This article was originally published in Counterpunch.
“To build a green future, in the next couple of decades the world will need to mine more metal than we’ve mined in our entire history” says Gerard Barron, CEO of The Metals Company.
There’s some truth to that statement — if we wish to meet the rising demand for new technologies, we’d need to see a sharp increase in metal extraction. After all, electric vehicles require 4x the amount of metals found in standard cars, and a single wind turbine requires 340 tonnes of metal.
Here’s the problem: the ‘green future’ he’s selling us is a lie, because what Barron fails to divulge in his upbeat sales pitch, is the ecological upheaval that his company’s plans would surely wreak.
The Metals Company plans to mine the seabed for polymetallic nodules; potato-sized objects containing metals like nickel, copper, and cobalt; essential in the production of the lithium-ion batteries being used for electric cars and (so-called) renewable energy storage. They’re located (among other places) in the Clarion-Clipperton zone, an area of the Pacific Ocean equivalent in size to the entire Indian Subcontinent. The seabed here (despite the claims of company officials) isn’t simply a ‘vast marine desert’, it’s home to a wide variety of species whose existence depends upon the presence of these nodules.
So, what would the mining process actually look like?
They’re building house-sized machines which would indiscriminately vacuum-up the contents of the seabed and send it to a ship on the surface. This includes an estimated 2 to 6 million cubic feet of marine sediment (granulated rock) per day for every machine in operation, only then to be subsequently dumped right back into the ocean.
It’s been stated that the sediment will be returned to a depth below 1200m. That’s called the Bathypelagic zone (Midnight Zone) — and some animals who live there include viperfish, anglerfish, frill sharks, eels, and sperm whales. These would be among the first creatures to acquire a gill-full of gravel.
But furthermore, the floating particles could be carried throughout the entire water column by powerful currents in a natural process called ‘downwelling’ & ‘upwelling’ — damaging (perhaps fatally) the respiratory systems of billions of fish.
This, plus the impact that light & sound disturbances from mining equipment would have on creatures adapted to conditions of silence & darkness, raises the likelihood of ecosystem collapse. Ocean ecosystems are already threatened by multiple stressors like overfishing, ocean acidification, & plastic pollution — do we really want to add anything else to the list?
The Metals Company claims that seabed extraction is a more ‘sustainable’ method of sourcing metal than land-based mining. Whenever anyone pulls-out the ‘sustainability’ buzzword, two premises need to be addressed:
#1: what are they sustaining? — clearly not biodiversity.
#2: how long do they wish to sustain it for?
The answer to the first question: an industrial way of life. The way of life which propels us to greedily squander nature’s bounty.
The answer to the second question: for as long as there’s anything left of the living world to convert into commodities.
This isn’t about saving the planet. It’s about creating new technologies which will prolong & exacerbate the destruction of the planet, and a false narrative that this is all somehow morally justifiable. Here’s a basic rule: if we consume the Earth at a rate faster than it can regenerate — eventually there won’t be anything left to take. Even Gregory Stone (chief scientist at The Metals Company) acknowledges this: “On-land commodities are being exhausted…and [the deep sea] is the natural next place to look…these are some of the last resources that the Earth has to give us”.
Are we really prepared to blow-through everything that’s left? To leave no stone (or nodule) left unturned, just so that we can continue driving around in cars & tooting our horns?
The ends don’t really justify the means. Any right-minded, white westerner can reflect upon the cruelty of the transatlantic slave trade and conclude: “Yikes, my ancestors should’ve left the people of West Africa alone”.
Jazz music probably wouldn’t have existed without the transatlantic slave trade. Do I like jazz music? Sure, but you know what I like better? Thriving communities living in environments to which they’re socially and biologically adapted.
Communities like the ocean-dwelling phytoplankton who generate 80% of the Earth’s oxygen, who play a crucial role in atmospheric carbon regulation, and whose future hangs in the balance should deep-sea mining go ahead.
So, what can we do to stop this from happening?
The country of Nauru, which (having signed a contract with The Metals Company) would stand to benefit financially from deep sea mining, have declared that operations will go ahead in 2024, within waters assigned to them by the ISA (International Seabed Authority) — that means we have about two years to stop this.
So far, campaigners such as Greenpeace, WWF, and the government of Fiji have collaborated on a proposed 10-year moratorium (temporary ban) on deep sea mining until more is known about its effects on deep sea ecosystems.
Going a step further, organizations like Blue Planet Society and Pacific Blue Line are calling for an outright ban.
You (the reader) can help by educating yourself more on the subject, by spreading awareness, by signing online petitions, and by joining or organizing demonstrations against deep sea mining…but before you go and do those things, let me finish with a final appeal:
As environmentalists, we might not instinctively care quite as much about the deep sea as we do about other landscapes like rainforests or prairies. We’re land mammals after all; we don’t belong down there, and neither should we strive to assimilate. However, it’s important that we look beyond our human bias, because the deep sea comprises 60% of Earth’s surface. This means that the wellbeing of the ocean is crucial for the wellbeing of the planet as a whole.
Industrialists can’t understand this. They look upon the deep sea as a challenge, as another frontier just waiting to be conquered, and none of the native beings who live there will stand in their way.
We can stand in their way.
Help to stop deep sea mining, before it starts.