from the shore. The plan calls for up to 300 people to live there, on a dozen or so floating platforms, each the size of a baseball field. The platforms, which will be connected by walkways, will have a combined area of 696 square metres.
The floating village will serve as a testbed for various things that will be needed to eventually create autonomous cities in the ocean. Sustainable technology is crucial and the aim is to try to use as much as possible recycled materials and coconut fibres as building materials. The floating village could also be a hub for oceanographic and climate resilience research.
For the village to be viable, it will need to have some economic activity. Eco-tourism and aquatic industries like seaweed farming and aquaculture are anticipated. It can also be a place where Internet companies situate themselves. And it can be the ultimate exotic conference centre.
Although it will be located within the French Polynesian waters, the MoU gives the project a kind of semi-autonomous governmental status under the protection of French Polynesia. The objective here is to see if experimental new forms of self-government can emerge.
So why is French Polynesia willing to go along with this scheme? The answer has to do with rising sea level. Some estimates say that as much as 12 per cent of French Polynesia islands (there are 118 in all, of which 51 are inhabited) could be totally submerged by 2100. The government is also worried about increasingly violent storms caused by warming seas.
Seasteading, which involves building artificial — and therefore more resilient territory — can be a practical solution to these issues. In return for giving it protection and access to Tahiti’s economy, French Polynesia will be able to benefit from the progress and development that the Seasteading Institute makes through its pilot project there.
And of course if the pilot is successful, it can be replicated in other places that are in danger due to rising sea levels. Eventually, this concept could be deployed in international waters, far away from any island or land.
Like all new technological concepts, when still at its infancy, the cost would be astronomical. The Tahiti pilot project is estimated at US$60 million. But no matter how expensive it is, it would be but a mere fraction of what it would cost to do something similar on Mars. Transporting building materials and manpower to build these things 1,000 metres offshore is nothing compared to sending them 54.6 million kilometres through space to Mars.
“With seasteading, we can put tens of thousands or perhaps millions of people on platforms in our lifetime. With the Mars plan, the reality of many people going in our lifetime is slim. It’s cool to colonise the solar system, but there’s an atmosphere on earth and we can live here. Oceans are the only place we’re not really living. We should own our own planet first, and it will be much cheaper. How many billions or trillions of dollars would it take to put dozens, not to mention thousands, of people on Mars?” posed Randolph Hencken, the executive director of the Seasteading Institute.