Ifremeria sp., a snail that lives at gold-rich hydrothermal vents. Watercolor; Karen Jacobsen; 2005.
The Way Forward
For those of you who have been to the shore this month, there is sand between the pages of your copy of The Edge of the Sea, and happily so. It should please you further to look forward to September and a discussion led by Patricia Hynes of the book, Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson, wherein there is more by Rachel Carson about the edge of the sea, and where Carson reminds us that
‘in the waters of the sea, we are brought back to the fundamental truth that nothing lives to itself. The water itself is altered, in its chemical nature and in its capacity for inducing metabolic change, by the fact that certain organisms have lived within it and by so doing have transmitted to it new properties with powerful and far-reaching effects.’
These words from a scientific paper that Carson presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1953 eloquently capture some of what the scientific community now somewhat pedantically refers to as an ecosystem-based approach.
Public addresses, books, essays, letters… As a gifted and impassioned writer, Carson found myriad ways to share her knowledge of nature with the public and to shape and influence public policy. What about the contemporary environmental scientist – what do we do to advocate for wise environmental stewardship?
I offer a brief outline of a particularly tricky case study that goes beyond the edge of the sea, into the deep sea. In the late 1970’s, scientists discovered hot springs on the seafloor, oases of life colonized by strange and beautiful animals. Thirty-five years later, we continue to explore these wilderness areas, finding every year dozens of new species and, oftentimes, unimagined adaptations for life in extreme environments. These discoveries are the stuff that make new chapters in textbooks and that inspire the next generation of ocean explorers and advocates. Would that strange life were all one might find at these deep-sea hot springs. But
“In the ocean depths, there are mines of zinc, iron, silver and gold, which would be quite easy to exploit.”
— Jules Verne, 1870
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
Jules Verne was all too prescient. There is now a rush to mine gold and other precious metals from deep-sea hot springs within territorial waters of other nations, particularly those of island nations in the southwest Pacific. More than one company proposes to begin commercial extraction – pit mining – of metal sulfides that make up the mineral chimneys formed as hot spring fluids exit the seafloor. The method of extraction removes the very habitat that supports the strange animals that I study and is likely to cause collateral damage to the surrounding ecosystem as well. We – the scientific community – have barely begun to discover which species live in these particularly gold-rich environments in the SW Pacific. What we do know comes at a great price and is in large part enabled by field expeditions sponsored by mining companies as they work to meet or even exceed their legal requirements for environmental assessment. Can we begin to assess the impact of mining on the species that live in the threatened habitats and to advise policy makers with informed science?
Here we land squarely at the frustrated interaction between scientists and policy makers that is so cogently described in H. Russell Bernard’s 1974 essay on Scientists and Policy Makers: An Ethnography of Communication (Human Organization 33:261-275) (reprinted by permission of the publisher). Scientists – myself as an example – want to give the yes and no answer, because the issues can be, as in this case, complex, with many unknown and unmeasured variables. We are trained as scientists to specify the limitations of our research, to distinguish what is result and what is interpretation; we are trained to think about the error as well as the mean. Policy makers want to know what is the best course of action to achieve a particular result; insufficient information to make a wise policy decision is not a tenable response.
My own view is that it is premature to mine hot springs for gold. We do not have the ability to assess the environmental impact of sustained and cumulative commercial mining efforts on organisms that colonize seafloor hot springs, nor do we have the means for environmental remediation should mining proceed and insupportable consequences result. I, in a view that I believe is shared by others in the scientific community who study the animals that live at deep-sea hot springs, advocate that a precautionary approach be applied. I take it as our ethical responsibility to maintain the integrity of natural systems; the burden should be on mining advocates to demonstrate that mining will not cause habitat degradation and loss of biodiversity at regional scales.
Week of August 27 – Rachel Carson Book Club members have the opportunity to study how Carson’s work influenced the environmental movement and environmental policy. This leadership comes from her understanding and knowledge of how organisms interact with one another and the environment, as well as a set of values and ethics that places human beings within the context of the environment, rather than apart from it. To all this, Carson added an ability to communicate. What is included in the suite of tools and opportunities that contemporary scientists may use to influence environmental policy? In the particular example of seafloor mining in waters of other nations, what outlets might individuals use to advocate for a particular environmental policy?