Whenever I find myself looking down into the sea—say, peering over the side of boats, or standing on long jetties on stormy days—I imagine a creature rising up from the shadows and pulling me under. It has always been this way; for as long as I can remember I’ve felt awe for the murky depths and the deep water. I think of it as the same impulse that motivates people to look over the side of a tall building, leaning into their sense of dread. The darker the day, the more vivid my daydreams.
The visible parts of the ocean, the place my thoughts tentatively inhabit, are only a thin film on the surface of the deep. The depths of our planet—which contains 99 per cent of the liveable space, 91 per cent of living creatures—are so vast they can be separated into five layers. In his 2013 novel, Submergence, JM Ledgard describes the uppermost of these, the epipelagic, as “wristwatch depth,” it is the layer containing “all the plant life and coral reefs and all the shipwrecks that can be dived with aqualungs; all of Jacques Cousteau. Whatever memory we have of baptism or any other form of submersion is here in blue water.”
Beneath this is the mesopelagic layer, or the Twilight Zone, where blue and all the other visible colours vanish; everything beyond is perpetual night. Cuvier’s beaked whales, the deepest diving mammal, only reach as far as the bathypelagic, otherwise known as the Midnight Zone, 3,000 metres deep. Down here, crushed below the weight of thousands of atmospheres and frozen in time, one of the few sources of food is marine snow, a shower of decaying organic matter that comes from the layers above, or, much more dramatically, the occasional whale fall, when the body of a dead whale sinks through the dark until it settles on the seafloor. The bones and tissues of some whale carcasses have been known to support localised ecosystems of worms, sea snails and other scavengers for as long as one hundred years. And still these environments constitute only a fraction of the ocean’s depth.
Ledgard mostly contemplates the deepest layer, the Hadal zone, named for the Greek god of the underworld, which begins only in the deep ocean trenches about 6,000 meters below the surface, and ends wherever life ceases to exist in the sediment at the bottom. He considers the early attempts to dive into the abyss, beginning with an unremarked dive by two French naval officers in 1954, as “less celebrated than space flight, but no less heroic” than ocean flight, which,
“By contrast, is a journey inward, toward blindness. It is about weight, the stopping of the craft on the thermal layers, the pressure of water pushing in, and the discomfiting realisation that most of the planet you call your own is hostile to you.”
The longest golf drive ever recorded was hit on the moon, yet we have only twice visited the Challenger Deep, most recently in 2012, when James Cameron took a single-person submersible eleven kilometres down to the deepest point in our biosphere. “My feeling was one of complete isolation from all humanity,” he said of the journey, when interviewed by National Geographic moments after his dive. Decades earlier, the first aquanauts—those who explore the ocean in the same way as an astronaut explores space—were dangled by cable in a steel ball filled with trays of soda lime to absorb the carbon dioxide they exhaled. “I felt like an atom floating in illimitable space,” one said after his mission.
Without the technology necessary to dive to the abyss, for decades scientists presumed the trenches of the Hadal zone were a lifeless desert in the middle of the seafloor; a hostile and dark world of crushing pressure and sub-zero temperatures. So, when in 1977, a group of US scientists piloted a submersible 2.5km down to the Galapagos Rift, they were shocked to find a world teeming with life. Around deep sea hydrothermal vents—hot springs which spew black jets of water heated inside the earth, rich with dissolved metals and minerals—they discovered entirely new ecosystems with as much diversity as many coral reefs. Surrounding the heated vents were amphipods (a kind of deep sea crustacean), strange shrimp with eyes on their backs, white crabs, mussels and other bivalves, blind fish. The craft touched down in a patch of three-metre-long red-tipped tube worms, releasing a burst of what looked like blood into the water surrounding the submersible.
The discovery radically changed our view of biology: previously, all life on Earth was thought to be photosynthetic and reliant on the sun, but the new life was chemosynthetic, fed by bacteria and other microscopic ‘extremophiles’ which thrive in extreme environments hostile to most other life on earth. The microbial life of the deep ocean survived off the heat and energy of the earth. Some bacteria ate hydrogen sulphide to produce sugar and water, others ate magnetic iron and breathed out rust. Inside the giant tube worms, scientists found an organ full of chemosynthetic bacteria instead of a gut. This discovery also sparked a reimagining of how life on earth may have evolved: “Photosynthetic life came later,” writes Ledgard, “when cells strayed to the top where they were cooked for millions of years before evolving a way to absorb the light, and all the while the chemosynthetic life in the abyss was evolving a stability we cannot hope for.”
But the vibrant life around the hydrothermal vents is itself only a tiny blip in this new world, which is contained inside trenches that circle the globe like the stitches on a baseball. In all of the cracks and clefts are microbial organisms which constitute the earliest life on our planet, and which may collectively have more biomass than all life on the surface.
As an environment so far beyond human experience, the Hadal deep seemed to me a refuge for life, an eternal and unchanging place immune to the worries and turmoil of the surface world. For a long time, the Hadal deep was like my mental panic room, one that was out of reach from the worst of our industrial excesses. Even at my most pessimistic with regard to the fate of the planet and the catastrophic fuckery we’re exacting upon it—a sixth mass extinction, the Anthropocene, the trashing of the Great Barrier Reef and on and on—I was comforted by the thought that life could at least endure in these fissures and cracks in the depths of our planet and eventually make its way back towards the light to repopulate the biosphere once we had been shrugged off.
So, it was a hard comedown earlier this year when I read, over my morning coffee, that scientists trawling for sea floor samples from the Mariana Trench had found massive amounts of trash and pollution in the deep, including tins of Spam, cans of Budweiser and plastic bags. In a sample of amphipods, the scientists found traces of long-lived polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemicals that were banned forty years ago, with some samples containing levels roughly fifty times higher than in crabs from paddy fields fed by the Liao River in China, one of the country's most polluted. The researchers said their findings indicated the Hadal zone acted as a kind of sink that traps anything dumped into the sea, and speculated that the proximity of the Mariana Trench to plastic manufacturers in Asia and a US military base in Guam contributed to the high pollutant levels. “The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants really brings home the long-term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet,” said Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University in the UK, who led the research. In another expedition off the east coast of Australia, CSIRO scientists found coal tossed overboard during the era of steamships, and trawled up PVC pipes and cans of paint. Dr Tim O’Hara, the chief scientist and expedition leader, would later tell The Guardian that “it's quite amazing. We're in the middle of nowhere and still the sea floor has 200 years of rubbish on it.”
My tendency in such bleak moments as these (the shattering of my Hadal zone illusion was a big one) is to try to be proactive, a response that usually takes the form of: ‘what can I do to fix this?’ Ordinarily, this leads me to reorganising my life, particularly as a consumer, to more closely adhere to some sort of ethical and environmental standard. Something like remembering to bring my reusable bags when I go to the shops, eating less meat, donating to environmental organisations and so on. I try to waste less, use less, and, when I do shop, to buy the right products. In other words, I make a “retreat into entirely personal solutions,” as deep green activist Derrick Jensen calls them.
It’s not that I believe there is a direct causal link between my plastic shopping bags and those found in the Mariana Trench. It is just that I want to do something, anything, to feel like I’m making a difference. Most of us do this in one way or another, prompted by issues just as nebulous as trash in the Hadal deep, because it is incredibly soothing and satisfying to make these transactions within a system of nearly infinite choice. The promise is that you can have it all: you can buy whatever you like while also contributing to a political cause. In other words, your redemption from consumerism is included in the price of the product.
If I take a quick look around my house, I find many examples of this in one form or another. The soap on my kitchen sink boasts that: “100% of the profits from this bottle help get sanitation services and water to people in need.” A free-range egg carton claims that the “real currencies of the future: clean earth, air and water” are to be found in abundance on the company farm. I have Facebook open on my laptop, and there is an advertisement for an ethical superannuation fund that does not “compromise returns for ethics, we achieve both!”
We’ve organised charity around this as well: you can wear frocks to cure ovarian cancer, or buy plastic water bottles to cure global poverty. Often, we don’t even expect a tangible outcome—merely having empowerment or awareness somehow absorbed into the everyday routine is enough. We run, walk, swim and perform everyday rituals for political causes lacking even a tenuous connection to the act in question. So, the national broadcaster praises the “lawyer-turned-ultramarathon runner” crossing India to “raise awareness for the importance of education,” and an event where Aussie men are “urged to play ping pong to bring awareness to human trafficking and sexual exploitation in South East Asia,” if you can get your head around such a thing.
The premise underlying all of this is that, as consumers, we must be informed (via the magic of awareness raising) so that each of us can independently exert our supposedly powerful influence on society and multinational corporations through our daily habits and purchasing decisions. But as I tried to cut down on plastics and evaluate my shopping basket, with my mind on the abyss, I found this more difficult to swallow. In an age of increasing globalisation and economic specialisation, it began to seem practically impossible.
The American economist Milton Friedman, a staunch advocate for free markets, often used the example of an ordinary lead pencil to highlight what he considered to be the miracle of capitalism, but which, for me, represents my difficulties with ethical consumerism. In ‘Vol 1: The Power of the Market,’ an episode from his 1980 TV series Free to Choose, Friedman asserts that “not a single person in the world” could make his lead pencil because of the complex supply chains for each of its components: wood from Washington State, cut down by a saw made from steel (and thus, iron ore); a core of graphite from mines in South America, an eraser made of rubber from Malaya, farmed from trees imported under a scheme of the British government, yellow paint for coating, glue to hold it together and so on. “Literally thousands of people co-operated to make this pencil,” Friedman says. “People who don't speak the same language, who practice different religions, who might hate one another if they ever met. When you go down to the store and buy this pencil, you are in effect trading a few minutes of your time for a few seconds of the time of all those thousands of people.”
Now repeat this for the thousands of goods and services we all buy on a yearly—if not weekly—basis, and try to consider the brain-melting (and often contradictory) interplay of food miles, carbon footprints, habitat impact, and legal and human rights provenance for each. In a 2009 essay for Orion Magazine titled ‘Forget Shorter Showers’, activist Derrick Jensen outlines his concerns over the ubiquity of these solutions. At a time when “all the world is at stake,” Jensen sees a campaign of misdirection, where “consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance.”
Take, for example, when water depletion—the drawing of aquifers and draining of rivers—leads people to resolve to take shorter showers, even though ninety per cent of water is used by agriculture and industry, and “collectively, municipal golf courses use as much [water] as municipal human beings.” Or how about the fetishising of a simple living, ‘zero-waste’ lifestyle, where everything is recycled and nothing is put out on the curb, even though (in the United States, at least) municipal waste accounts for only three per cent of total waste production? Across a range of issues—energy, habitat loss, resource depletion—the message is clear: exploitation of the earth by commercial, industrial, agricultural, government and military interests far exceeds the sum of individual consumption.
Meanwhile, the ABC runs a month-long ‘War on Waste’, where Australians are encouraged to “tackle overconsumption and waste in their daily lives” by cutting down on their coffee cups, organising a plastic-free life and utilising toy libraries which reduce landfill. Instead of political solutions for, say, the massive environmental degradation caused by the fashion industry, we get minor tweaks to the market economy, like a suggestion to put a new “sustainability rating” label on clothing (that awareness raising again). Or remember when we were all urged to stop buying Coles and Woolworths brand milk to support Australian dairy farmers suffering from a drastic fall in milk prices, despite the fact that this was mostly due to an oversupply of powdered milk on international markets and partly a result of the immense bargaining power of the supermarket duopoly?
The problem, according to Jensen, is that these responses “incorrectly assign blame to the individual (and most especially to individuals who are particularly powerless) instead of to those who actually wield power in this system and to the system itself…” Jensen says:
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”
Even so, I understand why these responses are seductive. We are now at a stage, at least within British theorist Mark Fisher’s concept of capitalist realism, as defined in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?, where it is impossible to even imagine a coherent political alternative to capitalism; where it may, in fact, be easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the globalised market economy. So, we create convenient fictions within this structure, little balms to soothe our conscience, “the fantasy being that western consumerism, far from being intrinsically implicated in systemic global inequalities, could itself solve them. All we have to do is buy the right products.”
Talking all of this over with a friend soon after my Hadal zone blues, we both fell into a kind of despondency. “It makes me feel like a piece of shit whatever I do,” she said, thinking the only alternative was to become apathetic or nihilistic. But that’s not it at all—none of us are pieces of shit (ok, maybe some of us), because individuals do not create these crises, and neither do they solve them. The alternative is to remain passionate and informed, but to reject the definition of oneself as a mere consumer whose resistance tactics are limited to ‘buy or not buy’ and whose goal is simply to navigate the market economy with the highest personal integrity. Instead, it is to see oneself as a citizen, with a range of resistance tactics—voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organising, lobbying, protesting and many more. Jensen, in particular, has rather more radical aims, the primary of which is “acting decisively to stop the industrial economy.”
“[This] is very scary for a number of reasons, including but not restricted to the fact that we’d lose some of the luxuries (like electricity) to which we’ve grown accustomed, and the fact that those in power might try to kill us if we seriously impede their ability to exploit the world — none of which alters the fact that it’s a better option than a dead planet. Any option is a better option than a dead planet.”
Even if you find that a bridge too far, perhaps the most limiting aspect of the idea of simple living and personal fidelity as a political act is that it is oriented entirely towards the notion of harm reduction, ignoring the fact that humans can help the Earth as well as harm it. “We can rehabilitate streams, we can clear out invasive species, we can remove dams,” Jensen says. “We can disrupt a political system tilted toward the rich as well as an extractive economic system, we can destroy the industrial economy that is destroying the real, physical world.”
Whether any of this makes a jot of difference to pollution in the Hadal zone, I have no idea. Since it is inaccessible to all but a handful of submersibles, I’m not sure what hope we have of getting down to the trenches to clean up the mess. Maybe it’s not even a good candidate for talking about the importance of environmentalism, especially when there are so many other technicolour and familiar ecosystems to serve as the poster child for conservation.
For one thing, we can’t even speak of the ocean without words like vast and alien. This is why our ocean agencies have never matched the achievements of our space agencies. There is no collective search for the sublime in the deep, it provokes nothing of the wonder over the distances travelled by Voyager, pushing out into the void, an emblem for humanity. We are told that we are all made of stardust, and that this is exalting; yet rarely that, as liquid beings, we are the ocean’s way of reaching out, and that we carry a weight of it inside us, on our skin and in our stomachs. Ledgard reminds us that it is our first home, the crucible of all life. One day we will all end up there, and I still hope for somewhere nice to spend eternity. As Ledgard writes,
“We cannot talk with definition about our souls, but it is certain that we will decompose…Some dust of our bodies may end up in a horse, wasp, cockerel, frog, flower, or leaf, but for every one of these sensational assemblies there are a quintillion microorganisms...What is likely is that, sooner or later, carried in the wind and in rivers, or your graveyard engulfed in the sea, a portion of each of us will be given new life in the cracks, vents, or pools of molten sulphur on which the tonguefish skate. You will be in Hades, the staying place of the spirits of the dead…Hades is evolved to the highest state of simplicity. It is stable. Whereas you are a tottering tower, so young in evolutionary terms, and addicted to consciousness.”
This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #36. Purchase a copy here.
Michael Dulaney is a writer and journalist based in Sydney. His work has been published by Griffith Review and The Monthly, among others. He tweets to a small audience of bots at @michael_dulaney