The Geopolitics of Deep Oceans review: fathoming the new frontier
John Hannigan’s highly readable survey of mankind and the oceans tackles deep-sea mining, superpower rivalries, global warming and popular culture
Apart from their luminary status, what do Leonardo di Caprio, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin and Arthur C Clarke have in common? All four have taken a keen interest in that “new frontier” below 200 metres, where global oceans become “deep”.
Clarke predicted a moon landing in his space science fiction, but the writer was also a scuba diver and salvage agent who recognised that we would become increasingly dependent on the seas around us. He warned of the risks of over-enthusiasm more than half a century ago. Mining the ocean required caution if “we hope to save our machine-based civilisation from collapsing back into the Stone Age through shortage of metals”, he said.
Future Shock author Alvin Toffler also predicted a “new Atlantis” where competition for underwater resources would herald a “way of life that offers adventure, danger, quick riches or fame.” Toffler echoed the views of Isaac Asimov, who forecast that population growth would force settlement of desert and polar areas, and this would also extend to underwater colonisation of continental shelves.
French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, co-inventor of the aqualung, was similarly conflicted about the potential. Solar energy cells transmitting sun to the seabed, allowing for photosynthesis, would revolutionise mariculture, he wrote. He believed a “marine medicine chest” would contribute to development of new lifesaving drugs.
However, the damage done by overfishing, coral reef destruction and offshore oil drilling could be replicated, Cousteau warned, when man “opened the gates”.
Resource experts have forecast that this new century will be marked by “water wars”, as population expansion exerts more pressure on freshwater resources. However, as University of Toronto professor of sociology John Hannigan documents, there is also the potential for conflict in that vast and hidden environment which was once a “theatre of imagination” inhabited by the sort of “submarine aliens” he read about when he was a boy.
Hannigan identifies four competing and often overlapping “master narratives” . The first of these, the “frontier” approach, is associated with technological advances during and after the second World War – although the first serious expedition dated back to 1871-6 when the British Admiralty, Royal Society of London and Treasury Museum supported a voyage by the HMS Challenger to the western Pacific.