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Letting One Small Aquatic Festival Bloom

October 22, 2009

Back in 2001, I mused: “It seems really hard to start a new country full-time.  Could we start one as a weekend festival?”, and thus was born the idea of Ephemerisle.  A few weeks ago, we finally took the first steps by holding the very first Ephemerisle event.  It was in sheltered waters, and did not have political autonomy, but it was an awesome start to a very different strategy to achieve political freedom than what has been tried – and failed – in the best.  There’s enough interesting coverage online now to give you a round-up.

The Ephemerisle 2009 Coverage wiki has videos, pictures, and participant reports.  (My favorite video is of the whole festival dancing to “I’m On A Boat”).  Major media coverage so far includes Danny O’ Brien in the Irish Times, Declan McCullagh on his CBS News blog, and Brian Doherty in Reason Magazine.  Brian’s piece: Building Ephemerisle – Can a party on a river lead to liberty on the sea? is the longest, and closes with a long quote from me about how Ephemerisle can pave the way to seasteading:

“As long as we position it from the beginning as a festival about trying to go to the ocean, we’ll build up a community who love working and playing on the water, and who are interested in it even if we know there will be brand new problems once we get to the ocean,” Patri says, linking the play of Ephemerisle, difficult as it was, with the work of permanent seasteads. “Even if we haven’t built knowledge, we will have built community. We’ll have a group of smart, creative people who have been there riding along with the vision and willing to step up when we need to make that next step, to think and test about how to move seasteading to the next stage.”

My favorite commentary on the political aspects of Ephemerisle came in the comment thread to Will Wilson’s post on Postmodern Conservative.  Will wrote:

…the whole thing was at times creepily non-political. It seemed to me like the demographic was evenly split between those who were primarily there to build floating stuff and those who were primarily there to party. I’ll attribute this for now to the fact that it took us a while to climb Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Debating and discussing political philosophy is difficult when one doesn’t have shelter, and construction of the floating platforms took much longer than anticipated. The next few years will be crucial for the future of the project — if major engineering challenges get met but people still aren’t debating, I think that spells trouble for Ephemerisle (seasteading would still work, however, the two concepts are synergistic but separate).

And Glen Raphael responded (emphasis his):

I think you’ve just convinced me of the opposite. (and that I need to attend next year – I didn’t get there this time). The difficulty of surviving in this new frontier is a feature, not a bug. The New World and the Old West weren’t free or libertararian to the degree that they were because people debated political philosophy in their copious spare time and thereby reached the especially well-reasoned conclusion that they should spend minimal resources on government. No, they were free and libertarian because people were too busy working and surviving to put up with needless bureaucratic obstacles to getting stuff done. Politics in the old frontiers was an afterthought, something that got short shrift. The pioneers had to fight off predators, build shelter, clear fields, improve water supplies, plant and gather and prepare well enough to survive the next winter. Any time there was a need to solve a political problem, they’d apply the proven programming technique do the simplest thing that might possibly work so they could get back to the more important stuff.

Serious politics is a luxury good. If a large fraction of ephermerisle participants were too busy being productive – learning, producing, solving problems – to waste much of their non-recreational time on politics, that seems like an excellent indication that they were on the right path.

Zing!  I’m not sure how I feel about this idea – after all, my vision is to have a society with low regulation and luxury, that is productive but not a constant struggle for survival.  But Glen beautifully captures the pioneer spirit and the reason why freedom tends to be found on the frontier.

Our challenge is to create a society that is, in a sense, an eternal frontier – that maintains this attitude even as it grows.  My hope is that dynamic geography will do this, but for it to even have a chance, we need to find an incremental path to get to the seasteading world.  Ephemerisle is one such path.  I’m glad to have it in our portfolio of approaches, and as you can see from the coverage, this first year was an amazing, incredible experience.

  1. October 25, 2009 7:33 pm

    On the need for “debate”: leaving your comfort zone to visit or live on a frontier is, in itself, a speech act. The person who goes to the frontier is expressing via revealed preference their dissatisfaction with the status quo and inclination to try something new. Even people who meet you halfway – show up in a houseboat for the afternoon, dip their toe in the water – are expressing support for the project. So I would say the main political point is served just by being there.

    On “comfort”: There’s likely enough challenge in living on the water to keep it a frontier for a good long while. Even a “comfortable” life on the sea is going to be challenging in all sorts of useful ways. Here’s another analogy: motorcycling. Driving to work in a car is too easy to be inherently satisfying. It quickly becomes routine, automatic, something you can do without really thinking about it. You can turn up the stereo and mentally drift away.

    Now suppose we trade in that car for a motorcycle. Modern motorcycles are as practical, comfortable, and as full of modern human conveniences as manufacturers can make them. Yet under it all, it’s still a motorcycle. No matter how comfortable that seat is, no matter how reliable those brakes are, you just can’t get away from the fact that at any moment if you let your concentration slip you are likely to be killed or maimed. The prospect of imminent death concentrates the mind; motorcyclists tend to drive more carefully, more creatively, and live more in the moment as they travel than do car drivers.

    If and when Ephemerisle becomes “comfortable” it’ll still involve some risk, and that’s kind of the point. If it starts to seem too tame, you could move it to deeper, bumpier waters or experiment with cheaper, flimsier floating structures. No matter what, the difficulty of getting there and surviving there is going to be a big part of the experience – the framing – much as the difficulty of getting to the desert and surviving there is part of the BurningMan experience. (if they held BurningMan at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds, would it mean as much?)

    Even if they do resemble a minivan more than a motorycle, Seasteads will inevitably involve some degree of risk and privation too. But if we ever reach a point where there really is *no* extra challenge to seastead life, that’ll be a good time for the risk-loving frontiersmen to start working on spacesteads! 🙂

    The frontier is, above all, an opportunity to reboot. To cast aside the accumulated cruft – scrape all those barnacles off the hull – and start over fresh. We might choose to keep some of the old rules – or the rules about rules – out of a sense of tradition or nostalgia, but many will end up getting tossed overboard. We’ll be able to ask “do we really need this?” and come up with a better local optimum in many dimensions.

    I’m pretty hopeful about the whole project. This could work!

  2. October 24, 2009 3:46 pm

    Here’s an exploration of “Saltwater Greenhouses”, including Vinay Gupta’s idea on how it might contribute to a new country launch:

    Next year at Ephemerisle – a hexayurt with a working Saltwater Greenhouse?

    Mark Frazier


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