Hello everyone: This week in curated Anthropocene news, I have 1) an award-winning short documentary from India about cement factories’ swath of destruction; 2) A burning question: Should we name heat waves too?; 3) A frightening primer on what an additional half degree of global warming would mean; 4) An op-ed from Greta Thunberg and other young activists; and 5) Something a bit lighter: A travel piece on a rewilding project in Ireland.
Enjoy. Now on to this week’s main story:
This week’s story is a natural follow-up to last week’s discussion of Underland. It takes us to the bottom of the deep sea, far from land and farther from sight. You can rightly assume, then, that it is another underland story of things we do in the dark, away from conscience and prying eyes, and yet another story of excavating deep time for often shallow purposes.
I taught for several years here in Maine at a very small boarding high school for a dozen young men who’d struggled in traditional schools. Often that meant working on social and emotional growth within a framework of academics, and so the academics were flexed around the guys’ learning needs and personal interests. One unwieldy idea I had that we never tried was a team-taught class on the technology, design, psychology, and environmental implications of the objects at the center of their lives (and often, annoyingly, in the classroom): smartphones. From the marvelous tiny fractal antenna to the dopamine -driven notification addiction to the cobalt in the lithium-ion batteries often mined by children in the Congo, there are stories within stories within our phones. They connect us to the world, yes, but often in ways that we don’t know or want to think about.
Let’s take a deep dive on the mining, because that’s where this week’s story takes us. Why are children mining for cobalt in the Congo? It’s wealth hiring poverty to do its dirty work, of course, but it’s also part of the Anthropocene cost of trying to reduce the impacts of the Anthropocene. That is, cobalt is an essential ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries that currently power the push toward the “green” rechargeable electrification of civilization. As a Guardian article on child labor in the Congo put it, “Cobalt is found in every lithium-ion rechargeable battery on the planet - from smartphones to tablets to laptops to electric vehicles… You cannot send an email, check social media, drive an electric car or fly home for the holidays without using this cobalt,” which can be “smeared in misery and blood.”
So what if we could wash away that misery and blood with a 4,000 meter dip in the ocean? What if we could simply send ROVs to scurry along the deep seabed and pick up trillions of potato-sized metal lumps made up entirely of manganese, iron, cobalt, copper, and nickel, with traces of rare earth elements? What if we could build hundreds of millions of electric vehicle batteries with these magic metal lumps without cutting down a rainforest, creating massive toxic waste sites, or paying a Congolese child sixty-five cents for a 10-hour day?
Drumroll, please… Meet your future miracle: The polymetallic nodule.
Or as the Metals Company calls it, “A battery in a rock” and “the cleanest path toward electric vehicles… with by far the lightest planetary touch.” The stakes are high – converting quickly from fossil fuels to clean energy systems for at least nine billion people by mid-century – and The Metals Company (among others) is pushing hard to make nodules the answer we’re all looking for. And like any good prospective Anthropocene mega-corporation, they’re using both the soft sell and the hard-nosed backroom maneuvers to make it happen. On one hand, their website carefully catalogues the social and environmental ills of land-based mining for nickel (the plundering of Indonesian and Philippine rainforests), cobalt (those poor kids, plus a ton of toxic tailings for every kilo of ore), copper (loss of endemic species in Chile), and manganese (reduction of South African biodiversity). On the other hand, in their partnership with the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru (they have others with Kiribati and Tonga), they have recently upended the slow deliberative permitting process of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) by triggering an obscure sub-clause in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Now, if the ISA hasn’t established rules and regulations for nodule exploitation within two years, the Nauru/Metals Company effort may proceed regardless.
But let’s back up for a moment and examine the mystery that is a polymetallic nodule. I think of them as akin to meteorites: ordinary in appearance but extraordinary in origin. Objects of darkness and deep time, these nuggets are found only at depths of 3500 to 6500 meters. They form by accretion around a fallen object like a clam shell – writers on the subject love to mention shark teeth – with the metals precipitating out of seawater or the sediment, but not in any sort of hurry: a centimeter every million years. I’ll say that again: a centimeter every million years. Which means, among other things, that they can only form where environmental conditions are stable on a time scale inconceivable in our daily lives. They sit atop sediments washed gently by the flow of Antarctic bottom water, that cold, clear, nutrient- and oxygen-rich current inching northward along the floor of the world’s oceans.
Most of the ocean floor does not belong to any nation. It is “the common heritage of mankind,” according to UNCLOS, which created the ISA to “organize, regulate and control all mineral-related activities in the international seabed area for the benefit of mankind as a whole.” That seems like a simple enough mandate, but it amounts to creating rules for mining that no one has ever done in ecosystems hardly anyone has ever seen, over an area of nearly a hundred million square miles.
(I should note here that the ISA is working on regulations for much more than the fetching of polymetallic nodules. Other much-desired mining riches are available in cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts and polymetallic sulphide deposits, both of which are associated with hydrothermal vents, those volcanic cracks in the seafloor that spew mineral-rich geothermally heated water. These vent-based ecosystems are slightly better understood than the abyssal plains, and are extraordinarily biodiverse, supporting a marvelous array of life forms not seen anywhere else on Earth. For my purposes here, though, and for brevity, I’m focusing on the nodules.)
What grand title has been bestowed by the ISA upon the vast international seabed? They call it the Area. It should be noted that the ISA isn’t tasked with deciding whether deep-sea mining should be done in the Area, only how and where and when. There has apparently been criticism over the years that while UNCLOS was intended in part to guarantee equity for less developed nations, the ISA’s purpose seems to have been captured by the interests of wealthier nations and their mining corporations. I can’t speak to this, but have no reason to doubt it, given that the exploration contracts (preliminary to exploitation contracts, which have yet to be permitted) given out so far have all gone to the usual suspects: China, Russia, India, Japan, France, Germany, etc., plus various companies from these nations. (The U.S. is not a signatory to UNCLOS.) The exceptions are the three small Pacific nations, mentioned above, who have partnered with the Metals Company out of Canada. These partnerships, interestingly enough, allow the Metals Company to eventually harvest their entire ISA contract areas, since the ISA requires contractors to set aside half of their explored area for the benefit of developing nations.
In case you haven’t heard of Nauru, it’s an eight-square-mile Pacific island nation with an extraordinary Anthropocene boom-and-bust history. It was nearly mined out of existence through the 20th century, as more than 35 million tons of phosphates were sent off to fertilize the world. The great wealth accrued from phosphate sales was squandered on various schemes, including a flopped musical about Leonardo da Vinci. In response, Nauru became a tax haven and money laundering epicenter in the 1990s, but was forced out of that business before long. Then Australia, which has more or less turned Nauru into a client state, offered aid in exchange for establishing in 2001 what became a notorious processing/detention center for immigrants and refugees 3100 miles off its shores. For nearly twenty years detainees at the facility reported deprivation, desolation, physical and sexual abuse, and suicidal despair. Australia often responded to media and NGO reporting on these abuses with increased security and secrecy, but the facility is finally closed now. With that source of income gone, Nauru is betting on nodules. Nauruans may yet become wealthy again or, as Elizabeth Kolbert reports in “The Deep,” her New Yorker article on deep sea mining, they may go bankrupt if they face liability costs for a mining operation gone wrong.
The ISA has no jurisdiction at all over seabed within the 200-mile limit of each coastal nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Already, mining for diamonds in shallow waters off Namibia is common, while Japan has begun to exploit a deep area around a hydrothermal vent off its coast, Papua New Guinea hosted a failed attempt to harvest a rich copper-gold deposit in its waters, and the government of the Cook Islands has passed two bills aimed at regulating and encouraging the mining of some of the estimated twelve billion tons of nodules in its EEZ.
Provided the technology pans out and the economics are sound, much more mining in various EEZs is inevitable. Only public pressure in those countries could slow or stop it. Mining in the Area is probably just as inevitable, but may be slightly more subject to global campaigns or diplomacy. In the end, though, as with nearly all Anthropocene exploitation, the market will determine the outcome.
Which brings me back to the marketplace of the 21st century and whether nodules can and should be harvested to build our battery-powered future. On the supply side, millions of tons of nodules would have to be successfully pulled up and processed to make a mining project economically viable. That’s not guaranteed. The technical difficulties of running a steady day-in-day-out deep sea extraction process cannot be overstated. The ROVs on the seabed have to withstand the pressures of 6000 meters while working flawlessly – imagine what it takes to fix a multi-ton object at that depth – and sending nodules up the hard pipe that connects it to a ship on the surface. The costs, both in infrastructure investments and long-term maintenance in an extraordinarily difficult environment, are daunting. But trillions of pure metal nodules can pay for a lot of ships and ROVs. And on the demand side, if you believe the hype about the direction of the new battery-based energy sector, the sky’s the limit. There, though, analysts and scientists who are concerned about the impacts of deep sea mining note that the recent hard push by the Metals Company and others may be meant to obscure two realities: First, that emerging battery technology, better metal recycling, and more environmentally-stringent land-based mining “could make deep-sea mining redundant,” as a recent YaleE360 article noted. Worse, “adding more minerals into the market… could perversely make recycling less attractive.” Second, that these abyssal seabeds are far more ecologically rich than we’ve imagined.
It’s hard to understate how little we know about deep ocean ecosystems, and it’s hard to overstate how much is being decided regarding their fate amid our ignorance. Simply put, this obscure U.N. agency is mapping out how best to exploit huge portions of the planet before we have even a basic understanding of it. It looks, at the moment, like yet another frontier story of extraction and destruction leading the way, with science left to examine the pieces.
The Deep Sea Mining Campaign underscores this on their website:
“Almost all of the scientific data about the biology, ecology and biodiversity of deep seabed habitats comes from a handful of studies at small sites in the CCZ [the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, a nodule-rich seabed area the size of Europe between Mexico and Hawaii]. Scientists have sampled only 0.01 per cent of the CCZ area. There is almost no published information about the biodiversity and ecology of nodule grounds elsewhere in the Pacific. It is clear that very little is known about deep seabed habitats with nodules.”
What we do know from that handful of studies in the CCZ, however, is that nodule-rich areas are suprisingly rich in diverse life, and that their removal would be catastrophic for the ecosystem and perhaps for those areas of the ocean more generally. A 2021 Guardian article notes that a single 2017 survey in the CCZ found thirty species new to science. In a vast abyssal floor covered by soft sediments, the nodules are the only hard surface available. Sponges attach to the nodules, and other life attaches to the sponges. This is a world inhabited also by corals, sea urchins, sea stars, jellyfish, isopods, nematodes, copepods, polychaetes, eyeless and bioluminescent fishes, cephalopods such as squid and octopus, deep sea shrimp, sea cucumbers, and sea stars. Plus countless species we have yet to observe or understand. Most of the deep sea is still unknown to us, a blank spot in our minds which we are being asked by entities like the Metals Company to mistake for an emptiness on the seafloor.
The litany of threats to sea life from deep sea mining is long and nuanced, but it falls broadly into several categories: removal and trampling of diverse and unique communities of life by the ROVs, massive sediment plumes from both the ROVs and ship discharges which would impact not only the mined areas but much larger unmined areas nearby, increased toxicity in the water column for fishes and other megafauna, and intense noise and light pollution in a habitat that has existed for many millions of years without either noise or light. Any removal of the polymetallic nodules and disturbance of the sediments would mean essentially permanent ecological changes, on site as well as up and down the food chain. The upper reaches of the CCZ – the planned epicenter of Area mining – is crisscrossed by whales, whale sharks, leatherback turtles, tuna, seabirds, and many more, all of which are dependent on a healthy ocean.
The setting for this mining drama is a global ocean already threatened by decreases in fish and mammal populations and increases in temperature, acidification, and deoxygenation. With those in mind, it really doesn’t seem like the place to begin another century of habitat-destroying extraction.
The Max Planck Institute addresses the dangers of nodule mining in a recent article:
“In the Clarion-Clipperton Zone in particular, more than half of the deep-sea inhabitants depend on the nodules in one way or another. Removal of the nodules and thus the sponges, as would be the case through deep-sea mining, would trigger a cascade of negative effects on the ecosystem. Rapid recovery is unlikely because the nodules take millions of years to grow to substantial size, and the deep-sea ecosystem regenerates very slowly.”
Think about those millions of years as you remember the Metals Company/Nauru bureaucratic ploy to invoke the two-year rule. The odds have increased significantly that we will not know nearly enough about the array of species in the abyssal plain or seamounts or hydrothermal vents, much less their long-term needs or how those needs will be impacted by mining.
In response to Nauru’s decision, 571 scientists and policy makers from 44 countries signed a statement arguing for a pause in the rush toward deep-sea mining. The statement begins:
“The deep sea is home to a significant proportion of Earth’s biodiversity, with most species yet to be discovered. The richness and diversity of organisms in the deep sea supports ecosystem processes necessary for the Earth’s natural systems to function. The deep ocean also constitutes more than 90% of the biosphere, and plays a key role in climate regulation, fisheries production, and elemental cycling. It is an integral part of the culture and well-being of local communities and the seafloor forms part of the common heritage of humankind. However, deep-sea ecosystems are currently under stress from a number of anthropogenic stressors including climate change, bottom trawling and pollution. Deep-sea mining would add to these stressors, resulting in the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning that would be irreversible on multi-generational timescales.
BMW and Volvo have stated that for now they will refuse to source their electric vehicle metals from any deep sea mining source. Greenpeace is pressuring Ford to do the same. We’ll need more campaigns like this to limit the demand enough to give mining companies and their investors pause before beginning serious exploitation. It doesn’t hurt that David Attenborough, citing a massive 337-page report by the international conservation charity Fauna and Flora International, calling for a ban on deep sea mining until we know enough to make informed decisions: “The rush to mine this pristine and unexplored environment risks creating terrible impacts that cannot be reversed. We need to be guided by science when faced with decisions of such great environmental consequence.” Who among us wants to contradict David Attenborough?
As we clumsily and reluctantly pivot civilization away from fossil fuels, will our two centuries of experience removing millions of years of accumulated resources (oil, coal, minerals) for quick and sloppy usage guide us in decimating another portion of the planet, or will it give us pause? We’re in a hole; should we keep digging? There’s a tension here, as often happens, between the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis. We must remember throughout this transition that the climate cannot be addressed without simultaneously defending life on Earth from our other bad habits. There’s no rationale for a Pyrrhic victory on fossil fuels if it comes at the cost of so much diverse, vital life.
But if we deem mining an absolute necessity, there’s still the difficult question of choosing between land-based destruction and deep ocean annihilation. Adrian Glover, a deep-sea ecology researcher at the Natural History Museum, addresses the choice this way in the recent Guardian piece: “…it’s going to be a big question for society. If these are environments rich in biodiversity that could be easily damaged, will it be better or worse to exploit them compared with exploiting our rainforests on land? That could be a very difficult issue to resolve.”
Well, my fear is that if that question comes to any kind of vote, either in public or in legislative bodies, much less in corporate boardrooms, as population increases along with global temperatures and storm surges, the answer will be clear: Take both. Or, if there’s enough pushback against surface mining in that rainforest or in the Congo or on indigenous land, then the abyssal plain is toast. It’s dark and distant, it’s conveniently still thought of as a dead zone sparsely inhabited by unrecognizable life forms that don’t (we assume) share their lives with us. Even the octopus that only lays its eggs on the stalks of sponges anchored to polymetallic nodules probably will find another nodule somewhere else, right? If not, we won’t notice.
Elizabeth Kolbert quotes Edith Widder, a Macarthur Fellowship winning scientist who specializes in bioluminescence – a crucial feature of life in the abyss – about a fundamental limitation in our own vision: “We believe we see the world as it is. We don’t. We see the world as we need to see it to make our existence possible.” It’s not hard to imagine that in the Anthropocene, as we’ve rapidly changed what existence means both for us and for the planetary community of life, our blindness to the “world as it is” is at the root of our crises. Science is one of our best attempts as a civilization to understand what is beyond our vision, including those marvels which exist deep beneath us in the dark.
Guardian article (from 2018) on cobalt mining in the Congo: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/oct/12/phone-misery-children-congo-cobalt-mines-drc
Metals Company website: https://metals.co/nodules/
International Seabed Authority site: https://isa.org.jm/
Elizabeth Kolbert article in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/06/21/the-deep-sea-is-filled-with-treasure-but-it-comes-at-a-price
YaleE360 article: https://e360.yale.edu/features/the-race-for-ev-parts-leads-to-risky-deep-ocean-mining
Deep Sea Mining Campaign: http://www.deepseaminingoutofourdepth.org/
2021 Guardian article on mining in the CCZ: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/03/child-labour-toxic-leaks-the-price-we-could-pay-for-a-greener-future
Max Planck Institute article: https://www.mpi-bremen.de/en/Lodgers-on-manganese-nodules-Sponges-promote-a-high-diversity-2.html
Seabed Mining Science Statement: https://www.seabedminingsciencestatement.org/
Fauna and Flora International report: https://cms.fauna-flora.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/FFI_2020_The-risks-impacts-deep-seabed-mining_Report.pdf
Hey Jason, thanks for another great essay with interesting links. Soon, I’m heading out into the thick western forest fire smoke to take a gentle walk to think about the changing world, but first wanted to comment... Last week you stated, "We’re as blind to most of the electromagnetic spectrum as we are to our transformation of the Earth (science informs us about both, but we seem to scarcely understand)." Our indifference, it seems, will continue until it becomes even more personal (folks have to FEEL it, despite the fact it is all around). Thanks for helping make us feel. I'd like to see your class on the dissection and impact of the smartphone in the mainstream -- I'd attend and I don't even have a cell phone! Like your essays, and those written by others, as well as books you've mentioned, we need more avenues to understanding. In "A Brief History of Earth,” Andrew Knoll quotes Baba Dioum, a 1968 Senegalese forest ranger: "In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."