Something Wicked This Way Comes: the Menace of Deep-Sea Mining
By Eileen Crist
A new chapter of Earth pillage is in the works: the commercial venture of deep-sea mining. The deep sea lies 200 meters below sea level into the abyssal depths and comprises roughly 65 percent of Earth’s surface (Danovaro et al., 2017). It is being encroached by a nexus of nation-states and industries slavering over its “mind-boggling quantities of untapped resources” (Mengerink et al., 2014: 696).
According to official discourse—and apparent consensus—it is not about whether the deep sea will be mined, but about how, by whom, and when. In fact, deep-sea mining has already started, with the industrial-scale commercial show coming soon to a theatre far away from you. Same as it ever was.
Deep-sea mining has gotten quietly underway since the turn of the century (and with gathering speed in recent years), with concessions granted for exploring mineral resources and testing mining techniques. As of 2018, twenty-nine exploratory contracts for the high seas have been conceded to nation-states and the mining industry by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), covering at least 1.2 million square miles (IUCN, 2018; Kim, 2017; Wedding et al., 2015). Companies and states have been granted leases, for both national and international areas, for exploratory mining of hydrothermal vents for deposits of sulfides, seamounts for cobalt crusts, continental margins for phosphates, and seabed for polymetallic nodules (Mengerink et al., 2014). These areas of the deep sea harbor a rich, endemic, and largely unknown biodiversity, yet they are currently being wrecked by mining machinery—even though deep-sea mining commercial regulations are not yet in place. “We are operating in the dark,” Director of IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme, Carl Lundin states. “Our current understanding of the deep sea does not allow us to effectively protect marine life from mining operations. And yet, exploration contracts are being granted even for those areas that host highly unique species” (IUCN, 2018).
The ISA was created in 1994 by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) with the mandate to regulate “all solid, liquid, and gaseous mineral resources in the Area [the high seas] or beneath the seabed” (quoted in Van Dover et al., 2018: 25; Wedding et al., 2015). In other words, the operative assumption has long been that the deep-sea will be mined, so the ISA was vested with the authority to regulate extraction operations in areas beyond national jurisdiction. At the same time, exploratory mining contracts for national waters have been granted to companies by nation-states. (For example, Papua New Guinea to Nautilus Minerals.) No surprise there: nation-states (de jure) own marine territories 200 nautical miles offshore; in the typical pomposity of human-supremacist speak, these areas are called “Economic Exclusive Zones” (EEZs). Fishing, extractive, and other activities in the EEZs have devastated marine life there, as one would expect from such a naming.
There has been no public discussion or debate about deep-sea mining. Just a well-planned, technologically-ready, new raid on Earth about to be fast-tracked into business as usual. Deep-sea mining is blithely touted as “the new gold rush,” as though it is not common knowledge how depraved the old one was. The new venture is not only for gold, but for other metals and minerals like silver, copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese, zinc, rare earths, and yttrium. Enough to make the hungry ghosts—governments and corporations—line up for filching stuff useful for making cellphones, iPads, PCs, kindles, batteries, LED bulbs, flat screen TVs, fuel cells, not to mention “essential parts of advanced military technology,” like missile guidance, laser targeting, and radar surveillance (Kato, 2017).
We should have no doubt about the obscenity of what is in process, nor about its significance. If commercial deep-sea mining goes ahead, the destruction of life—in a part of the ecosphere that harbors millions of mostly undiscovered life forms—will be enormous (Koslow, 2007; Heffernan, 2019). Our time is the long-due time to put down the weapons of warring against Earth, seeking instead to downscale humanity’s presence, cease our invasions into the natural world, and pull out of large-scale portions of the ecosphere. At precisely this time of mass extinction, imminent climatic chaos, and global toxification—what do we see? We see the hungry ghosts gearing up to reel out more death and extinction in exchange for “natural resources.”
In case you have never heard the term “hungry ghosts,” they are archetypal beings with extremely narrow throats and obese bellies, so that no matter how much they eat they never get enough. Never enough. Forever hungry. “Always encroaching,” in the words of Native American Shawnee Chief Tecumseh (quoted in Waters, 1972: 278).
The main targets: hydrothermal vents, seamounts, and seabed polymetallic nodules
Piling on the cheap cliché of “the new gold rush,” the deep sea is proclaimed “the last resource frontier.” That resource frontier is neither. The deep sea is filled with beautiful life, amazing adaptations, abiding mystery, and primordial being. Scientists believe there are millions of species in the deep sea, Earth’s largest biome, yet we know next to nothing about deep-sea biodiversity (University of Oxford, 2017; Deep Sea Conservation Coalition). The places targeted for violation—the hydrothermal vents, the seamounts, and the abyssal seabed—are filled with life and, importantly, also largely created by life. The destruction of life forms and habitats will be all the more severe, given that these environments are a poster case of “out of sight, out of mind.”
Hydrothermal active vents are extremely rare habitats on Earth and shelter endemic and largely unknown species. To the best of our knowledge, life originated in hydrothermal vents (Van Dover et al., 2018). Besides their unique microbial communities, hydrothermal vents are also inhabited by larger organisms, including tubeworms, mussels, crabs, lobsters, limpets, different kinds of worms, fish, and octopus. As scientist C.L. van Dover and colleagues state, “hydrothermal vent ecosystems are natural wonders of the ocean … oases of vibrant and exotic life” (Van Dover et al., 2018: 20). Each vent site has its own cast of species and combination thereof, with less than 5 percent of species overlap across vent sites.
If deep-sea mining proceeds, hydrothermal vents are destined for rubble, as mining machines gouge ore that lies 20 to 30 meters beneath the seafloor to extract sulfide deposits, containing copper, gold, and other metals (Wedding et al., 2015). The mining will thus “cause severe if not total loss of biodiversity” (Van Dover et al., 2018: 21). Every single active hydrothermal vent on this planet is an invaluable singularity, yet the industry will have to “bulk-mine” them, as well as mine “multiple sites,” in order to make their ventures profitable. The ISA has already approved exploration contracts for vent mining in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, which means that a portion of hydrothermal-vent life has already been destroyed. Given the high endemism of vent life forms, undoubtedly mining-driven extinctions have already occurred.
Seamounts are underwater mountains that rise 1,000 feet or more from the seafloor. They harbor enormous deep-sea biodiversity. Life has set up home on seamounts and life has also crafted the surfaces of seamounts as habitat. According to the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, seamounts “are home to cold-water coral reefs and forests, sponge beds and hydrothermal vents, as well as the many millions of species dependent on these… Virtually every study finds [seamount] species that were previously unknown and are endemic… meaning unique to that area.” Seamounts harbor huge amounts of phytoplankton and extraordinary fish diversity, and are spawning grounds for pelagic species. They are also critical as stopovers for a cosmopolitan citizenry of dolphins, whales, sharks, tuna, sea turtles, and others. The mining industry describes seamounts as “cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts,” verbiage to grease the wheels of seamount gouging for cobalt, rare earths, and other minerals (Wedding et al., 2015). Many seamounts (and continental shelves) and their species around the world have already been devastated by industrial-fishing trawlers (a fact unknown to most people)—giving precedent for more of the same.
Strewn over vast stretches of the seabed lie polymetallic nodules that range from pebble- to potato-sized. It takes millions of years for them to grow a few millimeters at a time. How they form is still largely unknown, and whether the process is strictly chemical or mediated by life (biogenic) is also debated (Koslow, 2007: 164). Not until the mid-1980s did scientists discover the existence of “a unique ecological community contained in the universe of nodules” (Koslow, 2007: 163). Polymetallic nodules are gems of the deep, found over 70 percent of the deep seabed, and abyssal life loves them well: there is twice more life in the stretches where these nodules lie than where they do not (Vanreusel et al., 2016). Nodules add habitat heterogeneity so life likes to swirl about them. They also form hard substrate, so tiny sessile animals can attach to them and eat food that currents waft by (Vanreusel et al., 2018; Koslow, 2007). Like much of the biota of hydrothermal vents and seamounts, nodule-dependent seafloor life is only recently discovered and of mostly unknown composition. The mining-industry looters and their nation-state accomplices—or is it vice versa?—plan to scarf up the polymetallic nodules for the copper, cobalt, nickel, manganese, etc. they contain (Vanreusel et al., 2016).
The hungry ghosts speak with a silver tongue. “It makes sense to explore this untapped potential in an environmentally sustainable way,” states the CEO of Nautilus Minerals, “instead of continually looking at the fast depleting land resources of the planet to meet society’s rising needs” (quoted in Carrington, 2018). “Explore,” here, is a stand-in for mine; the “untapped potential” that Nautilus Minerals would tap into in an “environmental sustainable way” is hydrothermal vents off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The sustainable way involves giant crawling machines grinding up rock (containing copper, zinc, and gold), pumping the slurry up at a rate of 3,000 tons a day, dumping the water back into the sea contaminating the water column and smothering life (see Carrington, 2018). In other words, the sustainable way involves death, extinction, suffering, and destruction of habitat that will not recover in human timescales. We live in a time, however, where words are cheap, sustainability babble plentiful (one seabed mining recent start-up calls itself “DeepGreen” [Heffernan, 2019]), and pseudo-noble sentiments for humanity abounding. As one company representative of deep-sea mining equipment told The Economist, they are in the business of developing “resources that are absolutely necessary for the future prosperity of humankind” (The Economist, 2017).
Humanity’s “common heritage”
In 1982, UNCLOS declared the area beyond national jurisdiction—called “the Area” and also known as the high seas—“the common heritage of mankind.” Let’s bring that one up to speed with current language-use decorum. UNCLOS surely meant “the common heritage of humankind,” as contemporary reports are rectifying (see, for example, Jaeckel et al., 2017). That one raises no eyebrows. On the contrary, it is avowed a principle—one “generally understood to require access and benefit-sharing arrangements, especially for developing [nation]-states” (Jaeckel et al., 2017: 150). The common heritage of humankind raises the dutiful mission to ensure that the benefits of “deep-sea mining are equitably shared among all states on a nondiscriminatory basis,” and applied toward “alleviating poverty” (Kim, 2017). “UNCLOS recognizes,” as the same idea is echoed elsewhere, “the right of all states to access marine resources in the area beyond national jurisdiction” (Danovaro et al., 2017). Some assurance of environmental protection is deemed part of the ISA’s mandate in regulating deep-sea use as humanity’s “the common heritage.” Such protection is lagging while mining contracts are being shelled out and environmental protection does not include the prevention of extinctions—which any amount of deep-sea mining guarantees. Moreover, the question of whether to mine the deep sea at all has never been on the table.
How is it that calling the high seas “the common heritage of humankind” pulls the wool over so many eyes? An ancient living landscape that preexists Homo sapiens by millions of years is our common heritage? Instead of denouncing such bunk, in response to imminent industrial scale deep-sea mining, well-meaning scientists and analysts are scrambling for damage control—calling for “preservation reference zones,” “remediation obligations,” “collaborative governance,” “balancing tradeoffs,” “environmental impact assessments,” “mitigation strategies,” “baseline data,” “holistic management of deep-sea use,” and so forth. The very political-economic establishment that is destroying the ecosphere and endangering so much of humanity forces such genuflecting compliance that observers cannot bring themselves to stand against it and say what needs to be said: We are mad as Hell and we are not going to take more Earth desecration anymore!
The colluding alliance of nation-states and industry is consummately skilled in securing near-universal submission. It has a two-tiered mode of operation: one discursive, another operational. The discursive one is the longstanding appropriation of Earth as human property, ensuring the embezzlement of all geographical space for human use and control. In the specific case of the high seas, this core brainwash spins out in their “declaration” as humanity’s common heritage. People hesitate to call out such drivel for fear of being labelled foolish, idealistic, or radical. Instead, they abide pliantly with the official discourse, and do their best to make the “inevitable” deep-sea mining a little less destructive.
The second strategy by which the hungry-ghost coalition secures submission is operational: Just do it. Which is exactly what has happened—deep-sea mining is underway. (If you call it “exploratory” apparently no public deliberation is needed.) What’s more, most nation-states are already involved since the UN created body, the ISA, consists of 168 nation representatives; the technologies are already developed and deployed; and the rules and regulations to dress it all up as “sustainable” are being ironed out.
The cognitive schema of human Earth-ownership and the operational schema of human Earth-looting work together. Planetary ownership licenses getting a head-start on the looting operation—nothing untoward in doing what you want to your own property. Then, once the operation is already happening, it invites more of itself: it is already begun, certain players are more involved than others, and when it comes to politically-correct Earth-ravaging everyone in the posse needs to get their turn. To mirror the vulgarity of deep-sea mining and its squalid skulk, it’s like this: spitting into the soup is the surest way to ensure you get to eat it. How fitting for the hungry ghosts.
The ecocentric response
Not only should deep-sea mining be immediately halted, but the high seas (the Area) should be put off limits to all extractive activity: for fish, fossil fuels, and metals and minerals. The Area needs to be renamed “the common heritage of all Life,” in order to reflect what it actually is. Human presence in the high seas must be limited to the lightest of impacts for the elevated purposes of witnessing, learning about, and teaching our children the marvels with whom we share the ecosphere. With the Area as a whole designated as Marine Protected Area (MPA), marine life abundance will be able to rebound and cope (and help humanity cope) with climate-change upheaval and ocean acidification (see Roberts et al., 2017). Coastal seas and continental shelves (critically endangered and endangered, respectively [Jackson 2008]) are inherently life-rich, so robust MPA networks need to be globally created for them as well. Ocean protection could thus achieve 70 to 80 percent overall levels. Today is the time to stop new modes of Earth destruction from coming online and also to halt established ones: specifically, industrial trawling, longline fisheries, and deep-sea oil and gas drilling are among the most atrocious activities ever unleashed on Earth and they need to be banned. The humungous amount of scrap from that technological arsenal can be recycled for better uses.
Along with setting vast areas of the ocean free to preserve and recover their living abundance, we must turn the spotlight on the high-tech industry—the one poised to most benefit (if profiteering counts as “benefit”) from deep-sea mining. The high-tech industry needs to change fundamentally and clean up its act, rather than trying to buy another century’s worth of time for its wasteful, dollar-hungry workings. First, engineering, innovating, investing, and public policy must focus resolutely on recycling metals and minerals. At the moment, recycling rates hover between modestly low and abysmally low. For example, thirty-two percent of copper is recycled and just 1 percent of rare earths (Kim, 2017). The focus of turning an extraction industry into a recycling one will not only give Earth a rest, it will force governments and industry to quit dumping their e-waste on the disempowered—human and nonhuman. Second, the high-tech industry must put an end to the profligate production of ever-more devices, to be replaced by ever-more new lines, ad nauseum. (The same applies for the production of other commodities like cars and appliances.) Instead, the high tech industry—calling here on any conscientious leadership therein—needs an immediate paradigm shift toward the durable: stuff must be made well, made to last, and made to use not flaunt (McKibben, 2007). Devices can indeed be long-lasting, made to be repairable if they malfunction, and only upgraded when hugely meaningful increases in efficiency, or changes in energy sourcing, warrant “new generations.” Finally, civil society has to figure out how to create a culture of sharing this stuff.
One last response to the specter of deep-sea mining is to raise a question: If this planned violation of Earth’s ocean does not reveal the imperative to achieve a lower global population, what does? The global middle class—the clientele of high-tech products—is growing by leaps and bounds. The middle-class population is projected to reach 5 billion before midcentury (Kharas, 2017). All these people will want (inter alia) cellphones, PCs, flat-screen TVs, hybrid cars, solar panels, etc. Making materials recyclable, durable, and shareable is critical, but it will only get us so far. Design changes and behavioral shifts will not offset the commodity-supply surges that the growing global middle-class population portends. Therefore, we must ramp up without further delay the human-rights campaigns—for women’s equality, state of the art family planning, and comprehensive sexuality education for all—that will stabilize the human population and steer it in the direction of 2 billion. (Engelman, 2016; Kaidbey and Engelman, 2017; Crist et al., 2017; Crist, 2019).
We cohabit living Earth with countless Earthlings we know and more we have still to meet. Are we awake yet?
1 Fortunately, that relationship has run into political and economic controversy, forestalling or derailing mining plans, though Nautilus Minerals continues to hold the deep-sea mining license from the government of Papua New Guinea (The Economist, 2018; Heffernan, 2019).
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Eileen Crist is Associate Professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Boston University, and a B.A., also in sociology, from Haverford College. Her work focuses on biodiversity destruction and the extinction crisis, and needed pathways to halt these trends. She is author of Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind (1999) and coeditor of a number of books, including Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth (2014) and Protecting the Wild: Parks and Wilderness, the Foundation for Conservation (2015). She is also author of numerous academic papers and writings for general audience readers. Her most recent book, Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization, was published by University of Chicago Press in 2019. For more information about her publications, visit her website www.eileencrist.com. Eileen has recently joined the online journal The Ecological Citizen as Associate Editor. A shorter version of this essay on deep-sea mining, titled “Leave it in the Ocean,” is slated for publication in that venue as well.
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