My colleague walked into my office and said “I’m engaged.”  “Wow” I replied, “I’m so happy for you.”  After the celebratory hugs and laughter, she said, “I want to have a ring of sustainably harvested platinum.”  I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Platinum is mined,” I said.  “Mining is not sustainable – we use up what comes out of mines, and, eventually, it will all be used up.  Maybe you mean recycled platinum. Where on earth did you hear about sustainably harvested platinum?”.  To me, it was a public relations ploy by a jewelry company.

I’ve learned more about mining and sustainability and recycled precious metals in the past decade. I still don’t know what sustainable means to most people – it is a wonderful catchword bantered about that can cover everything from eating fish to the new green energy-craze.  And I certainly don’t understand why I see the word ‘harvest’ in place of mining today.  I think it is another sugar-coating for a process that is difficult and dirty at best.  At its worst, mining is devastating to people, their communities, and the environment.

I had forgotten this engagement ring until recently reading an article on deep-sea mining for the metals we think we need to increase green energy to move rapidly away from a fossil-fuel economy.  This was an excellent, well-written, and highly researched article on the state of exploration for mining the sea floor.  The mining companies want to know how to do it, and marine biologists, climate scientists, and environmental advocates want to know how this will impact the biota that live on the sea floor, how sediments will circulate and affect ocean temperature and currents that drive the global weather patterns, and how the mining itself will affect communities near the sites as well as who process mega-tonnage of materials to extract the targeted metals.  We know so little.

But I was disturbed, very disturbed, to read in the article’s subtitle that the mining of the ocean’s floor was called ‘harvesting’ and that the mining would ‘pluck’ the nodules to bring to the surface. In my experience, the word ‘harvest’ applies to things we grow as crops.  We normally don’t harvest native forests, but it is fair to say we harvest trees from plantations in which trees were planted with the purpose of cutting them down for our use.  We think of autumn as the harvest season when we reap the benefits of nature’s and agriculture’s bounty – wheat, apples, squash, tomatoes, corn – a whole host of yummy food.  We don’t use the word harvest indiscriminately, however.  We ‘gather eggs’, ‘make hay’, ‘milk the cows’.

We don’t harvest coal from the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia.  We ‘strip mine’ – blasting and bulldozing the tops off mountains to recover the thin layers of coal.  We push that mountain top into the valleys and streams – and most of the time, coal companies don’t reclaim the land like they say they will.  This, in no way, resembles a harvest or plucking of coal.

As for the word pluck, I might daintily pluck a dead rose from the bush or pluck a grape from a cluster on a charcuterie board.  I pluck my eyebrows – quickly wrenching each hair out by its roots to minimize the pain.  A more vivid and less bucolic plucking of chicken feathers takes place in enormous meat-packing factories across the world. That is not dainty but hot, dirty, and dangerous.  We just don’t see it everyday.

And we won’t see the dredging of the sea floor – scraping sediments up in vast quantities, stirring up the mud, and killing whatever life there is in the mined area.  We don’t even know what the life is.  We don’t know how the sediments will affect the movement of currents or the stratified temperature zones.  We don’t know how much sediment will be moved to recover parts per million of the metals.

We don’t know how messing with our ocean environment will affect our planet . Maybe even worse than using fossil-fuels?  We just don’t know.