07 maio 2021

The geographic imagination and the deep sea

By Bruno Costelini
Oceanographer and PhD candidate in Law at Durham University

What do we think when we think of the deep sea? What exactly populates our vision of it, physically speaking, but also considering its possibilities as a place for expansion of knowledge, of resource gathering, of protecting? These questions may seem vague and pointless, at first, but there is a trend in geographical and sociological debates to examine those visions, inasmuch as they shape the way we act towards such a remote place.

Sheila Jasanoff, a Harvard professor who famously came up with the concept of ‘co-production’ in the 1980s to describe the way regulation and technological development go hand in hand, has recently turned her attention to those issues. In a 2009 paper co-authored by Sang-Hyun Kim they draw a concept they call ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’, that is, collectively imagined narratives that ‘describe attainable futures and prescribe futures that states believe ought to be attained’. [1] In sum, the way we perceive technology and its possibilities shape the ways we think of acting in the world.

Now in the latest special issue of Centaur, a decades-old journal of History of Science, various academics turn to the world of science diplomacy, to explore how science shapes some of the central treaties, agreements and regulations that are constantly being negotiated in international fora. These negotiations, it turns out, are also directly affected by those ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’ we mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Though Jasanoff and Kim came up with the concept in regards to national experiences, Sam Robinson, one of the contributors to the special issue, expands the notion to the transnational world of ocean diplomacy, looking into the history of the UNCLOS negotiations that led to the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which as we know created the basis of a regime for deep seabed mineral exploration and exploitation.[2]

When diplomats were negotiating the Convention, the idea of the deep sea was shaped by the novelties that military-financed oceanography was coming up with. Ideas such as installing permanent bases on the seafloor for mineral extraction, with divers and operated vehicles, able to gather immense amounts of valuable ore. Also, the chance of installing missile launchers, in the context of the Cold War, caused much concern, leading to a demilitarization of the Area.

But most of all, those sociotechnical imaginaries shaped a perception of the seafloor as an explorable frontier, much like the Midwest in the American historical experience, an alien environment filled with resources waiting to be grabbed. This also led to a North-South divide, where developing nations sought to rebalance the distribution of technical expertise and financial capabilities, which left them effectively out of the game. Various clauses in the Convention point to this.

Now, almost 50 years later, as negotiations for a set of Exploitation regulations is being finalized at the International Seabed Authority, the question I pose is: what kind of social technical imaginaries are shaping negotiations? Are we still tuned to the 1970s vision of the seabed as a blank page where we can navigate freely plucking up metal balls, with no meaningful impact or consequence? Or have the series of environmental disasters over the past decades linked to mining and to the human activity in the atmosphere changed our perception of the impact we may cause in the deep sea?


The answer will come from the final shape of those regulations and from how we proceed from there. For now, all we can do is imagine it.


[1] Sheila Jasanoff and Sang-Hyun Kim ‘Containing the atom: Sociotechnical imaginaries and nuclear power in the United States and South Korea’ Minerva, 2009.

[2] Sam Robinson ‘Scientific imaginaries and science diplomacy: The case of ocean exploitation’ Centaurus, 2021.

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