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EMMA CRITCHLEY – COMMON HERITAGE

Climate Justice Week is coming to the University of Sussex this month, bringing with it a series of workshops, talks and activities. It platforms collaborative learning, community building, knowledge and skill sharing between students and lecturers, as well as outside speakers. While highlighting a need for sweeping systemic change, it also discusses the efforts we can all make as individuals – from thinking harder about our diet and minimising the amount of waste we generate to recycling and thinking about how our money could be more ethically used.

As part of this, the Attenborough Centre For The Creative Arts is hosting a pioneering screening, followed by a panel discussion, from artist Emma Critchley. Deploying photography, film, sound and installation, she seeks to present a more sustainable and just society, acknowledging that we all need to drive change. The economic system of never-ending growth and exploitation is driving the climate and ecological crises. 

Coming to ACCA on Tues 23 April, her film Common Heritage stands as an urgent response to the rush of deep-sea mining for rare earth minerals, exposing how reverberant layers of industrialisation, colonialism and territorial claim have affected the way we relate to our environment.

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It centres around a speech by Arvid Pardo, the Maltese Ambassador to the UN. In 1967, his words instigated the Common Heritage of Mankind principle and after 10 years of international conference and debate, bore the Law of the Sea treaty. This serves as the provocation for Critchley’s film, which has been narrated by writer Gwyneth Jones. It presents dystopian science fiction motifs harmonised with a poetic montage of deep-sea exploration archive footage. The juxtaposition both questions our current state and our future engagement with this critical frontier.

We were able to speak with Emma Critchley, to discover more about her creative process, the potential impact of exploiting the oceans and how a new age of colonialism may be dawning.

What gave you the idea to use that Arvid Pardo speech as a jumping-off point?

The film doesn’t recreate the speech as such but uses the structure. In its proposition, Pardo’s speech was revolutionary for its time and is highly significant in the field of ocean governance, as it instigated over ten years of international negotiations, which resulted in the Common Heritage of (Hu)Mankind treaty.  To date this is still the only treaty in place governing the High Seas. Right now, however, negotiations are taking place to try and draw up new regulations for managing the High Seas, but it has held its place for over a decade and is globally highly regarded. So, when thinking how to structure the edit of the film I thought what better place to start than the premise of this speech. 

While many international bodies and charities are highlighting the danger being caused to our environment, the industries who profit from exploiting natural resources have significant wealth and influence, particularly amongst governments and media outlets. Can art be a way of redressing this balance and help people to make up their own minds about the risks we face globally?

Yes, I think art can provide a fantastic space of reflection for what is going on in the world, it’s often a good mirror to what is unfolding around us. To me art is at its best when it is less concerned with conveying a single message, which as you say is what we get from other information sources, but more about offering different perspectives, bringing together multiple truths and knowledge systems and implicating the audience to think and ask questions for and of themselves.

Have the old-world European empires been replaced by multinational business concerns? 

In relation to deep-sea mining, the political and economic domination that is at play still feels very colonial in its nature. The big companies who are pushing to mine and have the financial and technical means to do so are based in countries like Canada, Belgium, Norway, China and hold licences to explore (with the intention to exploit) in the waters of Pacific nations like the Cook Islands, Tonga, Nauru and Kiribati; areas known to have minerals within their national jurisdiction. Companies of course have to have agreements with these countries but details like accountability in the case of an environmental disaster are often unclear. The ocean is a source of income, food, employment and is of huge cultural significance in most island communities and any harm to life in this space will have huge social and economic consequences. It’s a narrative we’ve seen before. 

Some people might suggest that the Earth’s oceans are huge, so the impact of deep-sea mining would be minimal. Just how important are aquatic ecosystems?

From working with scientists over the years, the glaringly obvious thing to me with regards to the deep ocean is that there is so much we just don’t know – it’s a statement I’ve heard over again from scientific experts. Knowing so little about the life and ecosystems that exist in the deep-sea, how are we ever really going to know the consequences until it’s too late?

We do know that life in the deep ocean has been evolving, un-touched for millennia and operates on a different time-scale. The polymetallic nodules for example, which are the main focus for mining at the moment, form at a growth rate of 2-15mm per million years. Beautifully balanced ecosystems that have evolved over millions of years will be disrupted. We also know that water does not stay in one place, it is not compartmentalised; the ocean and its inhabitants are a global dynamic, interconnected ecosystem. We also know that terrestrial life relies on the ocean as a regulator of the Earth’s climate, as a carbon sink and it contributes to 50% of the air we breathe. There is potentially a lot to lose.

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Society’s thirst for rare earth minerals, and the technology which uses them, is increasing almost exponentially. Are there difficult decisions ahead, or can we now take action to tackle the damage caused by their mining?

I think the best way of mitigating the potential damage caused by deep-sea mining is to not do it, it’s as simple as that. We need to question the narratives we are told about why we need to start mining and remember that the companies propagating these narratives have invested huge amounts of money in deep-sea mining research and tech. 

One common narrative claim is that we need to mine certain minerals from the seabed for batteries, especially to support the green revolution. However, this argument doesn’t hold up under scrutiny . In a brilliant episode of the “Anglerfish Chronicles” podcast, Khadija Stewart interviewed Bobbi-Jo Dobush, who made some insightful points. Firstly, that lithium, the key mineral used in batteries, cannot actually be mined from the seabed – there isn’t enough. Secondly, cobalt and manganese, which are found in existing batteries and could potentially be mined from the seabed, are not part of any new or future battery innovations. This essentially blows this narrative out of the water.

There’s also the narrative that it’s needed for smart technology: the phones and laptops we use in our daily lives. Our rate of production and consumption of this technology has to slow down, it’s critical for the environmental situation as a whole. But I think we also need to use technology that is designed to be open and modular, so individual parts can be recycled instead of discarding entire devices. Companies like Fairphone are already implementing these principles. The circular economy model for example, where resources are reused and recycled is gaining traction. There is already a vast quantity of these minerals out of the ground – in our homes, in landfills and waste dumps. If devices were designed for longevity and recyclability, we would not need to continually extract new minerals. While big societal changes are required, adopting a circular model for consumer technologies is an important step we must take to help the environment.

Emma Critchley’s film, Common Heritage, comes to Brighton’s ACCA on Tues 23 April, as part of Sussex University’s Climate Justice Week.

Find out more at: www.attenboroughcentre.com 

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