MAN UP! It's time to suck the oceans dry
So I did something this week that I’ve never done before: I purchased a copy of Newsweek. On the cover, the headline shouts MAN UP! I just couldn’t resist because, well, I’ve been meaning to do that for some time. I hoped maybe there’d be some instructions on exactly how to ‘man up’ (do I start a bar brawl? raise pit bull puppies? swear off vegetables?), but it was just a bunch of whining about how men aren’t getting exactly 50% of American service industry jobs. If ‘manning up’ means grabbing a mop, I can wipe the floor with Chuck Norris. While the article was a disappointment—it seems Brad Pitt is the new archetype for the modern male—the next article detailed a terrifyingly bad idea that whole world just may sink into:
“Mining’s Final Frontier” takes a golly-this-could-be-really-neato look at underwater mining. That’s right…underwater mining. As in smashing the seafloor to pieces, sucking it up, then filtering for precious metals. China and Canada are all over it like monkeys on an overturned trailer full of bananas as they, and many other nations line up to be the first to ‘smash and suck’ their way to their God-given share of the earth’s bounty.
It’s pretty awesome, humanity’s ability to deny a shred of responsibility for the well-being of our home planet. As the Deepwater Horizon oil spill spewed millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Chinese government officials filed paperwork with the U.N. to launch a potentially far more devastating assault against our shared oceans. Now before you think I’m blaming China, let me make it clear that I, uh, have a lot of Chinese friends. That, and the demand for the gold, cobalt, tellurium, nickel, copper and silver still comes primarily from U.S. consumers who need the newest generation autos and electronic gadgets. The biggest recession since the Dust Bowl? Sorry, but I don’t think 80% of the population could afford a luxury item like a smart phone back in 1934 (yes, inflation-adjusted).
According to the article, here’s what is going to happen in a few short years: Armies of submersibles are going to dive to nutrient-rich deep-sea hydrothermal vents. They will proceed to smash everything to smithereens. The resulting sediments will likely kill every part of the surrounding food chain. Again, according to the article, this is just fine so long as the mine operators “ensure that cumulative effects of mining activities do not exceed the rate of recovery of the organisms that rely on these habitats for survival.” Even better:
“Another reason for optimism is that the vents can withstand disasters such as undersea volcanoes.”
No worries then. These things repair themselves. By that logic, no need to bolster the levees in New Orleans. Or worry much about earthquake early warning systems. After all, humans have withstood natural disasters just fine—there are seven billion of us alive today. I’m also going to recommend we round up the executives at Nautilus Minerals, the leading seafloor-mining company, and punch them hard in the face repeatedly so long as we “ensure that the cumulative effects of our punching activity do not exceed the rate of recovery of the organisms…”
But humans can defend themselves you say. What about the poor defenseless sea creatures? Hush your mouth, you nature lover. While Nautilus won’t agree to mine only inactive, critter-free vents, Samantha Smith, Nautilus’ environmental manager shows true compassion for those less fortunate. From the article: “’We’ve put in place a number of measures to ensure that ecosystems and biodiversity are maintained,’ says Smith. Nautilus plans to use undersea robots to move some vent animals away from the area being mined…” I tried calling Nautilus to get an idea of what these life-saving undersea robots look like, but their offices were closed for the day, so I’ve put together a highly detailed sketch of what I think this brand of genius is likely to look like.
So far, so good. We may be pulverizing the seafloor, but it will magically heal and we’re going to call on C3PO to save the fishies. The best part of the article, however, is this tender nugget: “Seafloor mining might therefore be less destructive than mining on land, which brings such not-exactly-benign consequences as mountaintop removal, mercury pollution, and destruction of watersheds.”
Because, after all, it’s clearly an either/or situation, right? What’s implied by the above is that as soon as we start mining our oceans, mountaintop mining operations will cease. It’s an incredibly thin coat of greenwash, to be sure, but remember President Obama, a staunch advocate of nuclear and coal, earned the support of dozens of environmental groups with a lot less.
What to do about seafloor mining? Probably not a lot. When it comes to human greed and our unceasing desire to buy more gee-whiz tech crap, market forces will prevail. Those precious metals will be extracted by hook and by crook. Amory Lovins, Stewart Brand, Thomas Friedman, and President Obama—they all profess a deep belief (I think it’s more like desperate hope) that technology will save us. And maybe it will….right after it gets done absolutely murdering our planet.