Pathfinders – Sky high and ocean deep
Do we really need this? Is it sustainable? Two questions that capitalism never seriously asks. At present the only question that matters is, can we make money out of this? All other considerations currently fall outside the projected calculation matrix, as an average CEO might blandly put it. And two recent news stories offer an illustration of this.
British news media were cock-a-hoop last month to report a home-grown ‘space industry’ story with the planned horizontal launch from Newquay in Cornwall of a suite of satellites via a rocket attached to one of Mad Dick Branson’s old Virgin jumbo jets (bbc.in/3VXUmON). ‘What people have seen is a small team deliver something quite incredible’ puffed the breathless CEO of Spaceport Cornwall, speaking live from the Mission Control shed just before the mission pancaked.
What they were planning on delivering was nine shoebox-sized satellites whose various space-based functions were such that their owners were willing to shell out hefty launch fees. It’s a burgeoning market, and other space freight companies in Shetland and Sutherland in Scotland are also keen to get in on the action. If Elon Musk can send mega-rockets to the moon, they ought to be able to manage a shoebox or two. Sadly the mission to hurl yet more space junk into orbit failed on this occasion, but the heroic British pioneers won’t be deterred from making future attempts.
As of January 2022, there were an estimated 8,261 satellites orbiting the Earth, of which 42 percent are already defunct (bit.ly/3irc1kv). But that’s small potatoes compared to the ‘mega-constellations’ of miniature CubeSats being planned by firms like SpaceX and OneWeb, which intend to upchuck around 65,000 in the next few years. Space tech is ‘dual use’, ie, civilian and military, and the key military advantages of CubeSats are cheapness (especially when launched via reusable SpaceX rockets), small size, replaceability and proliferation, making them nearly impossible for an adversary to knock out. Elon Musk’s own Starlink system is being relied on by Ukrainian forces, meaning the Tesla, Twitter and SpaceX boss is now also in the war business and with such influence that he has personally vetoed Starlink operations over Crimea (bit.ly/3ZCiPw5).
Being nearer the ground, low-orbit off-the-peg CubeSats mean lower-latency (ie, faster) connections than high-orbit heavy-duty satellites, while the swarm numbers mean near-comprehensive global internet coverage. A comparatively minor consideration is the predicted increase in visual ‘noise’ for astronomers (bit.ly/3W1baEQ ). But what’s sickening from a socialist perspective is that it’s not just one constellation to be shared by everyone, as would be the case in socialism, it’s multiple duplicate systems, because each competing state wants its own GPS and communications networks in space and does not want to rely on another’s satellites any more than on another’s energy supplies. One of socialism’s medium-term goals will probably be the challenge of hoovering up all this redundant and dangerous space scrap.
Meanwhile, you may be aware that the sea floors of the world are carpeted with small, potato-like polymetallic objects known as manganese nodules, first discovered in the 19th century and in July this year set to become a red-hot-button topic.
Imagine you are out for a walk in the wilds, on a break from your capitalist employment, and you happen across a huge wishing pond that is magically packed with a treasure trove of ancient gold denarii, duckets and dubloons. There is no sign saying Private Property – Keep Out. A quick check on your smartphone reveals not only that this pond doesn’t belong to anybody, but also that there is no mention of it in any statutes or local by-laws. Understandably, you’re keen to fill your boots with as much plunder as you can carry away. In fact, seeing as there are no rules, you might as well hire a mechanical digger to plough the entire pond right up, and make yourself a fortune. But as you start dialling the machine hire number, strong hands grab you by the arms and a voice says ‘Alright matey, not so fast, we were here first’.
Such is the situation with manganese nodules, found in gigantic quantities on sea beds in international waters. They are a potential bonanza for capitalist manufacturing, containing not just manganese, but also nickel, copper, iron, cobalt, titanium, silicon and aluminium among others, elements of immense importance in steel production, EV car batteries and other green tech. Average metallic content varies (15 – 30 percent), and a ballpark valuation for this content is given as $484/tonne (bit.ly/3IOHcAG). The potential global supply of nodules was estimated in the 1980s at roughly 500bn tonnes. At a minimum 15 percent average metal content, one could be talking about an industry worth upwards of $36tn.
Given this, you may wonder how come the gold rush has not already started. In effect, the lack of rules has resulted in a default Hands-Off stalemate as governments and UN regulator the International Seabed Authority have stalled for 20 years over a common regulatory framework, even though a clause in the existing 2000 treaty gave them just two years to create one. Mining companies are slavering to have at the prize, and equally keen to stop each other getting a head start. Now one company, in league with the Pacific island of Nauru, has announced that, if no regulation is in place by the end of the two-year period in July, they are technically entitled to send in the submarine bulldozers, and devil take the hindmost (bit.ly/3X5e7p0). A strip-mine frenzy will then ensue as the sea floors of the world, whose species, habitats and bio-environments are barely known at all, face a holocaust. The effects of this on global oceanic ecosystems together with the irrevocable loss of species and new science cannot even be guessed at. Governments, who have failed to do anything to fix climate change since the first COP in 1995, have until July to fix this. Don’t hold your breath.
This is not to say that a socialist society would never mine seabed nodules under any circumstances, any more than saying it would never launch a satellite. Humans use the resources of nature all the time, and this is an abundant source of extremely useful metals. But first it would ask the two questions we started with. It may be that in socialism we can devise green tech that does not require so much mining, or even devise acceptable social arrangements that don’t require so much green tech. But in capitalism, nobody even asks. If it’s not about the profit, it’s not part of the equation.