Seasteading & Space Colonization: Environmental & Policy Impacts, Part 2
In part 1 of this article, I covered the history of attempts at micronations, seasteading, and and possible space colonization. All of that took so long to adequately introduce, that it really didn’t make sense to cram much more into one article, so here we are at Part 2 to finish up what I started.
More Environmental Impacts
As I discussed at the end of the last one, there are potential benefits, mostly in that future human population growth would have more room to spread out. That way, we wouldn’t fill all of the land with high density building and destroy the natural world. At the same time, though, it really depends on whether the people going it politically alone out on the seas decide to do for energy. If they use renewables and foster artificial reefs on the bottoms of their spars, this could be a positive. If they drill for oil and gas, and then burn that out there, such settlements could prove to be a big net negative.
The “Drill, Baby, Drill!” fantasies of going out on the ocean to get away from environmentalists and go burn fossil fuels without being bothered would quickly run into an economic problem: it’s not that economically advantageous now. They’d find that the prices of renewables had dropped since the good old days, and that they’d be better off to import panels and turbines to supply energy needs, assuming they don’t extract renewable energy from sea currents or the waves.
The big exception to this could prove to be SpaceX. While it has indicated that it wants Mars to be politically independent, there’s no present indication that it wants its offshore platforms to be Martian embassies or otherwise under independent jurisdiction. From what I can tell, Phobos and Deimos (the offshore launch platforms) are registered as vessels in Liberia, a common flag of convenience. More on this in the next section.
Whether operating under earth maritime law, or independently in some fashion, launches of Starship will use methane, which is generally refined from natural gas. We know that SpaceX intends to drill for its own natural gas in the short term, but it may eventually be able to use net zero emissions rockets at some point using carbon capture and the Sabatier process.
Like seasteading, space colonization gives a lot of space for future human population growth that doesn’t impact the earth (at least once you get past rocket emissions). Both SpaceX plans for Mars and Blue Origin plans for big toroidal space stations give more room and may even ease the environmental pressures of earth without oppressive anti-population growth policies.
Human Survival vs Earth Survival? Is That The Right Question?
If, over the course of the 21st century, we manage to build sustainable colonies off-world, the question of the human species’ survival becomes a separate question from the fate of Earth. That’s ultimately Elon Musk’s stated goal, to make sure all of the eggs aren’t in one basket.
That doesn’t make the two questions mutually exclusive, though. Moving people off helps alleviate population issues, but could also help alleviate issues on Earth through space mining. If much-needed minerals could be mined less on Earth and more in places without ecosystems, it could become a win-win for both segments of the population.
The key here will be to make sure this doesn’t become an either/or thing in people’s minds. There are an endless supply of articles telling us that we need to fix Earth’s issues before going to space, and that mindset could end up making both places fail. At worst, we miss opportunities to avoid human extinction should the worst happen and something wipes the Earth out.
Will Earth’s Land-Based Governments Mess This Up?
It’s impossible to analyze the environmental issues of sea and space colonization without running into the question of existing governments. So far, micronation and seasteading operations have run into a lot of resistance there, as I mentioned in the last article. They find something like a little RV-sized house on top of a spar a threat, so widescale colonization is likely to run into opposition.
A February 5th piece in The Guardian raises most of the points people have against it. Some people are afraid that people like Bezos or Musk will become space dictators, and that colonies on the ocean and in space will be undemocratic. “We must envision more public-spirited, collective futures – ones in which the market alone isn’t allowed to dictate everything from housing to environmental regulation to mining rights. Like the futurists of the 1960s and 1970s, can we think in ways that are both stunningly audacious and democratic?” the author, Matt Shaw said. “At the very least, we have to try.”
What writers like Shaw fail to see is that democracy can be very problematic. Representative government is good, but when there are no limits on what a majority can do, political, racial, and other types of minorities can get hosed. Democracy gave us things like Jim Crow and state constitutional amendments that banned gay marriage. Even right now, democratically elected officials like Marjorie Greene are working against the rights of transgender Americans. After months of protest, some rioting, and even the establishment of a rebel zone in Seattle during the fight against police brutality, voters elected two of the worst offenders in the mistreatment of blacks in the 90s to the White House.
When we consider that majority rule can be really oppressive to minorities, it doesn’t make sense to angrily defend against people who want out of it and want to try something new. That’s majority privilege run amok. Besides, if democracy is so great, nobody is making you get on a boat to live on the ocean or forcing you to get on a SpaceX rocket to Mars. Stay here and pick your favorite democratic country to stay in. Nobody’s taking that away from you.
Assuming governments don’t get in the way of sea and space colony plans, we need to make sure that anything they do to influence the plans doesn’t make environmental impacts a problem. For example, if they spitefully try to keep seasteads from buying renewable energy equipment, they might force people trying to make it out there to burn fossil fuels.
Changes to sea and space law are very likely to happen in the next few years as these sorts of efforts pick up steam and start to show progress. To make sure the worst environmental impacts aren’t made worse, we need to monitor these legal efforts and make sure they don’t do things that would make things worse.
Featured image: A render of a possible future Mars colony. Image by SpaceX.