Political ecology fieldwork with a toddler: a personal account

Dr Jessica Hope, University of Bristol

Jessica Hope is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Chair of the Developing Areas Research Group (DARG) of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Her research spans human geography, development studies and political ecology and addresses questions of socio-environmental change in response to climate change. Her current project, funded by an RGS Environment & Sustainability Grant, investigates reiterations of sustainable development in Bolivia, as promoted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Momentum is gathering behind bids to make academia more diverse and equal. Part of this is about better recognising care responsibilities, which for me personally is about childcare. Since having my two year old, I have been increasingly involved in work to better recognise the challenges facing academics with children, for example how to negotiate career breaks or do fieldwork. In this blog, however, I want to write a personal and positive account of how good fieldwork with children can be, when well supported. I hope that this offers some support and encouragement for those wondering what they can manage or ask for and that it contributes to widening conversations about academic lives. 

I have now been to Bolivia twice with my child. First, during my maternity leave when she was 9 months old (for 2 months) and secondly, in April when she was two (for a month). Both trips were great and I would deem them a success, both in terms of collecting data and as family time. In this brief blog, I’ll focus on the most recent trip and write about three key things – being supported economically; the practicalities of travel with a toddler; and the positives for my child. 

This recent trip with my duaghter was much more relaxed than the first, in terms of feeling able to spend my funding on childcare costs. I have a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellowship at the University of Bristol and these come with £5,000 research funds per year. This money is for my project and I secured approval to use some of it to pay for my daughters travel costs and those of my sister, who left her life in Berlin for a month to help me with Evie. Following conversations at the RGS and within DARG, this time around I felt much more justified in asking for (and spending) money on Bella and my daughters trip. The first important part of this was that I could choose the best care arrangements for my child. Bolivian childcare infrastructure is not ideal for an English-speaking foreigner, especially one moving between three fieldsites whilst there. Settling young children into nurseries is also no small thing wherever you are and the thought of putting Evie in a new nursery each week filled me with dread (I will, however, put her into a nursery when I go on fieldwork to Canada later in the year). Instead, the worries about having my toddler with me in Bolivia (and leaving her whilst I worked) was greatly reduced because she was with my sister – someone we both know and love. The second important part of being supported economically stems from uprooting Bella and my daughters lives for a month. It was a big deal for them to come to Bolivia for me but what helped make this a positive and happy time for us, and not just a productive time for me, was that I had the funding to cover our costs and live securely and happily whilst there. 

For this short tip, I went to 3 field sites and carefully planned for heat, mosquitos and altitude. In terms of practicalities, my big take home point from doing fieldwork with Evie is book an apartment. Being stuck in a tiny hotel room made our first trip stressful and strange upon arrival. However, this time we had space. We could keep to my daughters routines, we could cook and, most importantly, we had a lovely home environment in each place. We could put my daughter to bed and have time to ourselves before going to sleep (20 minutes later) and our apartments offered some breathing space from all the newness and work (for everyone). Finally, I want it in print that I got strong. Really strong. I took one big hold-all for me and my child. I had a dictaphone, a tripod, my phone, some notepads and about 2 outfits. The rest of the bag was filled with stickers, books, soft toys and the clothes she needed for both the heat of the lowlands and the cold of La Paz. The bag was akin to a small garden shed. In addition to carrying a shed, I had a buggy and, ofcourse, a toddler. She was amazing during the trip but often wanted carried when in a bus station or busy airport at night. I couldn’t refuse and so would find myself carrying a huge bag and a toddler, up and down the Andes. In case my sister reads this, I should also come clean that option two was that I had the child and a smaller bag, whilst Bella carried everything else and pushed the buggy (thanks Bella). 

I want to end by saying that this trip has scored high, in terms of lovely time spent with my sister and child. Some of our evenings together were magic – playing games, making masks or (endlessly) sticking stickers. I loved our breakfasts – sat together eating porridge before heading out on our separate adventures. My daughter missed her Dad (and he missed her terribly) but apart from that, I think it was a really positive experience for her. She experienced new places and worlds, she realised more about different languages and sounds. She tried new foods. She is definitely more confident as a result (not so good when she’s happy to run off at a busy market) but, most importantly, as the trip went on all that was different became less strange and more normal for her and it feels like her world has widened. 

The concerns of the young protesters are justified: A statement by Scientists for Future concerning the protests for more climate protection

The full text can be found here. In March 2019, German-speaking scientists and scholars calling themselves Scientists for Future, published a statement in support of the youth protesters in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (Fridays for Future, Klimastreik/Climate Strike), verifying the scientific evidence that the youth protestors refer to. In this article, they provide the full text of the statement, including the list of supporting facts (in both English and German) as well as an analysis of the results and impacts of the statement. Furthermore, they reflect on the challenges for scientists and scholars who feel a dual responsibility: on the one hand, to remain independent and politically neutral, and, on the other hand, to inform and warn societies of the dangers that lie ahead.

Eco(in)movilismo. Movilidad urbana e inmovilismo cultural.

Massimo Paolini | Magistrála · Praga [2017]

Ante la catástrofe ecológica es necesario dar vida a un cambio cultural profundo a través del decrecimiento. A nivel de movilidad urbana el vehículo eléctrico representa la defensa del dogma del crecimiento económico ilimitado. 

André Gorz ya lo escribió en 1974: «La ecología es como el sufragio universal y el descanso dominical: en un primer momento, todos los burgueses y todos los partidarios del orden os dicen que queréis su ruina, y el triunfo de la anarquía y el oscurantismo. Después, cuando las circunstancias y la presión popular se hacen irresistibles, os conceden lo que ayer os negaban y, fundamentalmente, no cambia nada». Cuarenta y cinco años más tarde, fundamentalmente, no ha cambiado nada. Ni las cumbres del clima (de Berlín a Katowice) ni los protocolos y acuerdos (de Kioto a París) han conseguido minar las bases de la economía neoliberal. Los partidarios del orden conceden una aparente atención hacia los problemas ambientales, sin embargo todo permanece igual. La economía neoliberal muestra formalmente interés en ocuparse de las exigencias ecológicas, en realidad absorbiéndolas en su lógica.

Así que se propone solucionar la catástrofe climática con propuestas que siguen alimentando la economía del crecimiento, sin descarrilamientos. En el ámbito de la movilidad urbana, por ejemplo, el coche eléctrico se convierte en el elemento perfecto para conceder lo que ayer os negaban para que, fundamentalmente, no cambie nada. Se añade el prefijo eco- a una producción que sigue generando beneficio y destruyendo el planeta. La anarquía no ha triunfado. 

Resulta evidente, sin necesidad de ser un experto, que la implementación de un sistema de transporte metropolitano que apuesta por el vehículo privado motorizado no cambiaría sustancialmente la situación. Por un lado se traslada el problema de los combustibles fósiles a la fuente de producción de la energía necesaria para alimentar los coches, que para reducir las emisiones de CO² tendría que ser energía verde. Por otro lado el proceso de producción de los vehículos eléctricos — la energía utilizada, los materiales y las consiguientes emisiones de gases de efecto invernadero—  tiene un importante impacto ambiental, debido en gran parte a la producción de las baterías, que requieren minerales y metales altamente contaminantes (nickel, plomo y cobre). En cuanto a la contaminación atmosférica, no se eliminarían las micropartículas generadas por el desgaste de frenos, embragues, neumáticos y asfalto, que representan una fuente importante de contaminación (PM10). Además, el tráfico sería el mismo, así como el espacio robado al caminante, a las exigencias de juego de los niños, a la vida comunitaria, a la naturaleza, a la agricultura urbana, a los trazados urbanos irregulares que generan perspectivas nuevas. Las muertes por accidentes de tráfico no variarían. Desde luego tampoco los beneficios de la industria automovilística disminuirían, así como su omnipresencia en la vida urbana, su concentración de poder, su injerencia en los asuntos políticos. Sería un ecoinmovilismo. 

Para enfrentarse al problema vital representado por la catástrofe ecológica es necesario cuestionar el dogma de nuestra economía: el crecimiento. Hasta que no se cuestione el crecimiento, por ende el capitalismo, éste seguirá destruyendo el planeta con su consumo ilimitado de la naturaleza. Cualquier medida que eluda el núcleo de la cuestión resultaría siendo un paliativo que mantiene el actual inmovilismo ante la catástrofe ecológica inminente, con la agravante de retrasar la implementación de las medidas necesarias a intentar salvar la vida en el planeta. 

El decrecimiento, nacido de las reflexiones de autores como Ivan Illich y André Gorz en los años setenta — cuando la situación planetaria aún no había llegado a los peligrosos límites que estamos viviendo hoy en día— , ha alcanzado finalmente su momento de legibilidad. El decrecimiento representa hoy la única solución para un cambio cultural profundo cuya implementación es urgente.   

Los problemas que estamos viviendo no son climáticos, sino económicos. Por ende las soluciones no deben ser tecnológicas, sino principalmente económicas y políticas. El verdadero cambio cultural sería producir las condiciones que permitan contradecir a André Gorz, para que la ecología no sea como el sufragio universal y el descanso dominical. 

Volviendo al ámbito de la movilidad urbana, la solución no se encuentra en la tecnología, o sea la implementación del uso del coche eléctrico. La solución consiste en impulsar una cultura nueva, una cultura, como decía Colin Ward, de la libertad de circular después del fin de la 

dependencia del automóvil [After the motor age]. La sinergia entre un sistema de transporte público gratuito, la organización de la ciudad basada en distancias cortas y el uso del medio de transporte que mejor representa la relación pacífica y respetuosa entre seres humanos y naturaleza — la bicicleta, simple, comprensible, mensajera de una cultura nueva—  sería la solución que impulsaría el movimiento de personas e ideas hacia la ciudad del decrecimiento, basada en una ética y unas prácticas nuevas en todos los ámbitos, más allá de la movilidad, reduciendo drásticamente el uso de energía.  

La solución está en el cuestionamiento del capitalismo, desautorizando el dogma del consumo ilimitado y la destrucción de los equilibrios naturales, y la organización de una sociedad que ponga en el centro la vida, el ambiente, las relaciones humanas entre iguales y los bienes comunes, devolviendo las calles a las personas, al juego, a la naturaleza, al vivir y pensar en común. 

Luego, si el género humano conseguirá proseguir su camino en este planeta, habría que ocuparse del sufragio universal y del descanso dominical. 

Artículo publicado en El Salto y en Perspectiva anómalas | ciudad · arquitectura · ideas

Massimo Paolini

Teórico de la arquitectura, autor de Perspectivas anómalas | ciudad · arquitectura · ideas y consultor de Art in Translation | Universidad de Edimburgo en el área de las artes y la arquitectura. Colabora, además, en varias publicaciones en el ámbito del pensamiento crítico. Perspectivas anómalas explora las relaciones entre espacio e ideas. Web: https://www.perspectivasanomalas.org | Facebook: Perspectivas anómalas | Twitter: @perspanomalas 

Why no change? Sustainable development, extractivism and the environment in Bolivia

Reblogged from the Open University

Today’s blog comes from Dr Jessica Hope, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Chair of the Developing Areas Research Group (DARG) of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Her research spans human geography, development studies and political ecology and addresses questions of socio-environmental change in response to climate change. Her current project, funded by an RGS Environment & Sustainability Grant, investigates reiterations of sustainable development in Bolivia, as promoted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the upcoming Development Studies Association (#DSA2019) conference, Jessica will present on the early-career plenary panel. You can follow her on Twitter.

As an early career academic, it’s been a challenge to research sustainable development and the SDGs. The SDGs may be a new set of development goals but the concept of sustainable development is old….and already much critiqued. In my recent research on the early take-up and implementation of the SDGs in Bolivia, I have tried to use this as a starting point for my work. In terms of theory, this has meant asking what can help us think about sustainable development differently? And in terms of my empirical focus, this has meant questioning how the mainstreaming of the SDGs, as a global (and globalizing) response to climate change, effect more radical environmental agendas – those that have emerged since the mainstreaming of sustainable development in the 1980s (and sometimes in critique of the concept). Somewhat conversely, these efforts to think differently have actually helped me to better understand why things are staying the same and how, in Bolivia, powerful, extractivist development logics are being maintained and reworked.

Bolivia is an insightful case through which to investigate reiterations of sustainable development. With the election of President Evo Morales in 2005, himself an indigenous social movement leader, Bolivia was looked to as one of the most radical countries in Latin America’s move left. New development and environmental ideas and policies were enacted by the state, which have mostly promoted indigenous knowledges, rights and anti-colonial agendas. Particularly relevant to the environmental remit of the SDGs are those that re-conceptualised development as Vivir Bien/‘Good Living’ (replacing targets for economic growth with targets for social and environmental well-being), granted legal rights to nature and pledged significantly enhanced territorial rights to indigenous and campesino groups. Yet, since 2009, intensifying commitments to extractivism have come to dominate Bolivian politics and debates, as well override progressive agendas. In 2015, the Morales administration set out commitments for Bolivia to be the ‘energy heart of Latin America’ – expanding hydrocarbon infrastructure and exports to include fracking, hydropower megaprojects and solar farms. It is in the context of this contested politics that the SDGs are being implemented.

In terms of thinking differently, I have found assemblage theory useful to researching and analyzing the SDGs in Bolivia. Assemblage theory foregrounds the ways realities come into being through particular (and changing) relationships and connections between, for example, objects, places, institutions, discourses and policies. Drawing on how Deleuze and Guatarri’s theories of assemblage (agencement) have been used in social science, primarily by Tania Murray Li, I have used assemblage thinking to analyse how powerful common-senses are being made, maintained and reworked. In Bolivia, adopting this approach has firstly foregrounded how the take-up of the SDGs emerges in relation to existing development agendas, actors and networks. The SDGs are primarily being operationalized by the state, by international NGOs and by their national partners. Secondly, the goals were brought into existing initiatives, rather than causing a wholesale reappraisal of development work. Thirdly, I found that, crucially, the SDGs assemblage is disciplined – with NGOs, for example, being clear that their work could not address disputes between the state and civil society. This meant the contentious politics of extractivism is excluded from sustainable development projects and discourse.  A fourth finding about is that through its emergence, disciplining and holding together, progressive discourses are being “deployed to new ends”. The central government has aligned its commitments to the SDGs with their interpretations of Vivir Bien, which fall within the parameters of an extractive-led development model. So rather than providing support to those contesting extractive-led development, the SDGs are helping to consolidate its hegemony. This interpretation and deployment of Vivir Bien is contradictory to how Vivir Bien has been conceptualized and advocated by activists and scholars. In their critical reading, Vivir Bien/ Buen Vivir provides an alternative to sustainable development, as it decentres growth and instead moves toward a more holistic measure of wellbeing (including how communities live with and treat nature). In summary, assemblage thinking reveals that the SDGs are acting as a form of anti-politics – rendering neutral and technical the contested environment/development politics of Bolivia.

Finally, and in answer to my second question, I have used assemblage thinking to identify a counter-assemblage that is emerging and consolidating in relation to the exclusions outlined above. This means identifying the organisations, discourses, politics, landscapes and histories that are coming together in exclusion from mainstream development agendas in Bolivia and in opposition to extractivism. What I find exciting is that assemblage thinking enables the inclusion of material components too – trees, riverways, habitats, wildlife, canoes, speedboats and roads. Following the work of urban geographers, for example Ash Amin, this opens-up interesting lines of enquiry into the sociality and liveliness of particular territories, as place, and how they are generative of reworked and progressive environment/development politics. In this new work, I am researching the generative liveliness of the hybrid spaces that partly emerge from policies for conservation, territory, collectivity and extractivism. Despite calls for academics to make a pragmatic step to get behind the SDGs, the Bolivian case has made me question this step and, instead, I plan to examine the stifled, excluded, contentious and more transformative politics of the counter-assemblage.

Photo credit: Jessica Hope


Reblogged from BIOSEC

Welcome to Otay Mountain, an alternative field guide

Having recently returned to the UK following several months of fieldwork in USA and Mexico, Jared Margulies writes this blog about his zine ‘Welcome to Otay Mountain, an alternative field guide’.

During the course of fieldwork earlier this year, I spent a month in California investigating an emerging illegal trade in the succulent species Dudleya farinosa—an unusual, and as of yet, poorly understood phenomena. In pursuit of understanding the perspectives of conservationists, law enforcement agencies, and botanists in California about this trade, I found myself increasingly distracted by news reports about the humanitarian emergency happening nearby along the US-Mexico border. I watched and listened to news about the unfolding ‘border crisis’, and how a humanitarian and human rights crisis, the result of the Trump Administration’s increasingly hostile (and largely, illegal) policies towards migrant refugees, was being dubiously recast as a matter of geopolitical security and an existential threat to US citizenry and the US economy.

Otay Mountain – Jared Margulies

Amidst this (still ongoing) disaster, I found it difficult to remain focused on my research about the politics of plant conservation and illegal plant trade. It didn’t take long, however, for the themes of US geopolitical security and biodiversity conservation to converge in my fieldwork. I learned from scientists in the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Botany Department about how botanists would be acting as expert testimonies in the State of California’s lawsuit against the Trump Administration’s declaration of a State of Emergency at the border, which was declared while I was in San Diego in February. While San Diego County’s borderlands with Mexico have long been fenced, walled, and surveilled, gaps remain. The Trump Administration proposed to close these gaps with his declaration of a State of Emergency after his previous efforts in Congress to obtain border wall funding failed. One such site where a new border wall would be erected is the Otay Mountain Wilderness, a formally designated US Wilderness Area just north of the border with Mexico.

Otay Mountain is one of the few areas of the borderlands in San Diego County that doesn’t feature a physical barrier, in part because its steep and rugged topography serves as a natural deterrence for those attempting to move across these borderlands. But Otay is also (currently) protected from border wall construction by a variety of other unlikely actors: rare and endemic plants, which, protected under both California State and Federal endangered species laws, have previously been cited in environmental impact assessments to stop border wall construction because these rare species would be irreparably impacted by border wall construction. But endangered plants may not be enough to stop the wall. A previous attempt to protect Otay Mountain from new border wall construction on the grounds it would significantly impact a diversity of rare and endangered plants was rejected by the Supreme Court in December.

Otay Mountain – Jared Margulies

As I learned more about Otay Mountain, its unique ecology, and the way that the politics of plant conservation and the humanitarian crisis at the border were colliding in this contested geographic space, the more I saw concerning integrations of security narratives playing out in the borderlands invoking value-laden terms like invasive and native, endemic and exotic, alien and refugee. The politics embedded within and co-producing these terms are nothing new to geographers or political ecology. Yet at the same time, I also saw unexpected and even creative spaces of resistance to unjust social policies through leveraging the political positions of rare plants, ones who similarly find legal protection through many of these same terms political ecology often (rightly) unsettles and critiques. With some of these ideas, contradictions, and concerns in mind, I decided to visit Otay Mountain. I hoped to gain a more grounded perspective on how those resisting the construction of an ever-more securitized (and violent) border were finding unlikely allyship with botanists concerned about preserving the ecological integrity of Otay Mountain as an exceptionally biodiverse landscape with a large number of endangered plant species. Several of these species only grow on Otay Mountain or directly across the border in Mexico. At the same time, I felt uneasy about the emergence of this moment of ‘emergency’ in which rare plants protected by endangered species legislation seemed to find greater rights to protection under US law than people seeking refuge in the United States from violence at home, violence attributed by many scholars and journalists to US geopolitical strategy and statecraft.

The ‘results’ of this exploration are detailed in a zine I produced following my visit to Otay Mountain called, “Welcome to Otay Mountain: an Alternative Field Guide.” It will be featured as part of the upcoming exhibit entitled, No Walls, No Bans, No Borders in Baltimore, USA, “a benefit photography and art exhibit featuring the work of Baltimore-based activists connecting ideas of the violence of capitalism, colonialism, and the racist/fascist state both locally here in Baltimore and globally.” The exhibit is curated by Rebel Lens Bmore – a photo and video-based activist group documenting social movements in Baltimore. The exhibit opens on May 9th and runs through June 2nd at the Peale Center in Baltimore.

Unlike a peer-review academic output, “Welcome to Otay Mountain” does not attempt to answer a particular question or offer any clear analysis. Instead, I think of it as a prompting, a means by which to pay attention to unsettled yet politically powerful ideas about biodiversity, security, and violence. I created this zine because I think there is growing agreement that the work of doing political ecology, and writing political ecology, is strengthened when our work extends beyond formal academic writing whose accessibility and style rarely speak to those impacted by, or actively working to upend, the systems of oppression we tend to study and engage with as researchers. This is not a novel insight by any measure, but as I look to creating and editing more “Alternative Field Guides”, I wish to share but one example of how creative practices might energize, and at least in very small way, financially support, those doing the difficult work of direct action in the face of social and environmental injustices.

If you are interested in purchasing a print copy of this limited edition zine please contact Jared directly—all profits from these sales will be directly donated to No More Deaths, a charitable organization whose mission is “to end death and suffering in the Mexico–US borderlands through civil initiative: people of conscience working openly and in community to uphold fundamental human rights.” The zine will also be for sale at the Peale Center throughout the duration of the exhibit No Walls, No Bans, No Borders. This work includes providing direct aid to people crossing the desert borderlands in the form of water, supplies, and emergency medical treatment.


John Childs

This article originally appeared on Discover Society

Plenty of virtual ink has been spilled predicting the advent of commercial deep-sea mining (DSM). Successful extraction of zinc, gold and copper has already taken place in Japan in late 2017. Several other countries who have identified deep-sea mineral deposits in their territorial waters are considering whether or not to adopt the new industry into their future economic strategies. Yet, despite the widespread interest in the activity, to date there has only been one commercial contract for deep-sea mineral extraction awarded globally. Moreover, this project – a copper and gold mine named Solwara 1 in the Bismarck Sea of Papua New Guinea – has struggled to overcome the funding requirements needed to become commercially viable. Its contractor, Nautilus Minerals – a Canadian mining firm – has struggled to convince investors of its ability to manage both the economic and ecological uncertainty fostered by deep-sea mining’s untested nature.

At the same time, the International Seabed Authority, the key regulator for minerals found on the seabed in the area beyond national jurisdiction, has issued 29 exploration contracts to both private and state-run companies from all over the world. Deep-sea mining thus stands at a threshold: waiting in the waters yet confronted with an array of questions. However, for all the pointed arguments expressed by those on both sides of a debate, which has focused on evaluations of environmental and economic sustainability, analyses that have sought to understand deep-sea mining’s very specific politics have been rarely heard. Put another way, it is necessary to think about deep-sea mining as a contentious political problem, in which the politics of knowledge and justice are never far from the surface and in which a variety of actors – both human and more-than-human – will shape the future prospects for the controversial industry.

Deep-sea mining has proved to be a divisive topic. For its apologists, it heralds a sustainable answer to dwindling supplies of high-quality, terrestrial deposits of conventional deposits such as copper. The deep-sea deposits being earmarked for future extraction are said to be of higher quality and concentrated into a reduced footprint. The proposed Solwara 1 copper deposit in Papua New Guinea is just 0.1km², a fraction of the 7.5km² dedicated to the world’s biggest copper mine, Bingham Canyon in Utah, USA. Other champions of the nascent industry point to its potential to furnish the green energy infrastructures of the future with the rare earth elements required for their expansion. Electric vehicles, wind turbines and photovoltaics are all cited by the industry as placing a demand on society for materials that can only be met by an expansion of the mining frontier into the ocean.

On the other hand, DSM has attracted plenty of criticism from those who point to the uncertainty surrounding the ecological consequences to the ecosystems of the deep ocean. Although scientific studies of deep-sea oceanography remain limited, most stress the need for care, advocating a precautionary principle that states ‘where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, activities should not proceed’ (UN WCN 1982). Such concerns have been raised by a number of international NGOs ranging from Friends of the Earth to the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, who additionally highlight the lack of consent from local communities and are calling for further research on the social and ecological impacts of DSM.

Those making the case for deep-sea mining, point to the notion that it has ‘no human impact’. This continues a longstanding tradition in Western thought that the deep sea has a negligible relation to the rest of the social world. Yet this is disingenuous, as the case of Solwara 1 makes clear. Certainly, for communities closest to the proposed deep-sea mine site in Papua New Guinea, the fears of spiritual, ecological and economic disruption are very real indeed. Although the targeted metals lie some 1600m beneath the surface of the ocean, research conducted over the last three years showed that proximate populations were most concerned about the potential impact upon spirits – so-called masalai – that reside in and protect the deep-ocean and its resources. For these people, the deep-sea is not a world separated from humanity. As a prominent leader representing the 20,000 inhabitants of the Duke of York Islands, a small archipelago situated around 30km from the proposed mine site, makes clear:

‘The sea is not another world. It is part of graun [earth]. You see people, fish, masalai [spirits], volcanoes, what you call land, the sea – it is all connected. We understand that we are at one with the sea. But we are also are at one with the spirits. If you disturb this world, you are in trouble…this is why this seabed mining company will be in trouble – it does not understand how us people connect to something deeper’

For many communities near the Solwara 1 site, the spiritual world is foundational to their identity. As has been noted elsewhere in the context of terrestrial mining in Melanesia, for these people the arrival of deep-sea mining ‘means not just social and economic disruption; it rends the very fabric of the world and a vivid, direct, sacred link with the land is irrecoverably lost’ (Macgregor 2017). Perspectives such as these and those highlighted in a short film produced as part of the project—Into the Abyss: the politics of deep sea mining in Papua New Guineaserve to force a reconsideration of the ways in which the deep-sea’s ‘hidden’ nature comes to matter politically.

It is only in recent years that the ocean has been taken seriously as an object of social scientific enquiry (e.g. Steinberg 2001; Deloughrey 2017). Despite a glut of work emanating from marine science, the ‘social’ ocean has largely ‘remained outside of history’ (Hannigan 2016: 3). Moreover, this oversight becomes even more acute as depth is introduced to the analysis. Simply put, thinking about the ways that the ocean’s depth and the physical characteristics of the seabed might matter politically have been almost totally absent (Squire 2017). Yet matter they do.

The extreme location of the deposits, several kilometres below the surface of the water in some cases, is far beyond the capacity of human beings to experience it directly. This creates political space for imagined geographies (what people imagine the deep-sea to be) to come into conflict with corporate attempts to communicate science and legitimise their practices. For example, Nautilus Minerals highlights the dynamic and volcanic nature of the seabed close to the proposed mine site in Papua New Guinea. By pointing to the regularity and violence of eruptions in the immediate surrounding area, it is able to simultaneously stress the resilience of nearby associated bacteria and fauna. The argument goes that if these organisms can withstand a volcanic event, then they can comfortably survive any disruption caused by mining. It is an effective means to counter critique from those that are concerned by DSM’s environmental impacts.

Another example of this kind of material politics relates to the geologic speed at which deep-sea mineral deposits are formed. At Solwara 1, ‘black smokers’—underwater chimneys made by minerals that are precipitated from rapidly cooling jets of fluids—can grow several feet in a matter of weeks. This is incredibly dynamic in geologic terms. Compare this to polymetallic nodules – another type of targeted deep-sea mineral deposit – that form at the rate of about one inch every million years, and the ethical implications of seafloor disturbance emerge quite differently.

A final dimension, which demands attention in considering DSM as political, is time (Childs 2018). Many accounts of deep-sea mining frame it as an industry ‘of the future’. This has conceptual purchase, offering the allure of untapped wealth, and positioning the activity as a key part of a ‘blue economy’, the extension of a capitalist spatial fix into earth’s watery volumes. Yet just as the ‘future’ facing aspects of DSM are about the appeals made to global finance with their attendant promises of ‘resource potential’, so too must any ‘waste’ from the extractive process be included in predictions of environmental impact.

Moreover, the ‘time’ of deep-sea mining operates on a range of different registers and speeds, each with their own political implication. This might be about the acquisition and control of monitoring, generating and transmitting data on seabed resources or the time of their geologic formation. Whether it’s about the anticipation of DSM’s potential before extraction even begins or the time, as yet unknowable, when its environmental impacts are realised, time will be crucial to defining its politics.

These aspects addressed above collectively lead us to confront some uncomfortable political questions that have yet to be fully addressed. This is not just the case in Papua New Guinea. More globally, as the ambitions for deep-sea mining expand, how is the extraordinary diversity of different knowledge systems that relate to the ocean going to be reconciled? Is the mining of the deep seabed a price worth paying in order to build the green energy systems of the future? If not, where are we going to get the materials needed?

Childs, J. (2018). Extraction in Four Dimensions: Time, Space and the Emerging Geo(-)politics of Deep-Sea MiningGeopolitics, 1-25.
DeLoughrey, E. (2017). Submarine Futures of the Anthropocene. Comparative Literature69(1), 32-44.
Hannigan, J. (2016). The geopolitics of deep oceans. John Wiley & Sons.
MacGregor, N. (2017). ‘Living With The Gods: The Other Side of the Leaf’, Radio 4,
Steinberg, P. E. (2001). The social construction of the ocean (Vol. 78). Cambridge University Press.

John Childs is a Lecturer in International Development and Natural Resources at Lancaster University. He teaches and writes about the political geography of resource extraction, including the politics of deep-sea mining. This blog and the video Into the Abyss: the politics of deep sea mining in Papua New Guinea is based on research was made possible by funding from the UK Economic and Social Research Council as part of a two year ‘Future Research Leaders Grant’ [Ref: ES/N016548/1].

IMAGE CREDIT: Sunrise off the Duke of York Islands John Childs.

IMAGE CREDIT COVER PHOTO: JC142 research cruise, exploring a rich tellurium deposit deep in the Atlantic ocean. Tellurium is a key component of photovoltaic technology used in solar power. Reproduced with permission of the British Geological Survey, National Oceanography Centre ©UKRI 2018.)