Seafloor mining threatens to open dark new phase of habitat destruction

While global warming is, without question, the greatest threat facing humanity, it’s far from the only threat, and ending CO2 emissions will only help so much if we continue perpetrating wanton habitat destruction in our pursuit of resources. I think it’s more likely than not that we could find more of a balance, in which the destruction caused in resource extraction is more limited, but it would require a very different kind of economy. The process of maintaining the health of the ecosystem around a mine would need to be at least as important as the materials being extracted, like healing the wounds created by surgery. The same is true of waste produced from manufacturing, even as we reduce the volume by eliminating profit-driven overproduction. We have to deal with climate change, but we also have to deal with habitat destruction and chemical pollution, for our own sake.

This is also not a conversation we can afford to put off until climate change is “dealt with”. I think it’s reasonable to assume, by now, that by the time we’re off fossil fuels, the climate’s natural momentum will drive continued warming for centuries, or even millennia to come. In practical terms, we may never be done “dealing with” climate change. No, we need to be dealing with all of these problems, all at once. I support extraction of rare earth minerals and other stuff needed for electronics, but not at any price. Slavery needs to end, all over the globe, and reparations must be made to those who have been enslaved, in addition to what is already owed for the crimes of history. The waste of these precious resources through planned obsolescence, the lethally neglectful handling of electronic wasteall of it needs to end. It really, really sucks that this is where we’re at, but the reality is that we really do have to do everything all at once. There’s no more time to just put this stuff off, and unfortunately the current momentum of society has us hurtling towards destruction.

Our oceanic ecosystems were in trouble long before the climate’s warming was detectable. Overfishing, the destruction of the sea floor through trawling, and a million different kinds of pollution have oceanic ecosystems on the ropes just like many ecosystems on land; and just like terrestrial ecosystems, oceanic ecosystems are at risk from resource extraction even if we stop all oil and gas drilling:

An investigation by conservationists has found evidence that deep-seabed mining of rare minerals could cause “extensive and irreversible” damage to the planet.

The report, to be published on Monday by the international wildlife charity Fauna & Flora, adds to the growing controversy that surrounds proposals to sweep the ocean floor of rare minerals that include cobalt, manganese and nickel. Mining companies want to exploit these deposits – which are crucial to the alternative energy sector – because land supplies are running low, they say.

However, oceanographers, biologists and other researchers have warned that these plans would cause widespread pollution, destroy global fish stocks and obliterate marine ecosystems.

“The ocean plays a critical role in the basic functioning of our planet, and protecting its delicate ecosystem is not just critical for marine biodiversity but for all life on Earth,” said Sophie Benbow, the organisation’s marine director.

There are two images. Image A shows a healthy seafloor community on a

There are two images. Image A shows a healthy seafloor community on a “seamount”, with a variety of corals and other organisms. Image B shows the results of trawling on a seamount – a barren, flat landscape with no visible life but what looks like a passing sea cucumber sort of thing, which has a pink body, and whitish, nearly transparent appendages. The photo was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons with permission from CSIRO Marine Research.

Trawling for fish already causes extensive damage. When nets drag along the sea floor, they obliterate whole ecosystems, leaving barren desert behind. With total darkness, low temperatures, and high pressure, these ecosystems develop slowly. Recovery, if it ever happens, is far off. Trawling for minerals would be much worse, because they’d be deliberately digging deeper into the sea floor, and bringing up not only pollutants related to the metals being extracted, but also any toxic waste that has collected in the sediment over the years. It may be that there is some way to make seafloor resource extraction viable, but this is not it.

Seafloor ecosystems are about as “out of sight” as it is possible to get, but I think that preserving them is just as important as preserving places like the Atlanta Forest. We have to stop doing this. The people in power are apparently impervious to reason, but we have to stop doing this.

That’s why I think we need organizing. That’s why I want people to have the capacity for a real general strike in the United States, because our leaders either do not care about the damage they are doing, or ideology and wealth have made then incapable of understanding it.

I do get to do a bit of a bad news/good news/bad news “Oreo” with this article, though. One of the concerns they mention is that disturbing the sea floor also risks disturbing methane deposits, triggering the dreaded “clathrate gun”, releasing vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere, and causing global warming to leap forward. While I think that this is a concern worth having, and something that merits more caution and more research, there’s also reason to believe that, given the depth of most such deposits, the methane would dissolve into the water before it reached the surface. That would not be without consequences, but it would spare us a sudden, devastating increase in temperature.

The bad news is that we will probably never really know the sheer scale of biodiversity loss that has already happened through trawling, and that capitalists, unsurprisingly, see no problem with plowing ahead:

Recent research has also emphasised that our knowledge and understanding of biodiversity is woefully incomplete. “Each time an expedition is launched to collect species, we find that between 70% and 90% of them are new to science,” said Benbow. “It is not just new species, but whole genera of plants and creatures about which we had previously known nothing.”

This view is supported by David Attenborough, who has called for a moratorium on all deep-sea mining plans. “Mining means destruction, and in this case it means the destruction of an ecosystem about which we know pathetically little,” he said.

Delicate, long-living denizens of the deep – polychaete worms, sea cucumbers, corals and squid – would be obliterated by dredging, researchers have warned. Nor would there be any chance of a quick recovery. At depths of several kilometres, food and energy are limited, and life proceeds at an extraordinarily slow rate. “Once lost, biodiversity will be impossible to restore,” says the report.

The battle over our planet’s deep-sea resources focuses primarily on the trillions of nodules of manganese, nickel and cobalt that litter the ocean floor. These metals are critical to the manufacture of electric cars, wind turbines and other devices that will be needed to replace carbon-emitting lorries, power plants and factories.

As a result, mining companies are now jostling to dredge them up in vast quantities using robot rovers – attached by pipelines to surface ships – that would trundle over the ocean floor, sucking up nodules and pumping them to their mother craft.

But operations like these would devastate our already stressed oceans, destroy their delicate ecosystems and send plumes of sediments, laced with toxic metals, spiralling upwards to poison marine food-chains, say marine biologists.

For their part, mining companies have defended their plans by pointing out that drilling for mineral reserves on land is even more damaging to the planet’s stressed ecosystems. If we focus all our efforts to dig up cobalt, nickel and manganese there, we will degrade the environment ever further. Better turn to the ocean depths instead, it is argued.

The claim is dismissed by Weller. “These companies are presenting deep-sea mining as a new frontier but they really mean it to be an additional frontier – for none of these companies is suggesting that if we started mining the deep seabed then they would stop mining on land. We would just be adding to our woes.”

Precisely this. They are presenting a false choice, and ignoring the fact that, as I said above, we have to stop doing this. Mining on land has to change – we can’t just leave the waste in tailing ponds until the dams give out and they pour poisonous sludge onto communities downhill. It will require sacrifices, of course, beginning with billionaires. I’m not suggesting we cut out their hearts in some dark ceremony – ẏ̶̖̬̤̯̱̕e̷̳̟̔̉t̷̪̻͌̿̂͗͆ͅ – but that we ruthlessly sever their fortunes, condemning them to the horror of living like normal people.

This kind of resource extraction is, as Attenborough said, inherently dangerous and destructive. That doesn’t mean we can never do it, but it does mean that when we do, it ought to be driven by need, not greed, and not the kind of economic need driven by one’s place in a an exploitative global capitalist system:

Ocean experts are concerned about the prospects of deep-sea mining operations beginning in the near future, following the decision of the Pacific Island state of Nauru to accelerate exploitation of the sea bed. In June 2021, it notified the International Seabed Authority (ISA) – responsible for regulating mining in areas beyond national jurisdiction – of its intention to sponsor an exploitation application for nodule mining in the Pacific.

In doing so, Nauru triggered a ‘two-year rule’ – a legal provision which creates a countdown for the ISA to adopt its first set of exploitation regulations for deep-seabed mining and could result in the green light for deep-seabed mining this year. Discussions among the 167 member states of the ISA are now under way.

“This is a critical year,” said Weller. “The newly agreed UN High Sea treaty signifies a clear global recognition of the importance of ocean conservation but collaborative efforts are still needed to keep the brakes on deep-sea mining.”

I’m not saying greed is playing no role in this, but it makes sense that, especially with the looming threat of sea level rise, island nations would be looking for whatever edge they can get. Their economic situation was forced on them by the same imperial powers that have forced climate change on all of us, and it only makes sense to try to save themselves with whatever means they have at their disposal. After all, it’s not like the habitat destruction will stop if Naru decides not to mine its sea floor. No, island nations are facing the same artificially maintained Tragedy of the Commons, in which the primacy of private ownership creates an incentive to take as much as you can, because if it’s not you, it’ll be someone else.

And that, my friends, is why the workers of the world must unite, and bring about global solidarity, for the survival of humanity.

Thank you for reading! If you liked this post, please share it around. If you read this blog regularly, please consider joining my small but wonderful group of patrons. Because of my immigration status, I’m not allowed to get a normal job, so my writing is all I have for the foreseeable future, and I’d love for it to be a viable career long-term. As part of that goal, I’m currently working on a young adult fantasy series, so if supporting this blog isn’t enough inducement by itself, for just $5/month you can work with me to name a place or character in that series!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *