Rocks and Hard Places, by Richard Moody, is subtitled "The Globalization of Mining." I picked up the book because I thought it would be about mining. I was disappointed that it turned out to be about the impact of mining on the environment.
Published in 2007, the book examines the environmental record of the industry mostly in the 20th and 21st century. The few references to older events - like how the social problems of Cornwall stem from mining during the industrial revolution, or the environmental disaster that Nauru is due to phosphate mining - further support the argument that mining is intrinsically harmful to the environment and ultimately to humanity. Further evidence of its harmfulness is provided by accounts of how mining destroys the environment; the terrible diseases that afflict miners and those living near mines; the injustice and repression that governments carry out on behalf of mining companies or that the companies do themselves; the unfair labor practices where artisanal miners work in slave like conditions and even children as young as 5 are put to work. The harm done is bad enough, but it is worsened by the cynical way the mining industry has subverted efforts to mitigate the effects of its actions. That they have succeeded is perhaps due to a clever use of language, getting oxymoronic phrases like sustainable mining (as if there can be anything sustainable about crushing rocks and ripping up the earth) to be accepted as part of normal discourse. While doing so, the industry actively seeks to secure legal cover for its activities. As the author summarized it - they have ensured that enforcement of their rights is compulsory while discharging their obligations is voluntary. The success of methods used by the mining industry, a seeming willingness to compromise; is contrasted by the failure of big oil's more aggressive methods of fighting evidence for human caused climate change. Also, since the book was about solid minerals mining, there was no mention of the effects of crude oil extraction, so Nigeria was not mentioned even once. Otherwise, I am sure the disaster in the Niger Delta would have been mentioned in every chapter. Given how governments are complicit in the crimes of the companies and how bad Nigeria's government is, it is probably a good thing that mining is not as advanced as crude extraction. And so despite all the recent hysterical shrieking about gold in Kebbi State, we should be grateful that we have been spared another avenue for misgovernance.
Mining is one of the pillars of human progress (tangentially, one of the biggest arguments against claims of advanced prehuman species and societies is the absence of mines). While the book does not dispute its historical necessity, it definitely questions it now. It argues that there is no need to keep mining some materials because they can be easily recycled. If however, humans keep mining, the earth will eventually run out of metals. This is because metals can only be created through stellar nuclear fusion and distributed via supernovae. Since we are in a stable part of the galaxy, that source is closed to us and if it were, we would all be dead. When we run out of planetary sources, civilization will collapse or change drastically. The alternatives are ramping up recycling, getting mining companies to move operations to space, or alternatives materials are developed, like how humanity moved from the stone age to the age of metals. The second option is a prospect that excites me. Asteroid mining is a staple of science fiction. However it is quite feasible giving the advancements in robotics. Further, so far as the available knowledge stands, space is not so delicate an environment as earth. Thus the impact of mining will not be detrimental. Additionally, the resources available out there are mind boggling. An asteroid like 16 Psyche can give every person on earth $93 billion worth of gold. Considering that currently, a gold mine with high grade ore yields about 44 grams per ton, perhaps mining firms should be given incentives to look spacewards. There are other asteroids that have similar concentrations of materials that are rare here.
Despite my resignation to the inevitability of human action destroying the planet, I found the book to be a depressing read. That I would be long gone when the chickens of our actions come home to roost does not reduce the sorrow I feel at our selfishness and stupidity. The attitude that one need not worry if something does not affect one is probably the reason why the mining companies and others who benefit from it do not care about the harm their activities cause. This is the attitude that sneers at environmentalists concerns, because it assumes the satisfaction of the wants of existing human wants is the most important goal there is, even at the expense of those who are unable to protect their own interests either because they do not currently exist or because they have less power.
That is why I am standing against Thanos for president, because I would be more discriminating in my environmentalism, seeking only to eliminate those creatures whose behavior is a net negative to the environment.