Stephanie Hessler | The Architectural Review | 11 April, 2019
The greed for ever more and ever cheaper minerals drives seabed mining – but at what cost?
At the height of the Cold War, in a top-secret mission titled Project Azorian, the CIA tried to retrieve Soviet submarine K-129, which had sunk in 1968. Under the auspices of the billionaire Howard Hughes, in 1974 a US ship was sent to recover the vessel with the hope of gathering valuable intelligence. The Agency needed a cover-up story to deflect from its actual target, so the public was told that Hughes’ ship was a commercial deep-sea mining vessel. After a series of mishaps, however, journalists broke the story in 1975, and the CIA aborted the mission.
It is no surprise that a cover-up story was used to distract the public from the actual aims of the mission. Misinformation is often paired with greed. The greed for ever more and ever cheaper minerals, used in devices such as the computer I am typing on, but also in ‘green’ technologies, drives seabed mining. Today, the minerals ostensibly targeted by the CIA mission have become subject to real prospecting. In oceanic resource grab, imperial and colonial asymmetric power relations of the past are reinforced. And so is the ecological and social havoc it will cause. –
The scientific and technocratic apparatus surrounding the world’s hydrosphere is largely governed by research institutes and companies of the Global North, which have at their command the know-how, technologies and financial means to engage in these highly complex and costly projects. The insights emerging from research at, for example, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, are employed by businesses such as the Canada-registered international company Nautilus Minerals. ‘The first company to commercially explore the seafloor for massive sulfide systems, a potential source of high grade copper, gold, zinc and silver’, as its website reads, Nautilus struck a deal with the Papua New Guinea government to mine minerals in the country’s national waters.
Mining in international waters, beyond a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles or up to the margin of the continental shelf, is unlikely to begin in the near future. However, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body to administrate resource extractions in international waters, has started distributing claims to prospecting countries such as France, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Russia and the UK, as well as the Pacific Island states of Kiribati, Nauru and Tonga. The claimed areas are in the Clarion- Clipperton Zone spanning 4.5 million km2 in the North Pacific Ocean, an area deemed to hold vast and unmatched potential for minerals. As of today, the holders are entitled to explore, not yet exploit. Yet this is the first move towards extraction in the so-called ‘Area’ beyond national jurisdiction defined by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as the ‘common heritage of humankind’.
Long-term effects of deep-sea mining are devastating. Extractivist enterprises are likely to cause unprecedented damage to marine environments in directly affected zones as well as in neighbouring areas. In Papua New Guinea, where extraction in national waters is about to commence, land-based mining is already threatening ecosystems, lifestyles and health as well as economic and political self-determination. The deal with Nautilus Minerals bears the promise of short-term profit, but neglects the long-term ecological, social and economic consequences. It demonstrates the foreign dependency of economically deprived regions such as Papua New Guinea, pointing to the distributed complex of infrastructural and legal systems that the architect and researcher Keller Easterling has called ‘extrastatecraft’.
Not only resource extraction, but also tensions caused by territorial claims today gain further urgency. As sea levels rise, the baselines of island states such as Kiribati face dramatic change. International bodies discuss whether baselines should be frozen and, if so, when to set the starting date. This not only affects future access to essential foods such as fish, but also raises questions of nationhood and land rights. Does a country with no surface area above water cease to exist? What happens to the spiritual legacy, the graves and sacred sites, if they are submerged in water and disappear?
Deep-sea exploration and exploitation prospects utilise tropes reminiscent of the ‘new frontier’ rhetoric in previous imperialist endeavours. Using concepts of distance – often employed in colonial projects and environmental extraction alike – seabed mining will supposedly take place ‘far away’: deep below the ocean surface and in geographically remote areas. Clearly, the oceans are an intricately connected complex ecological system, and impacts in the seabed will not remain isolated and contained. And, importantly, such viewpoints are blatantly Eurocentric, begging the question: remote for whom? Technologies such as underwater cameras and scuba diving equipment have made what lies below the ocean surface visualisable, revealing the diversity of subaquatic life. This could contribute to the protection of the oceans.
Yet as depictions of the sea have moved from the impenetrable surface of a monstrous Leviathan to a space that can be seen, studied and conquered, techno-scientific advancements have also contributed to its exploitation. As anthropogenic actions affect ecosystems above and below water, often with the aim to extract resources and ameliorate human livelihoods, these projects deplete rather than augment, and close in rather than expand life worlds.