With new technological advances in deep-sea mining, the ocean floor’s trove of valuable metals and rare earth elements is coming within reach of commercial mining operations. The impending reality of this practice, and its associated environmental risks, raises the question of how we, as a society, assess the value of a place we may never see to guide environmental decisions.
Now, a new study finds that people’s emotional associations with the deep sea, more than their knowledge about it, determine how much they care about this remote environment. The results, reported June 12 in People and Nature, suggest that these emotional associations may be more powerful than information in driving people’s concerns about mining the area.
“Deep-sea mining is very much an emerging frontier,” says study author Laura Kaikkonen, a PhD student at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Much of her work as a marine scientist focuses on evaluating the environmental risks of seabed mining. But she wondered how much impact research findings have on the public’s feelings about the deep sea. “Knowledge is always going to be filtered through this emotional aspect,” she says.
Kaikkonen teamed up with behavioral economist Ingrid van Putten of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia. The pair developed an online survey to assess factors like people’s care for the deep sea, environmental attitudes, self-assessed knowledge of the deep sea and human activities there, and perceptions of the risks that deep-sea mining poses to the environment and society.
Other questions related to symbolic values, which they describe as the collection of emotions, meanings, and moods associated with the deep sea. For example, respondents rated the beauty of the deep sea, as well as whether it is ordinary or mystical, empty or abundant, and scary or relaxing. For comparison, the researchers asked the same suite of questions about three other remote places: Antarctica, the moon, and remote terrestrial environments.
The team distributed the survey over social media and via email lists that included students, academic researchers, geologists, and others. A total of 579 respondents representing 37 countries completed the survey, with about two-thirds of responses from Finland.
Forty three percent of respondents reported knowing “nothing” or “very little” about the deep sea, and over half knew “nothing” or “very little” about human activities there. Yet despite this lack of knowledge, 81 percent said they would care “quite a lot” or “very much” if something bad happened to the deep sea. And 89 percent considered mining to be “risky” or “very risky” to the deep-sea environment.
The level of care expressed for the deep sea was slightly lower than for Antarctica or remote terrestrial environments, where people reported more knowledge. But across environments, care was more strongly linked to positive emotional associations than knowledge.
The specific symbolic values differed by environment. Overall, the deep sea was rated as less beautiful but more mystical than Antarctica and remote land environments. And people who cared more about the deep sea also associated mining with greater risks.
The team’s method of asking questions to get at symbolic values was very interesting, says conservation psychologist Susan Clayton of the College of Wooster in Ohio, who was not involved in the study. “It’s a richer way of thinking about it than just saying, ‘Do you like this’ or, ‘Do you care about it?’”
The work offers some insights into how people in primarily consumerist countries feel about the deep sea, says John Childs of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, who studies the geopolitics of deep sea mining but was not involved in the study. However, he and Clayton both note that the outcome could be different in other regions. In Papua New Guinea, where Childs has conducted research, he says that people view the deep sea as an inextricable part of the self.
Kaikkonen would like to compare the viewpoints of individuals living in landlocked countries that are planning deep sea mining operations versus those who live closer to where these mining projects might actually take place.
She hopes that conservationists can use the specific positive symbolic values associated with the deep sea to encourage the public and policy makers to care. “Play to the strengths of the environment,” says Kaikkonen. “We should try to use the mystical and unrevealed parts.”