The sacrifice of sustainability

By Grace Hamilton, Opinions & Editorials Editor

Actual sustainability under capitalism is impossible, because irreparable harm is done to indigenous communities and ecosystems. The pursuit of environmental sustainability under capitalism fails because such communities and ecosystems will always be sacrificed for profit and the claim of ownership. 

This is evidenced by the current situation happening in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ), a stretch of the Pacific Ocean bordered by the territorial waters of the Pacific Island nations Nauru, Tonga, Kiribati, and the Cook Islands. Multiple corporations and countries are seeking exploratory contracts within the CCZ. This exploration is for polymetallic nodules: bundles of ore that contain manganese, nickel, cobalt, and copper, all rare earth metals necessary for the production of the batteries for electric vehicles. 

This is a thinly veiled continuation of imperialism, not any actual attempt at environmental sustainability. 

Imperialism has a long and distinguished history of exploitation, racism and abuse. It continues today under the guise of capitalistic enterprise, and in this case, the promise of environmental action. Pacific Island nations have suffered the consequences of centuries of colonization, starting in the 1500s when the Age of Exploration reached them and Europeans arrived to claim and conquer. 

There is a troubled history of attempted sustainability projects on Pacific Islands, which can hint at possible dangerous outcomes for them now as various companies move in to stake claim and disrupt entire ecosystems with no regard for the people who will be affected the most: Pacific Islanders. In the 20th century, islands like Banaba and Nauru were plundered by the Western world for their phosphorus deposits. 

The nodules that these companies seek to mine are necessary to these ecosystems as many of the creatures, like coral and anemone, use the nodules as something to attach to. The noise pollution from mining could disrupt the communication between species, drilling and the vehicles necessary for it may raise the temperature, and those same vehicles could crush and compact the seabed and the organisms that inhabit it. These ramifications are actively ignored in favor of the potential profits of deep sea mining, which could be valued at around €10 billion in annual turnover by 2030. 

Capitalism, as the successor to mercantilism, places strict emphasis on the accumulation of wealth and prioritizes private property. Capitalism can be partially defined by its ties to neoimperialism, and the nonviolent means of conquest that utilize economic policy and control of production. 

Deep sea mining presents a challenge to the sovereignty of Pacific Islands, as it ignores the traditions and cultures of indigenous peoples in favor of whichever corporation makes the highest offer. 

Corporations have claimed a sort of sovereignty within the economic world, especially as they position themselves as the vanguard against the climate crisis. From the CEOs of these corporations speaking at conferences of the International Seabed Authority instead of the Pacific Island nations they claim to be in partnership with to the desperate race to stake claim over a portion of the ocean that has traditionally been cared for by indigenous populations that know too well the abuses of corporations priding themselves on “sustainable solutions,” every level of this situation is being infiltrated and overrun by those actors who seek only a place at the very top, nevermind the people and ecosystems who suffer as a result. The greed of corporations and the pursuit of profit with complete disregard for the collateral damage left in the aftermath establishes the futile attempts at sustainability under capitalism. True and effective sustainability is not feasible under the system of capitalism because capitalism will first and foremost seek profit and will sacrifice any perceived obstacles to its success. 

The ocean, specifically the CCZ, is one of the last remaining places on Earth that does not belong to any one nation, but that does not mean that no one has sovereignty over it. Pacific Island nations have long protected oceanic ecosystems and the biodiversity within them, but this role is not recognized by any government body, meaning that the areas that they fight for and live alongside are being sold out from underneath them. 

The sovereignty they possess over their own land is barely recognized, and the pervasive idea of the necessary erasure of indigenous cultures and peoples persists. 

This situation harms oceanic ecosystems and indigenous populations and illustrates the evils of capitalism.