A Call For Humanities at the Seabed
Far beneath the surface of the northeast Pacific Ocean lies an area of the ocean floor known as the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ). For decades now, this vast region—which lies, roughly speaking, between Hawai‘i and Mexico and is as broad, by some accounts, as the continental United States—has exemplified the ostensible promise of seabed mining. Upon and within the CCZ’s abyssal sediments reside some trillions of polymetallic nodules, potato-shaped lumps rich in metallic minerals (such as cobalt, copper, nickel, and manganese) currently required for the manufacture of electric batteries. For the past century, the seafloor has been valued mainly for the oil and gas beneath it; over the coming decades, its perceived value will instead likely be derived from these surficial nodules that enable alternative forms of energy.
The CCZ is what’s known as an abyssal plain, a designation that reflects its significant depths (between approximately 12,000 and 18,000 feet) as well as its gently undulating, thickly sedimented contours. Its nodular abundance is often estimated to amount to twenty-one billion tons. In places, writes the marine biologist Helen Scales, the plain is covered so “densely” with nodules as to resemble “a cobbled street.” For deep-sea creatures, such as some recently discovered “ghost octopods,” the “cobbles” and the biodiverse sediments that surround them provide vital habitats for hunting food and rearing the young. Meanwhile, new research theorizes that climate change is driving more and more fish—skipjack and yellowfin tunas, in particular—into the upper waters of the zone. So, while the CCZ attracts a human desire for minerals, it is also worth noting as an incalculable, and perhaps growing, site of more-than-human being and becoming.
In October 2022, a publicly-traded Canadian mining enterprise called The Metals Company (TMC) published a triumphant press release. According to the announcement, a purpose-built “collector vehicle” had extracted fourteen tons of polymetallic nodules in only one hour—and over just 147 meters of seabed. The run took place in a region called NORI-D, a 74,830 square kilometer section of the CCZ contracted by the United Nations International Seabed Authority (ISA) to Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (NORI). NORI is owned by TMC and “sponsored,” under the terms of ISA regulations, by the island Republic of Nauru. TMC’s website touts its NORI-D “license area” as the biggest “undeveloped nickel deposit” on earth. “Developing” that deposit requires scraping the seafloor using methods similar to those used in strip-mining, creating vast sediment plumes in the water column and producing destructive marine noise, among other negative ecological impacts.
Gifts from Mother Nature?
Gerard Barron, TMC’s chairman and CEO, calls the metallic abundance of the ocean floor “Mother Nature’s gift to us.”As this epithet makes clear, human interventions at the seabed are dubiously entangled with language, imagination, belief, ideology, and power. Comprehending these entanglements and their implications is, in part, the work of humanities at the seabed.
If the contents of the seabed are, in William Shakespeare’s formulation, both “rich and strange,” then the precise manner in which they are conceived varies greatly. For those who advocate deep-sea mining, the seabed’s mineral treasures have been defined, variously, as invaluable assets for pursuing and shoring up national energy independence; as needed tools for drawing down atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions; and as the common heritage of [hu]mankind.
For those who oppose abyssal mining, the richness of the seabed is perceived quite differently. “It’s just not possible” to collect nodules, contends oceanographer Craig Smith, without annihilating “one of the largest wilderness areas left.” While less damaging than other proposed forms of deep-sea mining, collecting polymetallic nodules still involves destroying or damaging habitats on the seafloor, below the seafloor, and throughout the water column above it. Where prospectors see possibilities for profitable resource development, Smith predicts the devastation of “some of the most pristine, biodiverse habitats on a planet where we already have a biodiversity crisis because of destruction on land.”
Economic, technological, geopolitical, and ecological issues are vividly present amidst debates over deep-sea mining. Less obvious, but no less important, are the ways the seabed—and the ways we understand, relate to, and value the seabed—intersects with human cultures, philosophies, and histories. In certain respects, this may seem a counterintuitive claim. Homo sapiens are ill-equipped for life at the ocean floor, and what we self-described “moderns” do know about this “strange” realm tends to be heavily mediated through other-than-human apparatuses of sensation. Still, as a growing cast of scholars and commentators are beginning to argue, to contend meaningfully with the abyssal problems of the present and the future, it will be necessary to confront these entanglements, comprehend their pasts, and describe their ramifying effects.
Take, for example, Barron’s notion that nodules on the seabed constitute “Mother Nature’s gift to us.” This evidences an unabashedly anthropocentric stance towards the biosphere—one that resonates with, and adds a vaguely spiritual and gender-specific dimension to, a worldview wherein nonhuman domains are understood to provide “services” (in this case, gratis) to the human realm. What’s less immediately apparent, however, is how Barron’s remarks tap into the notion, raised above, that the deep seabed is a site of riches.
Narratives capitalizing on the seabed’s unknown properties, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Disney’s take on the Atlantis myth, have envisioned it as a site of wondrous monsters, of secret marvels, of rich pasts, and of portals to undiscovered worlds. Deliberately or not, discourses around deep-sea mining frequently interweave with these patterns of thought and understanding. The perception that the bottom of the sea contains wealth powerful enough to transform terrestrial futures—a cost-free “gift”—is not a new one.
Similar points might, of course, be made about Smith’s classification of the seabed as a “wilderness” and a “pristine” environment. It bears acknowledging that there are good reasons for thinking about the seabed in this way. As Jeremy Davies points out in The Birth of the Anthropocene, one means of dating this new geological epoch would be through the stratigraphic signature of “coal residue, or clinker, tossed overboard from nineteenth-century steamships, which created distinctive geological traces in the sediment-accumulating, and previously relatively untouched, seabed.” Needless to say, earth’s oceans received an inestimable quantity of anthropogenic detritus before the 1800s. But by drawing our attention to the contingent traces of specific materials, Davies shows that until the era of steamships—that is, for almost the entirety of human history—the deep seabed was, when compared with the land, relatively unaffected by human agency.
All the same, Smith’s terminology shows the markings of culture even in its implied separation between the human and natural worlds; it insinuates that the former must be regarded as contaminating the latter (“pristine”). It also risks downplaying the extent to which humans already have a footprint in the deep seabed, as evidenced by deep-sea cables, the coal residue described by Davies, and plastic pollution found even in the sea’s deepest trenches.
Framing the Seabed
Humanities perspectives have a role to play in drawing attention to the diverse cultural frames and vocabularies through which we interpret the seabed—and to the effects of such frames and vocabularies on the seabed itself. This is, however, a role plagued by uncertainties, perhaps even dangers.
Our analysis of Smith’s terminology above has begun to indicate one such hazard. Humanities scholars are, it seems fair to suggest, constitutionally bound to critique and see significance in language use. Scholars in the environmental humanities are trained to be suspicious—and to demonstrate the limitations—of any rhetorical positions which separate nature from culture. All this has its uses, including in studies of the seabed. But might such strategies also involve losing sight of the relative truth of, for example, the claim that the seabed is untouched by humans, or the appeal and utility—from an activist perspective—of treating the seabed as a wild, even alien, realm from which humans should steer clear?
It would be easy enough to argue that fears over deep-sea mining are part of a culturally pervasive notion that the deep seabed is “out of bounds” and that any intervention in that sphere is transgressive and tinged by hubris. The more complex question that ecologically-minded humanities scholars may wish to ask themselves is whether that is a helpful argument to make—or whether there are, in fact, some culturally-constructed ideas concerning the seabed that might valuably be harnessed rather than scrutinized and deconstructed.
This is by no means to suggest that the analytic affordances of the humanities find no purchase upon the benthos. If there is a cause, as has been amply demonstrated, for a “critical ocean studies” (not to mention an “oceanic” or “blue” humanities), then there is also a role for what we might call a “critical seabed studies.” While in part a subset of the former term, just as the seabed is a part of the sea, such a critical endeavor might also prompt a slightly different set of questions and approaches.
For instance, focusing on oceans tends to highlight liquidity and flow, whereas paying attention to the seabed draws attention to sedimentation and sessility, and therefore to increasingly important questions of ownership, borders, and control. Questions like these become pressing when, for instance, an eighty kilometer stretch of the seabed, in the area of the high seas beyond national jurisdiction, is refigured as “the NORI-D test area” and rendered subject to the ISA’s regulatory framework. Such territorialization, enclosure, and securitization of the hydrosphere certainly warrant historicization and critique.
In a different vein, seabed humanities scholars could aim to develop a glossary of shared terms, growing a scholarly as well as publicly-oriented “seabed literacy.” The deep seabed threatened by seabed mining—unlike the coral reefs and kelp forests of the coastal seafloor—is, for almost everyone, practically as well as culturally invisible. For most of human history, fathoming to determine ocean depth took place only when near to shore, largely to rule out areas of shallowness that would threaten the submerged hulls of ships. Other than through depth-measurements taken to assist those laying transoceanic cables, the seafloor’s contours in deeper water remained irrelevant and therefore unknown until the middle of the twentieth century, when the deep sea’s emergence as a theater of submarine war resulted in more detailed mapping of its reaches.
Still, the seabed remains largely unfamiliar to the wider public, from its diverse regions—like the continental shelves and slopes, abyssal plains, troughs and trenches—to its distinctive features, such as ridges, seamounts, guyots, hydrothermal vents and cold seeps. The recent media interest in the tragic implosion of Titan, on its way to view the wreck of the Titanic, has demonstrated that this is a part of the world attended to only (and only briefly) as a consequence of disaster, not unlike how the undersea cable network only comes into view when it fails. It should also be noted, however, that “tourist” ventures to the deep may yet significantly change this state of affairs, rendering the deep sea more visible and accessible (at least to the wealthy few) and thus more imaginable as a site of extraction. In fact, Stockton Rush, Titan’s pilot and proprietor, explained in a 2017 interview that he regarded the sub’s development as a step toward the more profitable harvesting of minerals from the ocean floor.
Media coverage of the Titan’s implosion has, in addition, indicated the significance of cultural framing in “reading” the seabed: the disaster was interpreted as, in effect, a sequel to the most famous shipwreck narrative of the twentieth century. A humanities at the seabed would seek to draw attention to this propensity to “read”—that is, to interpret—the ocean floor through pre-existing narratives and to how it shapes human interventions in that sphere.
Stories of the Unseen
A humanities at the seabed has therefore a dual imperative: to communicate and amplify important information while still interrogating some of the narratives, metaphors, and assumptions that lie behind that information. Some of these narratives, such as seeing the seafloor as a repository of riches (its lively benthos refigured for instance as “the world’s largest estimated undeveloped source of critical battery metals”), have long histories. They may threaten to swamp other voices—human and other-than-human—which place different values, including spiritual and aesthetic ones, in the region of the seabed. These could be surfaced by careful humanities scholarship, drawing, for instance, on the methods of postcolonial and feminist studies.
In November 2022, TMC disseminated another exultant communiqué, this one trumpeting the “first integrated system test in the Clarion Clipperton Zone of the Pacific Ocean since the 1970s.” This run, conducted over some eighty kilometers of the NORI-D area, was described in a press release as having achieved a “sustained production rate of 86.4 tonnes”—or about “the mass of forty Tesla Model S vehicles”—per hour. Commenting somewhat eccentrically on his company’s achievement, Barron remarked: “We believe in making decisions based on data and evidence, not speculation and sentiment.” A critical seabed humanities should deal precisely in speculation and sentiment. It should recognize that however ostensibly objective, anthropic interventions in benthic realms are never unhaunted by human—and more-than-human—feelings, desires, imaginations, politics, and cultures.
Much more remains to be done to characterize these presences, to feel their histories, and to anticipate their possible futures. Imagining alternative seabed futures to those of exploitation and destruction may require us to diversify our starting points. We might turn to Afrofuturism, Africanfuturism, and Indigenous futurisms, just as these are informing wider planetary futures that include hope as well as fear. We need to think about dried and ancient seabeds that form mountain ranges and invoke geological perspectives, as well as about future seabeds—those parts of the world likely to be submerged by rising seas. In other words, questions about the temporalities of the seabed, as well as its ontologies, are important, as are questions of imagining versus imaging, given the digital and data-driven streams, which dominate undersea representation. Most importantly, perhaps, a seabed humanities should explore the affects of seabed futures—including dread, wonder, curiosity, vertigo—and how we might both mobilize and moderate them.
Featured Image: A polymetallic nodule on the seafloor of the Clarion Clipperton Zone in a photo taken on the ROV KIEL 6000 during expedition SO268. Photo by ROV-Team/GEOMAR.
Killian Quigley is a research fellow at the Australian Catholic University’s Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences. He is the author of Reading Underwater Wreckage: An Encrusting Ocean (2023) and co-editor, with Margaret Cohen, of The Aesthetics of the Undersea (2019). Twitter. Contact.
Charne Lavery is a senior lecturer in the Department of English, University of Pretoria. She is the author of Writing Ocean Worlds: Indian Ocean Fiction in English (2021) and co-editor, with Alexandra Ganser, of Maritime Mobilities in Anglophone Literature and Culture (2023) and with Isabel Hofmeyr and Sarah Nuttall, of Reading for Water: Materiality and Method (2023). Contact.
Laurence Publicover is senior lecturer in English at the University of Bristol, UK. He is the author of Dramatic Geography (2017) and co-editor, with Susann Liebich, of Shipboard Literary Cultures: Reading, Writing, and Performing at Sea (2021). Contact.
This essay springs from the authors’ co-organization of a multidisciplinary workshop, Humanities at the Seabed: Cultures of the Ocean Floor, in Rome in September 2022. That meeting was generously sponsored by the Australian Catholic University. The authors offer their sincere thanks to Philippe Le Billon, Sharad Chari and Simon van Schalkwyk for their comments to a previous draft of this essay.