There’s no getting around it: a more sustainable future will be a battery-powered one. Without batteries to store energy, renewables are about as reliable as the weather. Still, building the batteries we’ll need to slow down the climate crisis comes with its own costs. As Wil S. Hylton writes in The Atlantic, the world is poised to start mining the deepest depths of the ocean before we’ve even had a chance to understand what might be lost.
Here’s where things stand now — to make the batteries that power our electric vehicles, computers, and smartphones, we need cobalt and other metals. Google, Apple, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla are defendants in a suit filed this month alleging that the companies are in part responsible for the deaths of children working in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where much of the metal is currently found.
Those companies, along with environmental and human rights activists, are desperately seeking alternatives. A new option is emerging: deepwater plains rich in cobalt, copper, manganese, and nickel that could be used to power the next device on your wishlist. Hylton dives into why the United Nations is “preparing to mobilize the largest mining operation in the history of the world” and what could happen after the long-awaited Mining Code for international waters is finally ratified in 2020. Sure, a new undersea mining industry might help us move towards a greener future on land, but at what cost in the ocean? Hylton writes:
The harms of burning fossil fuels and the impact of land-based mining are beyond dispute, but the cost of plundering the ocean is impossible to know. What creatures are yet to be found on the seafloor? How many indispensable cures? Is there any way to calculate the value of a landscape we know virtually nothing about? The world is full of uncertain choices, of course, but the contrast between options is rarely so stark: the crisis of climate change and immiserated labor on the one hand, immeasurable risk and potential on the other.
People do seem to be paying more attention to the crap we put into the ocean lately, alarmed by details of whales and coral gorging on plastic “like Twinkies”, as Hylton so gruesomely describes. But we haven’t spent as much time pondering the question of what we’re willing to dredge up from its depths. There are no easy answers when it comes to how to weigh the risks and rewards of a budding industry, but Hylton’s story is a good start.