Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea

Mining the sea floor sounds like science fiction but it isn’t really that far-fetched. The folks at DeepGreen think the commercial opportunity is right around the corner. Manganese nodules are abundant on the enormous abyssal plains of the world’s oceans. Besides manganese, these nodules contain high concentrations of other key materials like cobalt and nickel making them potentially attractive future sources.

This has stirred some folks up, much like the stirred-up sediments such mining will undoubtedly create. The sea floor miners believe they can harvest the materials with less environmental impact than terrestrial mining. A whole bunch of other folks don’t think so.

Everything that can’t be farmed has to be mined. The greening of America’s infrastructure will require huge amounts of the above-mentioned elements, in addition to even more copper than we now consume, as well as increasing quantities of the lanthanides (rare-earth elements), not to mention boring old stuff like zinc and aluminum and ad nauseum.

This means great demand will be put on terrestrial miners to dig this stuff up. And no one likes the impacts that mines and mining make on the landscape. Do you want a new copper mine in Arizona? Some folks do, some folks don’t. The folks that do say “we gotta have this stuff” and they are right. The folks that don’t say “you’ll make a bloody fookin’ mess and walk away rich” and by golly they are right, too.

I don’t think sea floor mining is practical in the short-term. But I say “good luck” anyway because we will certainly need continuous sources of these crucial minerals. And I think mines are good. We need them. But we need them to behave responsibly. It is too bad “the marketplace” can’t create the environmental stewardship and resource conservation ethic necessary to do things the right way. It seems the government, and public political pressure, as well as shareholder activism, will be the drivers of those things. At some point the corporate world, as dependent as it is on big banks and investment funds for fresh capital, might have to answer to those funding sources about their carbon footprint and other measures of good management. I hope so.

Meanwhile, the great unexploited resource of the world remains our trash heaps. E-waste, the detritus of the computer age, is on the scale of 50 million metric tons annually. This is expected to grow to 75 million metric tons in 2030. We are lousy at recycling, despite decades of encouragement and opportunity, and single-use plastics still dominate our packaging industry. If we mined our landfills—better yet we mined our trash bins—we could recover many important materials.

We live in a consumer world, and we have to buy products to keep our economy afloat. But we could buy better, longer lasting products that can be repaired and/or recycled. We could expect our manufacturers to build things that can be re-used, or re-claimed in order to be re-imagined. When we pull stuff out of the ground like coal or crude oil or copper ore or anything we have to “use” we have to see it as the precious commodity it is. How can we make the very most of this amazing and remarkable substance? How can we do it so we all can benefit? How can we use human ingenuity to sustain our civilization and the earth it treads upon?

I don’t think those questions are that hard. We’ll have to come up with some answers. Or we might start to see more stuff like this:


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