The Life Aquatic Isn’t Just a Fantasy in the Golden State

By Joe Mathews.

The devastating housing shortage in California keeps getting worse. Housing prices won’t stop rising. Why can’t we solve the problem?

Perhaps it’s because all of the proposed solutions—more construction, sprawling construction, denser construction, granny flats, affordable housing mandates, new forms of financing and exemptions from regulation—are built on the same flawed premise: that housing must exist solely on land.

And on land, California’s high costs, environmental regulation, restrictive planning, anti-density NIMBYs, anti-growth local governments, and Prop 13’s protections for older homeowners, taken together, form a giant kludge that stops needed housing from being built.

What if there’s a way around all that? What if the future of California housing is on the sea?

If you haven’t heard yet of seasteading—that’s the ocean form of homesteading—don’t worry. You soon will.

Because where else does California have to go?

Floating cities are an ancient idea; Plato’s dialogues reported the sinking of Atlantis. Communities at sea have been a durable cultural trope, from the Kevin Costner film Waterworld to the video games BioShock and Bioshock2 to more recent science fiction, like the floating city Transhumania in Zoltan Istvan’s 2013 novel The Transhumanist Wager.

In this season of comfort and joy, it’s worth noting that the world’s most famous and hardiest seasteader is Santa Claus himself, laboring tirelessly among the Arctic ice floes of the North Pole. And less mythically, a half century ago, L. Ron Hubbard and other leaders of the Church of Scientology, created the Sea Organization, or Sea Org, a training compound that consisted of several ships that was were usually at sea, away from the prying eyes of the authorities.

More recently, seasteading has gained ground among libertarians, particularly those who drink from Silicon Valley’s dream-inducing waters. For a time, techies contemplated how to build cities far out to sea, in international waters, so they could live by their own laws.

At the forefront these days is the non-profit Seasteading Institute, which envisions such communities enabling “the next generation of pioneers to peacefully test new ideas for how to live together.” In 2008, the institute received high-profile backing and funding from PayPal founder Peter Thiel, who preached for ocean communities as an “escape from politics in all its forms.” More recently, the venture capitalist has publicly soured on the idea, and sought an alternate avenue to escape political reality by backing Donald Trump.

While seasteading may sound like science fiction, it’s no less Star Trekian than median housing prices that exceed $1.1 million in San Francisco, Marin, and San Mateo counties.

In some sense, Thiel’s newfound skepticism is justified. Such experiments have yet to realize the vision of urban ocean realities—it’s costly and complicated to build a city on the sea. Among the Seasteading Institute’s findings thus far: the open ocean is too rough to support a city, but protected coastal waters look promising.

For California, that might be good news: We have 840 miles of coast. While seasteading may sound like science fiction, it’s no less Star Trekian than median housing prices that exceed $1.1 million in San Francisco, Marin, and San Mateo counties.

While previous visions of sea cities have incorporated futuristic aquafarms or novel modes of energy production, more modest cities—with the straightforward goal of providing housing for Californians—might be more viable. One might start with boats providing badly needed housing for the state’s homeless population. This is an idea that recently got a boost from former San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, who suggested turning the decommissioned USS Peleliu into a shelter for his city’s homeless.

Of course, California’s many land-based regulators and environmentalists would quickly raise objections to people living in coastal waters. So it’s vital to sell the idea not merely as a response to housing (since the housing crisis demonstrably doesn’t move Californians to action or reform) but as a far-sighted answer to the two problems our state’s leaders care most about: climate change and the drought.

A proponent of seasteading recently suggested to me that off-shore housing could provide a financing base to change the economics of desalination. Plans to turn ocean water into drinking water have long seemed too costly, and inefficient. But manmade islands with desalination plants financed with the proceeds from off-shore housing sales might make the numbers work; the reclaimed water could supply these sea cities, thus offering a live experiment for a more sustainable water future.

Seasteading also could mitigate climate change. Sea-based cities would provide a dry run—okay, a wet run—for the not-so-distant future, when rising sea levels inundate California’s greatest coastal cities, forcing millions of us to learn how to live on the ocean. In this way, cities on the sea would ease today’s housing problems—while furthering our climate change leadership and preparations for a watery future.

It’s hard to overstate how much the ocean can teach us. I’ve always loved a Golden State story from 1965, when a California-born teenager named Robin Lee Graham began a five-year sailing voyage around the world, eventually publishing a book called Dove and becoming a celebrity.

“At sea,” Graham wrote, “I learned how little a person needs, not how much.”

That’s a lesson all of California could learn, if we’re willing to build a future just off the coast.

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Originally posted at Zocalo Public Square.