MAC: Mines and Communities

Deep Sea Rush: Speculators are circling

Published by MAC on 2020-11-12
Source: Thebaffler.com (2020-11-11)

It is not really as simple as plucking polymetallic nodules off the ocean floor.

Scientists and environmental activists have called for a ten-year moratorium on all deep sea mining to study its potential impacts.

See also:

2019-08-16 Fiji calls for deep sea mining moratorium

2019-07-30 New report damns deep-sea mining

2019-07-21 Why the rush to mine the seabed?

2019-07-05 Greenpeace calls for freeze on deep sea mining

2003-12-19 Nauru: A double blot on Australia
 
2003-12-19 Situation in the 'mined-out' island of Nauru worsens

 

 

Deep Sea Rush

With valuable metals on the ocean floor, speculators are circling

https://thebaffler.com/salvos/deep-sea-rush-mccarthy

Rebecca McCarthy No. 54

November 2020

Gerard Barron aims to be the first person in history to succeed in
commercial deep sea mining, and he is growing frustrated with his
detractors. “If you read some of the commentary from some of the
environmentalists, it’s so sensational,” he says. “And it’s so bullshit,
you know?” Barron is a talkative man, with the good looks of a bit
character on a prestige television series. He speaks to me over Zoom
from Portugal, where he’s working remotely from an Airbnb. “It’s art,”
he tells me, when I ask him about the hooks and pegs on the wall behind
him. He is wearing a lot of leather bracelets. The weather, when I
glimpse the sky outside, looks beautiful.

Barron belongs to a fledgling class of new capitalists trying to build
“compassionate” and eco-conscious corporations. He grew up on a dairy
farm in Queensland, Australia, the youngest of five children, and
founded his first company while he was still in college. Eventually, he
moved to Canada, where he got involved in the automotive battery
industry. But Barron’s greatest success has been in marketing: in 2001,
he started a company called Adstream that has since expanded to thirty
countries and helps brands like Mastercard, McDonald’s, Nissan, and
Warner Brothers develop campaigns that will reach a global audience.
“When an ad is delivered outside its country of origin there’s a risk
that certain aspects of it may be out of step with the cultural customs
and traditions of its new viewing audience,” an Adstream blog explains.
“Generally speaking, a broader message crosses borders more clearly.”

Barron knows what sells around the world, which is not altogether
comforting given his current ambitions. He is now the CEO of a mining
outfit called DeepGreen, hailed for creating “mining’s Tesla moment” by
Mining.com, that aims to trawl the ocean floor for metals like cobalt,
copper, lithium, and nickel—all of which the world will need in vast
quantities if we hope to decarbonize the global economy.

“I liken it to a game of whack-a-mole,” says Barron of a green
transition. “So, we whack down fossil fuels and up pops metals. . . .
We’re not just talking about car batteries—we’re talking about grid
storage, home storage, industrial storage, and heavy transportation. The
demand for those metals that we’re currently using to build batteries is
going to go off the charts.” We haven’t come anywhere close to whacking
down fossil fuels, but otherwise Barron is right: the European Union
released a report in early September warning that it was facing a
critical shortage of rare metals. The Financial Times suggests that in
order for the EU to meet its climate goals, “it will need up to eighteen
times more lithium and five times more cobalt in 2030. The forecasts
rise to sixty times for lithium and fifteen times more cobalt by 2050.”

Cobalt and lithium are key components of lithium-ion batteries, which
are used for electric cars; copper is needed to conduct wind power.
While these metals can be obtained through terrestrial mining, their
extraction is arduous, carbon-intensive, and environmentally damaging.
Scaling up current operations wouldn’t be simple. “Lithium isn’t rare,”
Simon Moore, managing director of Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, told
Al Jazeera in 2019. But “it takes anywhere between eight and ten years
to build a lithium mine from scratch and to get it ramped up without any
problems.” Deep sea mining, some believe, could offer a shortcut. The
question is whether opening up a new extractive industry on the seafloor
is an easy answer to the looming metals shortage, or an oceanic death march.

The Twilight Area

We know next to nothing about the ocean: a lawless, recondite mass, over
80 percent of which remains unmapped, that covers more than 70 percent
of the planet; absorbs a third of humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions
and 90 percent of the excess heat generated by increased greenhouse gas
emissions; and contains some of the largest mountain ranges on earth. Go
down two hundred meters—the equivalent of two and half city blocks—and
you start to lose sunlight, entering the twilight zone where the only
illumination is bioluminescence. At a thousand meters you’re in the
midnight zone, home to blind, gelatinous animals and the frill shark—a
prehistoric-looking creature with teeth like fraying lace. At four
thousand meters, you hit the abyssal zone, where most life feeds off the
falling detritus of the dead and relies on the heat of hydrothermal
vents to survive. Clustered around those vents are polymetallic
nodules—small, black rocks each about the size of a potato. These
potatoes are what DeepGreen is gunning after.

Polymetallic nodules were first discovered in 1868 in the Kara Sea, off
the coast of Western Siberia, but deep sea mining expeditions first
captured worldwide attention in 1974, when the U.S. government
dispatched a large ship from Long Beach in California, in what they
claimed was a deep sea mining expedition. In reality, it was a CIA cover
story for an attempt to recover a Soviet submarine, known as Project
Azorian. Billionaire Howard Hughes provided a civilian front for the
mission and a ship—the Hughes Glomar—so that the United States could do
covert recovery work on the sub while being monitored by international
observers. A handful of recovered nodules were presented to engineers
and corporate executives to bolster the cover story, but when it was
revealed that no actual mining was taking place, and there would be no
vast deep sea mining profits forthcoming, a public outcry followed.
Investors felt they had been defrauded. In response to this compromised
mission, as well as to international deep sea fishing rivalries, the Law
of the Sea was written and the International Seabed Authority (ISA) formed.

DeepGreen wants to trawl the ocean floor for metals like cobalt,
copper, lithium, and nickel—which the world will need if we hope to
decarbonize the global economy.

The ISA was founded on a conflict of interest. It is both a licensing
and a regulatory body, charged with selling off the seafloor as well as
“effective protection of the marine environment [and] . . . prevention
of damage to the flora and fauna.” A strange, opaque organization whose
headquarters overlooks Kingston Harbor in Jamaica, the ISA’s main
activity nowadays is issuing exploration contracts in international
waters—an expanse known, somewhat forebodingly, as “The Area”—to various
deep sea mining outfits. In order to obtain an exploration license—which
allows a contractor to assess a particular tract’s resources and perform
environmental impact studies but does not permit actual mining—companies
need a sponsoring state to apply on their behalf. Lockheed Martin’s
exploration contract, for example, is being sponsored by the United
Kingdom; they are operating under the name UK Seabed Resources. The
United States government is notably absent from the deep sea mining
scramble, not because of any high-minded environmental concerns, but
because it considers the Law of the Sea, which it has not ratified, to
be insufficiently cruel. One of the central provisions states that the
ocean belongs to the “common heritage of mankind,” and America,
famously, does not believe in any such common heritage.

“It was a victory of socialism over capitalism in the 1970s, at the
height of the Cold War,” says Matt Gianni, who works with the Deep Sea
Conservation Coalition, about the Law of the Sea. “Basically, amongst
the [other] things that the seabed mining provisions of this convention
do, is say, ‘If anybody goes out into the international area of the
world’s oceans to exploit these seabed resources, they have to share the
wealth with the whole of humankind.’” Under the royalty system, Gianni
estimates that the payout would only amount to roughly $100,000 a year
for individual countries. Most of the real money involved would go to
the mining company, the sponsoring state, and, most troublingly, to the
ISA. Still, when the Reagan administration came to power in 1981, they
balked at the idea. “They said ‘No, this is communism,’” says Gianni.
“‘This is socialism. We want none of this.’”

Today, the ISA is primarily driven by a body called the Legal and
Technical Commission (LTC). Every year, member states arrive in Jamaica
for the ISA’s annual meeting. Generally, the states that show up are
those with a vested interest in beginning deep sea mining. Those states
then nominate representatives to serve on the LTC, which is responsible
for issuing exploration licenses. The body is composed largely of
geologists and lawyers—not quite oil guys, but closely adjacent to the
industry—who meet behind closed doors. There are few records of the
meetings; business representatives are able to attend, but civilian
observers and the press are locked out.

Shortly before I spoke to Matt Gianni about the Law of the Sea, he had
attended a hearing on deep sea mining in Belgium’s Parliament. Gianni
reported that Michael Lodge, the secretary general of the ISA, “made the
extraordinary claim, as he often does, that the LTC is a completely
independent advisory and the reason that it meets behind closed doors
and its proceedings are relatively secret . . . is because they need to
have the freedom to decide individually what’s the best thing to do and
not be beholden to their [respective] states. Well, frankly that’s
bullshit.” The LTC has never denied an exploration contract, and Michael
Lodge himself appeared in an early promotional video for DeepGreen.

In total, the ISA has issued thirty exploration contracts in “The Area,”
seven of which are held by private companies. DeepGreen holds three of
those contracts, in the Clarion Clipperton Zone (CZZ). They are being
sponsored by the Pacific Nations of Tonga, Kiribati, and a tiny,
desolate island republic called Nauru.

Duke of Nauru

If you went looking for a cautionary tale about capitalism, colonialism,
and extractive industries, you would be hard pressed to find a better
example than Nauru. Originally inhabited by twelve indigenous tribes,
its first known contact with the Western world came in 1798, when a
British trader sailing past Nauru from New Zealand to Calcutta spotted
it and nicknamed it “Pleasant Island.” Afterward, Nauru developed a
reputation as a haven for pirates, and it was largely avoided for years
by all but deserters and convicts. Known as “beachcombers,” these men
would help the indigenous islanders trade and communicate with passing
ships. In 1878, as a critical mass of firearms began to accumulate on
the island, a chief was shot in a drunken fight. A ten-year civil war
broke out between the twelve tribes, ending only when the country was
taken over by the Germans in 1888. Control of the island was then passed
back and forth between the Germans, the British, the Australians, and
the Japanese throughout both World Wars. It was attacked by Allied and
Axis forces and only regained independence in the 1960s. But nothing
destroyed Nauru like the British Phosphate Commission, which gutted the
island in order to provide cheap fertilizer to British and Australian
farmers.

One of the central provisions states that the ocean belongs to the
“common heritage of mankind,” and America, famously, does not believe in
any such common heritage.

After independence, the Nauruan government doubled down on the phosphate
trade, knowing that it was only a matter of time before resources were
exhausted. Today, more than 80 percent of the eight-square-mile island
is uninhabitable, covered in knobs of phosphate that resemble tombstones
or rotting teeth. The just over twelve-and-a-half thousand remaining
Nauruans live clustered along the coast. With few trees “topside,” as
Nauruans refer to the area overtaken by the phosphate mines, heat
radiates off the island. Clouds drift away; rain has grown scarcer; king
tides flood the coast and make the single main road, an artery that
circles the island, impassable. Seawater contaminates the groundwater;
dust from the dead mines causes respiratory issues; fish have begun
dying off as the coral reefs surrounding the island bleach. In 1993,
Nauru received $75 million from Australia for environmental remediation,
but little to nothing has actually been done.

The bulk of the profits made when the mines were operational went to the
British Phosphate Commission, although the Nauruans received small trust
funds. During a period in the 1960s and 1970s, the island’s per capita
income was among the highest in the world. That money came and went
quickly, though. In 1993, the country’s then-financial adviser, a guy
named—I shit you not—Duke Minks, a former roadie for the mercifully
forgotten Brit Pop group Unit 4 + 2, suggested that Nauru’s financial
problems could be alleviated by investing in a musical. Then-president
Bernard Dowiyogo loved the idea. Nauru sunk over a couple million into
Leonardo the Musical: A Portrait of Love, which was essentially fan
fiction, co-written by Minks, about a hypothetical affair between Da
Vinci and the subject of the Mona Lisa. In June 1993, as Nauruan
dignitaries were departing to attend its London premier, a group of
women and children stormed the airport tarmac in protest of the musical
and the misuse of public funds. The production was a flop, and Nauru did
not recoup its losses.

After a brief foray into offshore banking, the big business in Nauru
then became detention centers. Since 2001, much of the island’s income
has come from housing refugees seeking shelter in Australia, part of the
contentious “Pacific Solution.” Refugees live in what are reportedly
horrific conditions; children attempt suicide regularly, people sew
their mouths shut, and one Iranian man, Omid Masoumali, set himself on
fire in 2016. As of June 30, 137 refugees were still on Nauru waiting
for repatriation, but the program is winding down.

The island still collects no income tax, and abandoned mansions litter
the coast. Having depleted their previous revenue streams, the Nauruan
government is looking for a new way to make money—and, for sponsoring
states, deep sea mining could mean quite a bit of money. But it also
entails a certain amount of risk. The whole point of requiring a
sponsoring state, rather than just allowing private companies to mine
the sea at will, is that the state will be held co-responsible for any
potential environmental damages, which could be staggering. Back when
the Law of the Sea was first written, Matt Gianni says, “they thought
these nodules were a renewable resource. That they would form as quickly
or even more quickly than you can find them. A bit like Thomas Huxley,
back in the 1800s, saying it’s impossible to overfish the ocean.”

Technically, the nodules are a renewable resource, but they take an
incomprehensible amount of time to form. Ocean currents carry dissolved
metals across the abyssal zone until they collect around a nucleus—a
shark’s tooth, for example, or a fragment of whale bone—and coagulate in
concentric circles. Dense, black rock slowly begins to appear. The
nodules grow only a few centimeters every million years, and no one is
totally sure how they remain perched atop the seabed, unobscured by
falling sediment, which accretes much faster. Geologists suspect it has
to do with the feeding patterns of starfish.

A Drop-Dead Date

There is a certain occult quality to the minerals that might save us
from ecological ruin. Cobalt, which is found bound together with
arsenic, was originally named kobald, or “the goblin,” by German miners
who would smelt the ore, only to be greeted by startling blue and
poisonous fumes. Nickel was named after a mischievous demon, also by
German miners, who mistook it for copper before melting it down. And
across one hydrothermal field along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge,
three-story-high spires of phosphate known as The Lost City rise out of
the seafloor. Scientists believe it may be where all life on earth
originated. Nevertheless, the ISA handed it over in 2017 as part of
Poland’s exploration license.

Polymetallic nodules represent only one kind of deep sea
mining—cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts line seamounts and ocean
ridges, and polymetallic sulfides surround chimney-like hydrothermal
vents called black smokers. But nodule mining is unique because it
appears to be the least invasive form of extraction; one simply descends
into the depths of the sea and scoops the things up. This is part of
Gerard Barron’s complaint about the environmentalists who oppose
DeepGreen’s work: “It’s as though the oceans are in perfect shape.
They’re not, the oceans are halfway to being screwed because of global
warming.” He finds many of the concerns directed his way histrionic and
shortsighted, and he believes that some of his critics are confusing the
impacts of different kinds of seafloor mining.

“We think of our machines as gentle giants,” says Barron. “Using a
variety of really cool engineering, you know, things like the Coandă
effect, which allows you to pick up an object without even touching the
surface—it’s how planes take off, basically. Engineers love solving
these problems, and we have an opportunity [to] design things that
minimize impact.”

Of course, it is not really as simple as plucking something off the
ocean floor. Much of the available research on deep sea ecosystems has
come to light as a result of deep sea mining companies, who have to
perform due diligence before mining begins. The results of the studies
have not worked in their favor. Researchers have found highly varied and
complex ecosystems and significant biodiversity; a 2017 paper in Marine
Biodiversity estimated that nearly half of the megafauna within the
Clarion Clipperton Zone depend on the polymetallic nodules for survival.
Put simply, we have no idea what kind of cascading effects DeepGreen’s
extraction process might set off. So little happens in the deep sea that
large scale sediment disruptions could be catastrophic. Removing the
nodules is only one step; the resulting wastewater will also have to be
disposed of and could damage miles of midwater ecosystems.

“They’re talking fantasy,” says Matt Gianni of the deep sea mining
speculators. He estimates that in order to double global cobalt
production, you would need a minimum of twenty-two Clarion Clipperton
Zone mines. To double copper production, you would need to be operating
648 mines.

Gianni is far from alone in his skepticism. “Even the greenest type of
mining in the deep sea would cause just horrendous damage to these
ecosystems, as well as pull up sediment that stores much of the carbon,”
says Arlo Hemphill, a senior oceanographer at Greenpeace. “We’re worried
that companies like DeepGreen are going to fast track the process in
favor of industry without considering the environment, and we’re going
to end up with a new extractive industry in the oceans. Now it’s easy,
because it doesn’t exist. There’s very little investment in it. But once
it’s started, that sets all the financial balls rolling. It will be
extremely difficult to undo once it starts.”

Scientists and environmental activists have called for a ten-year
moratorium on all deep sea mining to study its potential impacts, as
well as for reform of the ISA. They’ve been joined by the European
Parliament, deep sea fishing organizations, and the prime ministers of
Fiji, Vanuatu, and Papua New Guinea. Barron, meanwhile, is reportedly
considering triggering the ISA’s two-year rule, which stipulates that
the ISA has two years to get regulations ready before it issues an
exploitation contract and mining can begin. It was put into place
largely at the behest of the United States, which wanted some sort of
assurance that if they were to get involved in deep sea mining, smaller
nations wouldn’t be able to stop them.

Duke Minks, a former roadie for a mercifully forgotten Brit Pop
group suggested that Nauru’s financial problems could be alleviated by
investing in a musical about Leonardo and the Mona Lisa.

DeepGreen isn’t the only company that wants to see mining start—Norway,
according to Gianni, has been “quite vocal about it,” too, although
they’re looking to mine within their own waters. The Norwegian state oil
company, Equinor, is under tremendous public pressure domestically to
move away from fossil fuels. “I also wouldn’t be surprised,” says
Gianni, “[if] countries like Norway may be quietly encouraging Nauru to
trigger the two-year rule. Because they want to see regulations in place
quickly, but they themselves would not want to take the political heat
by doing so. But Nauru? Small Island Developing State, needs the
revenue, you know. Who can blame Nauru for this?”

When I ask Barron if he is planning on triggering the rule, he demurs.
“Well, it’s not for us to trigger, it would be for the member state to
trigger,” he says. “Do I think a drop dead date would be useful for the
development of this industry? Yes, I do.” We talked about why Nauru had
been chosen as a sponsor state to begin with. I wanted to know if it was
because of the island nation’s general disarray—a 2018 report from the
Lowry Institute for International Policy stated that “Nauru has recently
lurched towards authoritarianism”—or if he was looking to avoid the kind
of pushback that DeepGreen’s predecessor, Nautilus Minerals, got from
the indigenous people of their sponsoring state, Papua New Guinea.
Barron becomes uncomfortable. Everything with Nauru was completely
transparent and aboveboard, he insists. “I just thought it would be an
interesting story to have one of the smallest economies sponsoring one
of the most ambitious ideas,” he says. “Because these small nations, you
know, have a voice, but it doesn’t get heard.”

Nautilus Minerals, in which Barron was an early investor, was doing a
different kind of mining, digging up ferromanganese crusts within
sovereign waters: “Very different business to start with.” “Nautilus was
the pioneer that ended up with all the arrows in the back, I guess,” he
continues. “A lot of lessons were learned, and a lot of mistakes were made.”

Sunk Costs

Those lessons began in 2010, when Nautilus Minerals managed to obtain
both an exploration and an exploitation license within Papua New
Guinea’s national waters, about thirty kilometers off the coast of New
Ireland. It was called the Solwara 1 Project. This did not sit well with
the locals, who believed their government had sold them out. A
resistance group formed, calling themselves the Solwara Warriors; they
organized with the influential PNG Council of Churches to fight back.
The pressure they put on government officials, along with investor
dissatisfaction with Nautilus, ultimately sank the enterprise.

“My mom’s experience with the Bougainville crisis concerning mining?
That was the thing that really got me,” says John Momori, a local
activist involved in the Solwara Warriors. Bougainville is a neighboring
island in PNG and the site of one of the world’s largest copper mines in
the 1970s and 1980s, which catalyzed a civil war between the people of
Bougainville and the PNG government. Thirty years after the site’s
closure, wastewater is still poisoning the people who live downstream.
“On my mother’s side, we’ve experienced this, and people lost thousands
of lives, twenty thousand lives lost. Because of the decisions of the
government and corporate companies, coming in to prey on our resources
at the expense of the livelihood of the little people. That’s our land,
and the sea, too, belongs to us,” Momori continued.

 A totally ethical green transition remains elusive when one man’s
solar farm is another man’s cobalt tailing pond; there will be a seamy
underbelly to any Green New Deal.

Gerard Barron would say that the Bougainville mining crisis is exactly
the kind of situation that DeepGreen can help alleviate. They aim for
their entire operation to be carbon neutral by 2050, and they’re able to
avoid many of the human rights violations that come with land-based
mining. Roughly 60 percent of the world’s cobalt, for example, is
currently produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most of the
larger mines are owned by corporations that employ heavy machinery, but
a fair amount of the metal comes from smaller, independently operated
“artisanal” mines that rely on child labor. Unemployment in the DRC is
high, and the circumstances of the cobalt rush are particularly
brutal—kids are often killed or maimed working in the tunnels after
their parents are unable to pay their school fees. Deep sea mining
doesn’t resolve the issue of child labor or the endemic poverty that
leads to it, but it does offer an alternative.

Nautilus was unable to communicate their vision effectively to investors
and locals, but in some ways, they were offering a more honest vision
than the gospel of New Mining Humanism pushed by DeepGreen. “Nautilus
were a bunch of cowboys as far as I could tell,” says John Childs, a
professor at Lancaster University who researches extractive industries.
He went out to Papua New Guinea in 2016 as part of his research into
deep sea mining. “I interviewed Mike Johnson, who was the CEO at the
time,” he tells me.

Not someone you’d necessarily want to take home and meet your mum.
[He was saying] you know, “I can’t understand why these guys aren’t
happy. We’re building them toilets. I’ve seen their toilet conditions,
they’re dreadful.” It was like the worst kind of stereotypical, old
school, colonial attitude. Pretty grim stuff. They had this
headquarters, which was not very big—it was at the back of a shopping
center in Brisbane. Honestly, it was all smoke and mirrors as far as I
was concerned. You have this big public image of Nautilus as the world’s
leading deep sea mining firm, but it was Wizard of Oz stuff. You get in
there and there’s not very much going on.

Barron wants us to believe that this time will be different. If he is
coy about DeepGreen’s intention to trigger the two-year rule, he has
much more to say about the prospect of the ten-year moratorium
championed by scientists and environmentalists. The trouble, he says,
“is, if you do that, then all the money disappears. My stakeholders
would say, ‘Gerard, good try, we’re not sticking around for this.’ And
you know, who would be the loser then? Well, the planet would be the loser.”

But it’s clear, at this point, that DeepGreen would be the loser. A 2016
report from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at University of
Technology, Sydney suggests that we can actually decarbonize the global
economy without deep sea mining. Even under the most advanced and
ambitious decarbonization plans, the silver and lithium required would
only comprise about 35 percent of known terrestrial resources. And we
need less than 5 percent of all other metals—nickel, cobalt, copper,
etc. Of course, “known resources” are not the same as readily available
resources: the report estimates we will need 99 percent of the available
lithium and 94 percent of the available silver. So the margins are
worryingly tight, yes, but that alone isn’t a compelling argument to
open a mining site the size of Nebraska in the Pacific, and a ten-year
moratorium to study the impacts of this industry on the largest carbon
sink we currently have working for us is not an overreaction.

Toward the end of our interview, Barron turns the tables, asking me what
I think about the prospect of deep sea mining. I tell him I think that
any Green New Deal that comes to pass is going to end up being much
messier than people would like to believe. That the rhetoric around
decarbonization and sustainability is inspiring, but it will ultimately
involve a lot of pain. I am not sold on deep sea mining, though. He
likes this answer, I suppose for its ambiguity. “Well, what I’d say is,
you know . . . be brave. Don’t just fall for the line that we should
just wait and see.”

It is not difficult to see why the man succeeded in advertising. But it
would also be a mistake to dismiss deep sea mining out of hand.
Humanity’s path to a habitable future grows narrower by the day—and
there are competing visions as to what “habitable” means and for whom.
Decarbonization is often presented as a choice between technological
innovation and degrowth, when realistically we are probably going to
need both. Corporations and the wealthy account for the bulk of global
emissions, but the way most of the developed world lives is so clearly
unsustainable that it’s difficult to defend. Personal sacrifice doesn’t
sell well, but things are going to get grosser before they get better.

Barrons of the Future

In April 2019, The Intercept released a video narrated by Representative
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez entitled “A Message from the Future.” It’s a
speculative short that follows the life of a young woman, post–Green New
Deal. She restores wetlands in Louisiana with a new, climate-focused
Americorps; the country gets to work retrofitting buildings with solar
panels; and the woman becomes a teacher, then a congresswoman, with the
help of publicly funded elections. It’s a beautiful ad and a useful
promotional tool, but there is something unbearably sad about it: it’s a
fantasy. A totally ethical green transition remains elusive when one
man’s solar farm is another man’s cobalt tailing pond, and there will be
a seamy underbelly to any Green New Deal we manage to win.

DeepGreen is betting that if they make their message clear and legible
to the public, it will be enough. They will be able to ignore the risks
their own research has brought to light and present themselves as the
ethical alternative, the white knight of decarbonization. In some ways,
we have been here before. As Ocasio-Cortez explains in “A Message from
the Future,” by 1977 ExxonMobil was privately funding some of the most
groundbreaking and damning research on climate change. “So did Exxon
listen to the science, including their own?” she asks. “No. They knew
and they doubled down. They and others spent millions setting up a
network of lobby groups and think tanks to create doubt and denial about
climate change. It was an effort designed to attack and dispute the very
kind of science they themselves had been doing. And it worked.” The
death of the oil and gas industry is far from a foregone conclusion, but
as money starts to collect around the new scions of Green Growth,
there’s no reason to believe they will handle the corresponding power
any more judiciously than their predecessors. We need better extractive
industries. We may just end up with more.

“I’ve seen it for years in terrestrial-based mining,” John Childs told
me. “Men making decisions based on very old tricks, that deep sea mining
started to try and copy. And they realized quickly that they couldn’t do
that, they had to come up with some new tricks. But I mean, I think
actually when you start digging around, it ain’t so different, you know?
It’s still about trying to win people’s minds.”

 

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