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Polynesians’ pantry, seasteaders’ backyard? What happens when crypto-libertarian ocean colonizers ignore the more-than-liquid ontology of the ocean

Authors: Isabelle Simpson*, McGill University
Topics: Coastal and Marine
Keywords: Seasteading, wet ontology, oceans, Polynesia
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In January 2017, The Seasteading Institute (TSI), a small California non-profit organization advocating the construction of experimental floating cities called seasteads, announced the signature of a memorandum of understanding with the government of French Polynesia to develop a pilot project for floating islands in the archipelago’s protected waters. The Floating Island Project was presented as a smart, sustainable eco-settlement that would propel the development of the Polynesian blue economy and assert Polynesian leadership in climate change adaptation within the South Pacific. However, the population decried the Floating Island Project’s techno-colonialism, climate change opportunism and questionable sustainability. In addition to the potential ecological damage it would cause, a key concern was the preservation of fishing rights and the application of a rāhui in the lagoon, a traditional Māori practice temporarily restricting access to a space and forbidding or restricting exploitation of its resources. French Polynesians claimed the lagoon as their “pantry,” whereas seasteaders thought of it as their future “backyard.” By constructing the ocean space as a blank canvas completely distinct from the land space, a new blue frontier to conquer, seasteaders reproduced dominant colonial ocean narratives and imaginaries and ignored how, to Polynesians, ocean space is not only public space but is integral to Polynesian ontology. This paper examines what happens when would-be ocean colonizers ignore the ‘more-than-liquid’ ontology of the ocean and argues that because seasteaders failed to consider how the ocean exceeds and extends far inland, and into Polynesians’ lifeworlds, the project was doomed to failure.

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