Perma-Seas: Towards a Brave New Land

The following article first appeared in Issue 7 of Steampunk Magazine and is published under a non-commercial Creative Commons License (this blog version was originally posted by The Liberi). We’re re-publishing it because we feel that it shows that there’s still a place for Utopian Dreams in our bleakly unromantic modern world. With a little imagination, a little science and a whole lotta good design, even potentially devastating pollutants like ‘mermaids tears’ may one day be turned into a vital resource – retroactively adhering to the 6th principle of permaculture design, ‘Produce No Waste’.

Towards a brave new land
(and the Making Thereof)

by Professor Offlogic

illustration by the very wonderful Sarah Dungan

“A courageous Future lies ahead of us. We wave goodbye, on no
uncertain Terms, to the invisible Workings of the cyberian World.
Our Future lies in an honest Technology, a Technology that is within
our Reach, a Technology that will not abandon us, a Technology that
requires not the dark Oils of subterranean Caverns.”
A Steampunk’s Guide to the Apocalypse

Past attempts at colonizing the high seas have usually remained at the conceptual level, with plans running aground due to “inside-the-corporate-box” thinking, high up-front costs of marine super-structures or outright chicanery.
Capital has been very leery of investments in a field of uncertain precedent such as creating Free Enclaves in international waters. While there is at least one “residency” cruise liner (The World of ResidenSea was launched in 2002), no claims of sovereignty are made for it, and the sticker-price limits it to multi-millionaire residents. Might a more ad hoc, low-cost and Low Tech approach to creating a new nation on the High Seas fare any better?

Terminology & Pejorative

The term “microstate” isn’t branded with the same giggle-factor as the term “micronation”, which has come to be used in a pejorative sense to refer to abortive and/or crackpot schemes to usurp the “rights” of “legitimate statehood” from presently recognized “nations” of the status quo (AKA ‘The Old Boys’ Network’). The term “neostate” might be applied to a newly declared independent nation and the human population proclaiming allegiance to it, but since the “state” part of neostate still carries the usual baggage of intrusive regulation of personal behaviors, public morality, excessive taxation etc, the term “Free Enclave” will be used in this writing, as it is the author’s hope that anyone going to the trouble of creating a New Land will not be taking with them the outmoded ways of the Old Lands (including racial, ethnic, economic, spiritual/religious or gender disparities). Any entity achieving this is a truly Free Enclave.

Microstates: Where Size Doesn’t Matter

Let’s look at present-day examples of internationally recognized microstates, with an eye for commontraits. Most are remnants of the consolidation of European states, or former island colonies.

State of the Vatican City


A landlocked, walled sovereign city-state within Rome, the Vatican holds the current record for smallest cost of carpeting. Contrary to the popular, it didn’t officially exist as a sovereign state until the Lateran Treaty of 1929 (a good year if your
name begins with “His Holiness”). As the smallest sovereign squat on the map, at just over 0.17 square miles, it has a unique economy based on a “spiritual protection racket”.

The crime rate within the territory measured against the resident population of some 824 persons would seem enormous: Civil offences committed each year corresponding to 87.2% of the population, with penal offences running at a staggering 133.6%. The most common crime is petty theft—purse-snatching, pick-pocketing and shoplifting. “The Vatican—soft on crime? You be the judge!”

Reason for statehood: Fear of being sent to Hell.

The Republic of Nauru

Basically a small rock in Micronesia, it is currently the smallest island nation, just 8.1 square miles, and the least populated member of the United Nations. Declared a colony by Germany in the late 19th century, it was then passed around between
Australia/New Zealand/England, briefly the Japanese Empire then back to the Aussies again, until gaining independence in 1968.

Nauru was good for only one thing: Mining phosphate rock. While that lasted the Nauruans boasted the highest per capita income in the world. Once the phosphates ran out they dabbled at being a tax haven, experimented with money laundering and for a bit ran an outsourced detention center for Australia (the Pacific Solution). That cash-cow recently gave out as well.

Reason for Statehood: Depleted of all resources, nobody wanted it anymore.

The Most Serene Republic of San Marino

Bar none, the oldest sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world, having been founded on 3rd September 301 by Marinus of Rab, fleeing the religious persecution of the Roman Empire. San Marino was the world’s smallest republic from
301 to 1968, until Nauru gained independence. It is devoid of natural level ground, landlocked and completely enclosed by Italy.
If one gets elected to head of state there, one must accept or be jailed (wow, drafting politicians, what a great idea!). Even Napoleon refused to conquer them, saying “Why? It’s a model republic!” and continued his devastation on states with less model
republics.

Reason for statehood: San Marino was a refuge for those supporting Italian unification in the 19th Century, so in appreciation, Italy left them alone. What with being way the hell up in the mountains and having nothing worth going to the trouble of taking (except for a wonderful view) everyone was happy.

The Principality of Monaco

Completely enclosed by France, Monaco—occupying about .76 square miles—is largely regarded as a tax-haven, with around 84% of its population made up of foreign (and wealthy) citizens. Monaco retains its status as the world’s most densely populated sovereign (and smallest French-speaking) country. Starting with a land grant from Emperor Henry VI in 1191, Monaco was re-founded in 1228 as a colony of Genoa. It has been ruled by The House of Grimaldi since 1297, when Francesco “The Malicious” Grimaldi (disguised, coincidentally as a Franciscan monk, or “Monaco”, in Italian) and his men took over the castle on the Rock of Monaco. It’s been an up-hill battle ever since. The French Revolution swallowed them up, and then they got assigned to the Kingdom of Sardinia, which made a lot of patriotic Monegasques very surly.

Reason for statehood: As part of the Franco Monegasque Treaty of 1861, the ruling prince ceded some 95% of the country to France in return for four million francs and sovereignty. In 2002 a new treaty with France removed the stipulation that Monaco would remain independent only so long as the House of Grimaldi continued to produce heirs.

Micronations & Pitfalls to Avoid

Now we’ll briefly survey both ends of the micronation spectrum, their strengths and weaknesses.

The Principality of Sealand

Located on a former World War II sea fort (HM Fort Roughs) about six miles off the coast of England, Sealand is ruled by Prince Roy and Princess Joan (and de facto Prince Regent Michael, since Prince Roy retired to the Suffolk). Total ‘land’ area is a whopping 0.000193 square miles (about 500 square meters). Although Sealand is held in dubious regard as a micronation and is without acknowledged diplomatic relations, its existence has resulted in the closing in certain loopholes in the United Nations Convention on The Law Of The Sea (UNCLOS 1982, Article 60 sub 8, relating to artificial structures within an Exclusive Economic Zone, with Article 80 applying mutandis to artificial islands, installations and structures on the continental shelf).

Reason for statehood: Not worth the trouble, and has arguable standing of sovereignty under established legal precedents at the time of its founding.

The United States (Under Emperor Norton I)

Perhaps the most unruly, rebellious, and treasonous micronation, it occupied the approximate space between Emperor Norton I’s ears between 1859 and 1880.

Eccentric, yes, perhaps even insane, but Robert Lewis Stevenson’s step-daughter, Isabel, wrote that Norton “was a gentle and kindly man, and fortunately found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city in the world, the idea being ‘let him be emperor if he wants to.’ San Francisco played the game with him.”

Reason for statehood: Pre-existing condition that ignored the “Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico” (those treasonous curs!).

Common Threads & Loose Screws

From the point of view of the Old Boys, it is easier to leave a small state with insubstantial natural resources alone than bother with taking it over. Geographic remoteness or being otherwise inaccessible helps in retaining independence, as does payola and/or the ability to dole out anathemas. Providing useful services like being a tax-haven or money-launderer can be a double-edged sword if you don’t do it for the ‘right people’. As regards to micronations and their rulers, bestowing yourself a royal or imperial title may severely dent your credibility in the area of establishing formal relations, either with other countries or your own.

The Electric Reef: A New Approach

Professor Wolf Hilbertz developed a process for accretion of mineral structures by electrolysis of seawater in the 1970s. As BioRock, the electro-deposited minerals are comparable, if not surpassing, the compressive strength of reinforced concrete … and self-repairing, as long as the power supply is maintained. Hilbertz and his colleague Dr. Tom Goreau established programs to use the BioRock to repair and sustain damaged coral reefs in 15 countries around the world.

Mimicking the way clams, oysters and coral produce their shells from the minerals in sea water (though far less sophisticated), low voltage direct current is applied to a metallic frame (rebar, chickenwire, metal mesh) submerged in sea water. Calcium carbonate accretion (as the mineral aragonite) occurs at up to 5cm per year on the submerged frame, sequestering CO2 in the process. Power requirements are modest, about 3 watts per square meter.

Hilbertz went on to survey suitable sites located on undersea mountains that met certain desirable criteria: Locations in international waters, relatively shallow, easily harnessed ocean currents, good prospects of aquaculture and sea floor resources.
His aim: Creating autonomous, self-assembling island micro-nations.

Two likely sites were identified as prime locations for the project, to be known as Autopia Ampere, on the Mediterranean sea mount of Ampere (about halfway between the Madeira Islands and the tip of Portugal) or Autopia Saya, on the Saya de Malha Bank (east of Madagascar and southeast of the Seychelles) in the Indian Ocean.

In the 1997 Popular Mechanics article, Hilbertz said the fact that ocean-grown cities could stand on their own economically and become independent and self-governing entities poses what he believed to be one of the biggest barriers to their creation: There is no legal precedent regarding national ownership of a newly formed island that is beyond a nation’s territorial waters.

His plan: “We’ll establish our presence there and stake a claim, and see what happens. If anyone challenges us, we have lawyers ready to argue our case. We’ve had so many legal opinions that we decided just to go ahead and see what happens.”

Sadly, the Autopia project was interrupted by the sudden death of Dr. Hilbertz in August 2007.

Et Tu, Nemo?

Suppose an anarchist collective, tired of the oppression of those land-lubber states, decide to pool resources and head out for the Low Frontier of the High Seas to found a Free Enclave?

Site selection for a Free Enclave is a matter of “looking for loopholes” (as W.C. Field explained of his leafing through the Bible); in this case the term for “loophole” may be “terra nullius”, a place belonging to nobody else.

At one time, a nation’s territorial waters were defined by the range of their cannons (the Ultima Ratio Regnum principle). Nowadays, cannon-shot goes a lot farther, and every ‘budding democracy’ (or junta) with a few yards of beach-front property can declare an “Exclusive Economic Zone” out to 200 nautical miles of their sea-coast baseline. In addition to this, the Old Boys’ rights to resources on or under their slice of continental shelf are codified in the Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Assuming you’ve done your homework ahead of time, you’ve located a likely sea-mount or bank that is not in an Exclusive Economic Zone or on the continental shelf of a nation signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (this is the loophole you are looking for, since there is no Article dealing with artificial structures/islands except in those two cases).

The Plan

  1. Sink metal forms connected to low-voltage power sources as discretely as possible (to
    avoid ‘Imperial entanglements’);
  2. Accrete artificial coral foundations for at leasta year;
  3. Establish your outpost on the BioRock structures, then expand the Enclave to your heart’s content;
  4. Establish sustainable economic activities to support the Enclave.

Load up supplies (metal framework components, windmills, diving equipment and maybe a VIVACE array or two) and make the first expedition to, say, a suitable site bordering one of the North Pacific Gyres.

The initial metal framework could be installed within a week, with the placement of sacrificial anodes, floating windmills or submerged VIVACE arrays (to keep the framework power flowing) could take a bit longer. After this, it’s a waiting game, but time is on your side.

The artificial coral will continue to slowly accrete a nucleus for your new Free Enclave. The denser your metal framework, the faster the structural strength will improve (though at the cost of a higher power level to keep it growing). More BioRock frameworks over time would improve the stability and permanence of the Free Enclave, as well as provide a better habitat for future aquaculture.

‘Soylent Black’ and Its Deadly Legacy

Even though Providence chose to secrete the bulk of Liquid Petroleum at great depths inside the Earth or under the vastness of the Seas (surely a major hint to “use sparingly”), few resources of such diverse potential have been squandered so blithely, most of it having gone literally “up in smoke” via Infernal Combustion. Much of that which was not used to darken the Skies Above still haunts us in the form of Petro-Plastic, esteemed so lightly that it was considered disposable, to be cast off without a second thought, imagining that what was out of sight was out of mind.

In Shelley’s words:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

We may now reassess the true meaning of “out of mind”: The formerly ‘lone and level sands’ of once pristine beaches, even on the most remote archipelagos on Earth, are covered many feet thick in plastic flotsam, jetsam and dead sea creatures, with the enduring plastic legacy remaining sea-born clotting expanses of the ocean so thickly that it surpasses the mass of marine life, in some regions by seven-fold or more.

Down and Out in the Growing Enclave

A budding oceanic Enclave can harvest many things from the seas, including the hundreds of tons of free-floating plastic debris. Plastics don’t biodegrade, per se, but they do photodegrade: The UV rays of the sun break plastic masses down into smaller bits and pieces commonly referred to as “nurdles” or “mermaids’ tears”. These granules, typically under 5mm in diameter and resembling fish eggs, are responsible for the deaths of millions of birds and other sea creatures … all in the name of disposable plastic “culture”.

A harvest of mixed plastic nurdles can be sieved from the water by the proprietors of a Free Enclave and separated from fish and zooplankton (plastic isn’t generally phototropic, doesn’t instinctively swim up-stream, etc) in skimming troughs. Nurdles can be sorted by type of plastic using a series of vats containing fluids of decreasing specific gravity. The first vat will allow the heavier plastics (and other debris) to sink, the next heaviest plastics will settle out in the second vat, and so on.

Solar collectors could be used to heat the harvested plastic batches (for recycling into a variety of items useful for the Enclave) or desalinating water without wasting the precious electricity needed for mineral deposition.

Pontoons made of recycled plastic could be arranged into a grid around the ever-accreting base structure, with salvaged fishing nets strung over them to give your Enclave a little more elbow-room. If these pontoons were to be equipped with simple two-stroke pumps (perhaps bellows molded into them during manufacture), the energy of the waves could be easily captured to provide additional electrical power.

“Growing” construction panels on metal mesh would be a natural progression for the Enclave. These could comprise solid floors and walls connecting the coral columns, as well as provide an exportable product.

With a little ingenuity and recycled plastic, frameworks for submarine quarters could be grown, sealed and inhabited, with access via BioRock elevator shafts: Picture a “seascraper” as a sky-scraper in reverse. Like a medieval fortress, the subsurface quarters could provide submerged refuge in times of trouble.

So, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Technology, as usual, is the easy part. Dealing with the Old Boy network of traditional states is likely going to be the major hurdle faced by the new Free Enclave. Since Hilbertz’s Autopia plans were interrupted without firm precedent being set, the usual tools remain available for dealing with conflict that may arise:

Lawyers: If you do create a new island, better be prepared to spend years in court defending your title to it, unless you have plenty of …

Guns: Sealand has had to rely on force of arms to protect their claims of sovereignty a time or two. In general, anything you can do to make yourself indispensable or more trouble than you are worth to annex (rhythms with “Switzerland”) is worth the cost, which brings up …

Money: The universal lubricant. The more “bread” you have … the better tasting your sandwiches will be (to put it politely). Engage in sustainable aquaculture, BioRock panel exports, etc. to build financial reserves.

The Free Enclave, artificial or not, will be private property, with any attack viewed internationally as an act of piracy. The international community/Old Boy network will likely write the pirates a very sternly worded memo (stained with their crocodile tears) if your Free Enclave is attacked.

The Nemo Doctrine

Existing clauses of the UNCLOS-1982 state that artificial islands and structures have no claims to territorial waters, so a prudent level of defensive capabilities within a reasonable radius of the Free Enclave is probably advisable to make moot that point of contention. The mechanics of maintaining territorial integrity are beyond the scope of this text, though the “Nemo Doctrine” that freedom hinges on nullification of the power of any state to subjugate, should be a guiding principle. Remotely triggered buoyant “aquatic RPGs” placed in a series of defensive radii on the sea floor might be worth investigating. Augmentation of these relatively passive perimeter defenses with super-cavitating torpedoes, MANPADS, “Phalanx” type air defenses and selective jamming of SATNAV signals would likely ensure de facto sovereignty of a Free Enclave.

Playing Nice

Building on shallow water sea-mounts/banks the Free Enclave will sidestep any “hazard to navigation” clauses in the UNCLOS (the hazard being well known and charted), and if anything, the Enclave on top diminishes the hazard by increasing visibility and provides another trading port for commerce. The beneficial bioremediation of coral destruction and CO2 sequestration will lend you emotional resonance with the populace outside the Enclave and generate political ‘brownie-points’ (or even swing a lucrative CO2 sequestration outsourcing contract from members of the Old Boys network in the process). “Doing well by doing Good” is at least karma neutral and would be a ‘no harm—no foul’ alternative to the tax-dodge/data haven/money laundering  schemes usually resorted to by other microstates.

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