“To all those out there who want to control people’s lives through force, here’s my big finger to you,” Chad Elwartowski declared in a YouTube video this year. The “finger” in question was a tall black column floating off the coast of Thailand.
Mr Elwartowski, a former bitcoin investor who says he made enough money to retire at the age of 45, lived in a fibreglass pod on this platform, a breakthrough for the so-called seastead movement whose ultimate goal is to create a floating independent nation state in international waters.
But last month, the Thai navy towed the structure ashore, voicing concerns that Mr Elwartowski and his partner Supranee Thepdet planned to set up a sovereign state in what the government said was its territory. The pair have not yet been formally charged with violating the country’s sovereignty but could face the death penalty if convicted. Thailand’s attorney-general has appointed officials to lead an investigation.
With Mr Elwartowski and his partner now out of sight, the utopian dreams of seasteaders appear to have run aground.
“The minute we saw the accusation we got out of there and went into hiding,” Mr Elwartowski told the Financial Times said in a phone interview.
Rüdiger Koch, the legal owner of the sea-home and the engineer behind the $250,000 project, has fled Thailand although he has not been charged.
The Thai case has raised questions about national security and prompted criticism of the seasteading movement, whose backers include billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel.
“They don’t contribute to any common good, tax or land development based . . . They are simply designed to enable wealthy people to have a place in the sun, and water,” said Peter Newman, professor of sustainability at Australia’s Curtin University. He added that the practice needs to be regulated “or else it will be doing more damage than good”.
But Joe Quirk, president of the San Francisco-based Seasteading Institute, an organisation founded in 2008 by Mr Thiel and Patri Friedman, grandson of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, says the case for building a floating nation-state is clear.
Governments are inflexible and slow, he says, and excessive and outdated regulation hampers progress. And — in a suggestion that has laid the cause open to criticism — if a facility is built in international waters, seasteaders do not have to pay taxes to other nation states. “If [the seastead] is recognised as a new country there is no obligation to pay taxes to countries that are far away,” he said.
“Seasteading is a way to apply evolution to governance itself,” he added, with people choosing to join or leave societies simply by moving their mobile home.
That idea was part of the appeal for Mr Elwartowski. “Seasteading is opening up a new frontier. People keep talking about space but we haven’t explored the oceans yet,” he said. “Seasteading is a great way to move to this great open area that we have on earth.”
Mr Elwartowski has spoken of using bitcoin and blockchain as currency in the seasteading community. According to his vision, a “citizenship token” would allow seasteaders to get differing “copper, bronze, gold, silver” levels of community services depending on how much they paid.
Mr Elwartowski’s sea-home — which took eight months to build and was deployed near the Thai holiday island of Phuket — was meant to bring these ideas to life.
While the ambition was to build more sea-buildings, including a bed and breakfast and a restaurant, Mr Elwartowski says there were no imminent plans to create a nation-state. “Experimenting with new governments is decades down the road,” he said, adding that he believed the structure was in international waters and, therefore, not subject to Thai laws.
Mr Koch, a retired German aerospace engineer, was living in Thailand building futuristic technology. He was working on a system to launch objects into orbit when he stumbled upon seasteading and met Mr Elwartowski. He has now fled the country on his sailboat.
Mr Koch told the Financial Times that he has written to the Thai authorities to apologise for the misunderstanding with the navy and for not contacting “relevant government agencies”. He has not yet received a response.
But he added that he “didn’t really [think] anybody would consider” a sea-home built for research and tourism purposes — that created jobs for 15 locals — a security threat.
Thailand is not the only country where seasteaders have faced problems. The institute came close to launching the world’s first floating city when it signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of French Polynesia in 2017. But authorities there now say that agreement is no longer valid.
According to Mr Quirk, the project is “stalled for the moment” because the country has not “moved legislation forward” for what would have been a $60m special economic zone. He added that misinformation about the project — which was going to be partially funded by an initial coin offering — also obstructed proceedings. The institute is now in talks with other Pacific island and Caribbean nations.
Mr Elwartowski’s commitment to the cause is unwavering — as is Mr Koch’s, who has already developed a second sea-home model.
“The ocean is the next frontier,” said Mr Elwartowski. “It is just the way it is in the future.”
Additional reporting by Panvadee Uraisin