Jacque Cousteau’s Caution


Over the last few months I have been reading about the push to explore the possibility of colonising other planets and mine their resources. In other words, follow the same practice that has devastated our planet. At the same time I have been reading two parallel discourses about our oceans: the increased risk to marine life due to pollution and Climate Change and the hope – you guessed it – of further exploration to mine its resources. It is business as usual despite the evidence that further degradation of our natural systems puts most life, human, animal and plant at risk.

It is with fascinated dread that I approach the articles, the talks, the essays. I don’t want to read and despair but, like a bunny caught in the headlights, I feel compelled to face the awful news.

Apparently like the race to find a potentially human sustaining planet, there is a race to map the ocean – its mountains and valleys, its plains and forests. A global initiative,  The Nippon Foundation-Gebco Seabed 2030 Project has already mapped one-fifth of the seafloor using a multi-beam echo sounder to create three-dimensional pictures.

While there are definite positives to understanding the largely unknown two-thirds of our planet there are also negatives. The positives include understanding the life that it supports and therefore how we might fish sustainably. It might help us clarify territorial claims such as the ongoing argument in the South China Sea between China and Japan in particular although Vietnam also has an interest in territorial clarification. It would also help us discover wrecks such as the Malaysian Airlines MH 370, Amelia Earhart’s lost plane and the Titanic along with many other lesser known disappearances.

The UN’s International Seabed Authority (ISA) https://www.isa.org.jm/about-isa has authorised State and private companies to prospect the seabed. On its website it states its mandate clearly: ISA is the organization through which States Parties to UNCLOS organize and control all mineral-resources-related activities in the Area for the benefit of mankind as a whole. In so doing, ISA has the mandate to ensure the effective protection of the marine environment from harmful effects that may arise from deep-seabed related activities. While it reveals its mandate to protect marine wildlife, as I read it, its main purpose is mining. The body has authorised both State and private bodies to prospect the seabed. They are less interested in mapping and more interested on finding seams of minerals and other mining opportunities. They use the available maps to prospect and hope to commence mining sooner rather than later. It beggars belief that ISA is not considering regulating this potential mining boom given what we know about mining companies and their disregard for offence to people and the environment. The recent Rio Tinto destruction (with Western Australian Government collusion) of an Australian Indigenous Sacred Site of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people as an example of putting profit over any moral or ethical consideration being a case in point. https://theconversation.com/rio-tinto-just-blasted-away-an-ancient-aboriginal-site-heres-why-that-was-allowed-139466

There is increasing evidence of the impact of human activity and its resulting noise on the health of marine life. Animals, such as whales, depend on sound echoes to help them negotiate their long two-way routes from breeding and feeding grounds. It is hypothesised that sound and light pollution could cause beaching. One study has provided evidence that multi-beam echo-sounds used by Seabed 2030 did not disrupt the feeding behaviour of Cuvier’s beaked whale. However, one study is only a beginning to understanding the impact of sound on marine life. There is evidence that humans are affected by noise pollution with resulting effect on blood pressure, psychological well-being and sleep among others. There is growing evidence that it has a significant impact on natural systems.

The interest in exploring the oceans and make them more habitable or useful to humans is not just about mining; it is also about extending our habitable space.

The idea of deep sea living has long been the stuff of fantasy and experimentation. Cousteau’s Conshelf I, II, and III were built in the Red Sea. Conshelf I was suspended ten metres below water, Conshelf II 30 metres and III reached 100 metres below sea level. Conshelf III supported six people living and working together, mimicking a land-based life style, for three weeks in 1965. It was an exercise to evaluate human capabilities, living under water. The study concluded that while it was possible for people to live below the water surface, Man needed sun. I am unclear about what psychological measures the conclusions were based on. More recently, Lloyd Gibson reported that after 12 days living in his Biosub he felt lethargic and irritable.

There have been a number of other experiments but regardless of robotic and solar-power ingenuity, humans appear to be unsuited to prologued underwater habitation.

Floating islands are not new to many Asian countries. Peru’s Uros Islands on Lake Titicaca can support communities, the biggest supporting six families. They depend on handicrafts and fishing as well as a growing tourist interest. The islands are built up using totorus, a type of reed, which is layered over the roots of the plant tied and bound together by eucalyptus saplings, forming the foundation as well as anchorage. It is at one level a very labour intensive lifestyle as the totorus and eucalypt is collected from the mainland and the island has to be maintained.

Vietnam’s Howlong Bay has a number of floating islands and benefits from a thriving tourist trade.

Makoko, a village built on stilts in Lake Lagos in Nigeria, is a slum and a dispossessed community under threat from water-borne disease, made worse by human waste. It is also threatened by the Nigerian government who, it is suspected, see a commercial opportunity. It houses up to 85,000 people who rely on aquatic transport to move through the village.

The Bjarke Ingels Group has developed the concept of Oceanix City , a modular system of floating islands. Each “city” or village will be built with sustainable materials with a view to minimising environmental impact. The danger, however, of extending into water is that it is the poor and landless, such as the people of Mokoko, who are driven to such settlements with the obvious ecological impact.

Koen Olthuis, a Dutch architect, has been exploring the use of positive structures that extend into the ocean or transform existing abandoned structures such as oil rigs to create wildlife habitats.

Olthuis does envisage floating cities but as an extension over existing floating structures from land settlements that are under threat of rising sea levels. His vision is flexible structures that are easily built, dismantled or even transferred elsewhere for repeated use as the need arises. Float he says stands for “flexible land on aquatic territory.”https://www.waterstudio.nl/the-floating-vision-by-koen-olthuis/

No doubt Jacques Cousteau would be sympathetic to his argument. After the Conshelf III experiment he abandoned the idea of living below the water arguing that it would be better to attend to sustainable living on land – and that was in 1965.

There is a term: conditioned inattention. It is a term previously associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. More recently it is being used to describe how we become inattentive to what is present in our lives: the endless internecine wars, the slow erosion on rights, the effects of droughts, the argument for action to mitigate the effects of climate change and the loss of biodiversity. We become enthusiastic to about ideas that promise “better” lives while being inattentive to what is lost as a result. We are used to mining and other human enterprises and their environmental costs – so much so that we are inattentive to that loss without realising it. It is only some time later that you realise that you haven’t heard a certain bird call or frog chorus; that you haven’t seen a particular wild flower or a hovering butterfly or bee.

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