9 votes

Deep-sea mining and the race to the bottom of the ocean

2 comments

  1. [2]
    Sahasrahla
    Link
    This bit especially and this comment on a previous discussion of underwater mining have got me thinking. The world, in a relative sense to the needs of the humans living on it, has been elastic....

    I reminded him that centuries of mining on land have exacted a devastating price: tropical islands denuded, mountaintops sheared off, groundwater contaminated, and species eradicated. Given the devastation of land-based mining, I asked, shouldn’t we hesitate to mine the sea?

    “I don’t believe people should worry that much,” he said with a shrug. “There’s certainly an impact in the area that’s mined, because you are creating an environmental disturbance, but we can find ways to manage that.” I pointed out that the impact from sediment could travel far beyond the mining zone, and he responded, “Sure, that’s the other major environmental concern. There is a sediment plume, and we need to manage it. We need to understand how the plume operates, and there are experiments being done right now that will help us.” As he spoke, I realized that for Lodge, none of these questions warranted reflection—or anyway, he didn’t see reflection as part of his job. He was there to facilitate mining, not to question the wisdom of doing so.

    This bit especially and this comment on a previous discussion of underwater mining have got me thinking.

    The world, in a relative sense to the needs of the humans living on it, has been elastic. Since the dawn of our species and the mass migrations that spread us over the Earth we have repeatedly come up against the limits of the natural resources available to us. We would spread and reproduce and the world would seem small with no more room for us, then we would discover and innovate and the world would seem large again as untapped resources let us grow. Fire, agriculture, steam power and other innovations large and small let us settle most land masses, grow cities with millions of people, and expand our ways-of-life.

    Now, though, we feel constrained once again by the limits of the natural world and we're trying to innovate our way out of it. And, maybe we can. New energy sources can replace fossil hydrocarbons and better environmental practices can reduce the impact of our industries and daily lives. But, for how much longer? Maybe we can expand the world once more to allow for our growth but can that be sustained for even another couple centuries? It feels like we're reaching a limit where the impacts of human activities on the Earth can't be mitigated.

    If that's true we'll be faced with a choice: halt growth or expand our reach beyond the Earth. Neither choice is easy. The latter sounds like science fiction and the former—which would involve unprecedented global cooperation and sacrifice, especially on the part of citizens of powerful and wealthy nations—may as well be. There is hope on both fronts: access to space is becoming cheaper, AI could allow for extraterrestrial resource extraction by autonomous machines, well-funded organizations exist which aim to move people or manufacturing into space, economic incentives could pull more effort into developing space; and, here on Earth, people have faced global environmental crises before and they're getting more serious about facing our current challenges.

    To take a large step back and look at this from a very wide perspective we can speculate that, no matter the answer to the Fermi Paradox, across billions of years and countless worlds in a universe of galaxies we must not be the first species to face this problem. What choices have others made? Whether as a thought experiment or something which we could imagine has some grounding in reality I think it's an interesting question. It frames our problems not as something unique or insurmountable but as a challenge that must have been solved and failed countless times before. If anything it's a coming of age, a first step beyond adolescence that must be overcome when an intelligent species grows to the limits of its home. It's simply our turn to take that next step, and even if we can't benefit from the wisdom of those who we imagine could have come before us, we can still consider our place in the universe before deciding who we want to be as a species.

    2 votes
    1. Loire
      Link Parent
      Why would this be the limit while everyone that came before was not? What makes you think we are finally at "peak resource"?

      Maybe we can expand the world once more to allow for our growth but can that be sustained for even another couple centuries? It feels like we're reaching a limit where the impacts of human activities on the Earth can't be mitigated.

      Why would this be the limit while everyone that came before was not? What makes you think we are finally at "peak resource"?