Oceans, Technology, and a New Era
By Kate Kheel
In an on-going pillage of Earth and skies, the technology sector has now turned to the oceans. Passion for profit veiled by empty promises of a “green energy future” are the main drivers behind the new blue economy and the emergent Internet of Underwater Things (IoUT). And critical for all this technology are Rare Earth Minerals (REM) found in abundance at the bottom of the ocean.
Billions are being poured into R&D for new applications and infrastructure to enable seamless connectivity throughout the Ocean, Earth, and Heavens. Dubbed “Smart Ocean”, the IoUT will enable deep-sea warfare, deep-sea mining and, so the hype goes, a “renewable energy future”.
On dry land we have 4G/5G cell towers that work in concert with tens of thousands of satellites in the skies enabling ubiquitous 24/7 internet and telecommunications coverage for nearly all people and things on the planet. A similar cacophony of communications comprised of a vast network of interconnected sensors, fiber, sonar, laser, optical light, autonomous and remote-controlled vehicles, submarines, torpedoes, cameras, drones, robots and more, is now being unleashed into the pristine underwater world. Imperiled are the millions of species for whom the ocean is home, and the diverse deep-sea eco systems that sustain all life on this planet.
Most underwater wireless communications rely on sonar, which for decades has been known to harm whales and other marine animals who communicate by means of sonar. Sonar can cause deafness, beaching and even death in whales.
The pain and suffering to these animals should be reason alone for pause. But beyond this, whales help mitigate excess carbon in the environment and play an essential role in the planet’s ecosystem. A whale absorbs huge amounts of carbon which upon death is buried at the bottom of the ocean. Each great whale sequesters approximately 33 tons of CO2. (A tree absorbs up to 48 pounds per year by way of comparison.) In addition, whales’ fecal plumes provide optimal conditions for phytoplankton which produce well over half the oxygen on the planet and are responsible for most of the CO2 transferred from the atmosphere to the ocean.
The underlying raison d’être for this technological expansion into the ocean is the same as for most of our use and abuse of the natural world: The pursuit of power, profit, and so-called “progress” at all costs, fostered by a deep disregard and disconnect from the natural world, and the wanton dismissal of the fact that we too are nature.
Deep Sea Mining
An “all-things-wirelessly-connected world” requires huge quantities of rare earth minerals (REM) – aka, rare earth elements (REE), rare earth metals, or often referred to simply as rare earths. There are three primary sources of rare earth minerals in the ocean: 1. Poly-metallic nodules, found in abyssal plains; 2. Cobalt-rich crusts on seamounts; and 3) Mineral deposits in and around hydrothermal vents. Of particular interest for renewables such as solar panels or wind turbines, are poly-metallic nodules which contain high levels of cobalt, nickel, manganese, and copper, as well as smaller amounts of lithium and molybdenum.
Until now, in the West, rare earths have been obtained from land-based mines such as those found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where workers, including young children, undergo hardship and sometimes die from inhumane working conditions. Impacts on the environment are extensive arising from the extraction and processing of the minerals. In Mining the Sacred, author Katie Singer explains, “….the impacts of mining are steep. For every single ton of metal extracted, 426 tons of waste arise. More people have been murdered over mining for coltan than any other single event since World War II.”
Estimates vary, but most people agree that by 2050 the “need” for rare earths will vastly increase. Due to projected population growth, our ever-expanding use of technology, and the growing scarcity of land-based rare earths, companies are turning to the deep sea to source minerals.
Fauna Are Imperiled
The deep sea houses the largest eco-system on the planet and is home to millions of species, some of which are yet to be discovered. Scientists warn that trawling the ocean floor for rare earths could potentially destroy these eco-systems and decimate entire species of marine animals. Bulky remote-controlled “bull-dozers” are used to extract poly-metallic nodules. These vehicles dredge the seabed churning up the first 10 centimeters of the ocean floor, and displacing or killing the fauna that live on or around these nodules. Only some of the bacteria remains. The sediment that is stirred up forms plumes that travel beyond the excavation site causing suffocation in fauna for miles. The collected brew is then shot up through tubes to a large ship to be processed. The minerals are separated out and the sediment tossed back into the ocean causing a second wave of suffocation for animals who live closer to the surface of the ocean.
An alternate method for extracting poly-metallic nodules uses remote-controlled drone robots to scoop up the nodules and transport them to a lift. While his method would cause fewer sediment plumes, the optical light frequencies used to communicate with the robots may adversely impact sea creatures and disrupt ecosystems.
Thankfully, there is much pushback around the world to deep-sea mining. Many environmental organizations and scientists are calling for a moratorium until further research is done. Even a few car manufacturers have committed to not using minerals sourced from the ocean. But the sad irony is that the proposed research will be conducted by utilizing the IoUT thus fueling the purported urgency to fill the ocean with technology. Tragically, we are destroying the ocean to save the Earth. A Catch 22 of cosmic proportions.
Reducing our appetite for technology along with recycling rare earth minerals and metals would go a long way toward addressing the so-called “need” for rare earths. But this kind of thinking and foresight is not yet part of the current political and cultural mindset. So-called “progress” is still predicated on growth, competition, and creating “more,” regardless of the true costs to life on Earth.
Deep Sea Warfare
Deep Sea Warfare (aka subsea warfare or undersea warfare) is fast becoming the next darling of the military with the development of (lethal) unmanned undersea systems (UUS) and the convergence of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and torpedoes, all of which rely on the IoUT.
David Strachen, Senior Analyst at Strike Pod, noted in 2019, “Operating within an opaque, clandestine domain, autonomous undersea vehicles (AUVs) will employ kinetic and non-kinetic means to disrupt, degrade, and destroy, subsuming every aspect of undersea warfare under the umbrella of autonomous undersea conflict.”
Strachen has predicted that mine warfare will be a major player for navel combat in the coming years due to enabling technologies that provide energy, autonomous placement, extended life, and remote activation.
Although laws about placement of mines in international waters are about as murky as the water itself, the US has interpreted the Commander’s Handbook on the Laws of Naval Operations to allow for autonomous placement of mines in times of peace, and remote activation and targeting in times of war. As a result, we can expect thousands of naval mines to crop up on the ocean floor around the world.
The surface of the ocean will also play an integral role in this perilous pursuit of power. In addition to housing hundreds of thousands of relay sensors for the IoUT, the ocean will also sport the US Navy’s largest and most expensive aircraft carrier ever: the $13 billion dollar USS Gerald R. Ford. Despite delays and design adjustments, after undergoing hazardous and polluting war-games in pristine waters, the carrier is now ready for war. Likely, China, Russia, North Korea, and other nation states are not standing idly by applauding the US’s naval feats.
Destroying the Ocean to Save the Earth
Consider the following quotes:
“Climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face. Delivering essential technologies and reliable climate information to billions of people is at the heart of how Meta can help address the crisis. And we believe we can do it with a net zero carbon footprint.” Sustainability at Meta
“But creating a true sense of presence in virtual worlds delivered to smart glasses and VR headsets will require massive advances in connectivity. Bigger than any of the step changes we’ve seen before. We need to create connectivity infrastructure that can evolve as fast as technology does.” Meta Challenges 5G, Networking to Build the Metaverse
Meta is but one example of many companies that promote technology to address climate change. But these companies are merely replacing our already huge carbon footprint with a gargantuan combined technology and carbon footprint. Can we realistically create a world of net zero carbon emissions while engaged in a race to build ever more infrastructure and connectivity?
In what has aptly been called green-washing and ethics-washing, we are being sold a technological future we are told will meet the daunting challenges of our times. And yet, resource acquisitions for technology, coupled with the manufacturing, use and disposal of all these (largely unnecessary) things, are proving significant drivers of environmental and human devastation. Can we choose the off-ramp from the ever-accelerating loop of a “need for more technologies to fix earlier messes made by overzealous pursuit of profit”? Or will we stand by idly watching as our global ecosystem collapses beneath us?
The ocean depths are the last frontier of pristine nature and undisturbed biodiversity. Life moves slowly and exquisitely discreetly in the deep sea. Poly-metallic nodules grow a centimeter every million years. By contrast, life in a capitalist world moves quickly — Quicker than one’s competitors.
In 2021, the 2-year rule was triggered by the Republic of Nauru. Accordingly, if the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the governing body set up by the United Nations to oversee the shared stewardship of international waters, does not come up with clear guidelines and regulations around deep-sea mining by July 2023, whatever regulations are in place at that time will prevail.
Scientists are calling for a pause on deep sea mining till more research is conducted. But who is calling for a pause to the IoUT? Who even knows about it? And who is listening to and heeding the pleas of dozens of organizations around the world calling for an end to war?
Do we want to save our technologically driven way of life, or do we want to save the planet? Should we choose distraction, numbing, and entertainment over in-person connection to one another, animals, and Mother Earth? Do we want to waste all or much of our lives imprisoned in cyber space, or do we wish to abide vibrantly in the natural world, in harmony and flow with nature?
Perhaps it is time to find the exit ramp from the control seeking Anthropocene era and move toward embracing with all our heart, hopes, and dreams, the all-nurturing Symbiocene era – A time when the Earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.