9 December 2016

Political ecologist wins prestigious ‘Future research leader’ fellowship to study the geopolitics of deep sea mining, the latest frontier of resource extraction

Dr John Childs, of the Lancaster University Environment Centre, was awarded the fellowship for a project which aims to conceptualise and map the emerging politics of contemporary deep-sea mining (DSM).

The first licence to extract deep-sea minerals has been granted in waters off the coast of Papua New Guinea for this new form of mining, extracting valuable resources like copper and gold, from the sea bed 1600 metres underwater.

The Economic and Social Research Council fellowship, which provides two years of funding and support, aims to provide early-career academics with ‘the skill-set required to become the future world leaders in their field’.

“We are at a threshold, deep sea mining is just starting. We need to provoke questions concerning the type of politics that emerges. How is DSM’s politics different from that associated with terrestrial mining? How does it engage with matters of justice, environmental impact and economic development?

“My starting point is that there is no foregone conclusion about deep sea mining - there are a huge range of political possibilities,” says John.

John is combining insights from oceanography, geology and marine science with different traditions of critical social science to explore the conflicting interests involved in deep sea mining, predicted to be worth £40 billion over the next 30 years to the UK alone.

The project aims to move beyond traditional geopolitical approaches, which have focussed on human activity including policy and the language used to describe these activities, with particularly emphasis on the role of the state.  John’s project, ‘Into the Abyss: Deep Sea Mining, Geopolitics and Global Development’, will treat nature itself as a key actor in the development of deep sea politics.

“As well as asking who is driving the exploitation and who is likely to benefit from or be disadvantaged by these processes, we need to ask what role the characteristics of the deep ocean and its subsurface are likely to play in the emergent politics of the deep sea bed,” John explains.

The physical realities underwater create new challenges for both technology and legal frameworks.

“Why is deep sea mining happening in Papua New Guinea? It’s partly because of a long and contentious political economic history. But it’s also because it is a site of tremendous volcanic and geologic dynamism. And this is before you consider the role of the sea itself. The sea is often seen as a static, inert space but this project is saying no, what the sea does matters, it shapes politics.”

He is focusing his research on two geographically diverse countries with different political approaches to marine and deep sea mining: Papua New Guinea and Namibia, which has recently overturned a moratorium on deep sea mining to give the go-ahead to the world’s first marine phosphate mine.

John is using different research tools and visualisation techniques - including ethnographic approaches and critical cartography - that aim to show that geopolitics is about more than disputed claims to territory and resources.

“Part of the challenge of mapping this type of geopolitics is about asking how do you capture the politics of a dynamic earth in motion? What media would you use? How do you visualise different cultural understandings, how do you visualise environmental justice? This project engages with these sorts of questions.”

The results of this work will be displayed in a multi-media exhibition and event in 2018 that will feature speakers from across academia, business, activism and policy.
John’s collaborators within the Lancaster Environment Centre include Professor Nigel Clark, a world leading authority on the contemporary geopolitics of earth-society relations, and Geographic Information Systems technician Gemma Davies, who will support John with producing maps for the exhibition.

“I will also draw on Lancaster University’s links with the British Geological Survey, and with the House of Commons Library. The combination of people and contacts we have at Lancaster is fantastic for the project.”