As the mining industry seeks riches from Mongolia to the Pacific Islands, and new territory on the ocean floor, the methods remain the same: secure the terrain, steal the resources and clear out, leaving a terrible mess behind.
January 09th, 2024
“The danger,” says reviewer Alex Varty, “is that our species’ technological arrogance will once again rush into an environment that is not well understood, ruin it and move on.”
by Alexander Varty
I pity the poor bookseller that has to rack Christopher Pollon’s groundbreaking study of the international mining industry, Pitfall: The Race to Mine the World’s Most Vulnerable Places (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Institute $39.95). It’s not that this work isn’t going to sell: it is, and it should, dealing as it does with a hidden and ongoing catastrophe that is already affecting us all. But where to shelve it?
Logically, perhaps, Pitfall should be placed in the Business and Economics section. Much of Pollon’s text has to do with the unseen economic infrastructure that supports the mining industry, whether that comes in the form of speculative stock ventures featuring Vancouver-based “zombie companies” or through government subsidies and outlandishly favourable tax deals, often from small and debt-stricken nations that can ill afford them. Also under consideration is the role that rare minerals such as lithium, cobalt, niobium, and tantalum will play in the emerging “green economy”—without them, the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy will be impossible. Ironically, as Pollon points out, the extraction and processing of these minerals requires vast amounts of electricity, most often generated by coal-fuelled power plants.
Which raises another possible placement: Science and the Environment. Published with the imprimatur of the David Suzuki Institute, Pitfall: The Race to Mine the World’s Most Vulnerable Places looks at a variety of emerging technologies, both those used in the manufacture of such things as EV and cellphone batteries and in mining itself. Especially fascinating, although equally worrying, are the advances in robotic technology that will allow new mines to go deeper than humanly possible—inside the earth’s crust, but also to the bottom of the world’s oceans, where millions of tons of mineral-rich nodules lie on the surface of vast abyssal plains.
The “Places” in its title suggests that Pitfall might also find a home in the Travel section. In addition to the Pacific islands of Tonga, Nauru, and Kiribati, where nearby ocean canyons are being explored as a possible source of profit, Pollon’s explorations take us to Timmins, Ontario—where his grandfather dug for gold and nickel before dying of silicosis, the “miner’s disease”—to Inner Mongolia’s Bayan Obo mine, created thanks to the unpublicized ethnic cleansing of some 150,000 locals, and to the world’s richest island, New Guinea, where entire mountains of gold and copper are being reduced to rubble against a background of Indigenous unrest, corporate secrecy and government-backed killings.
And with that in mind, I’d like to propose a fourth option for puzzled booksellers: True Crime.
What may be surprising to many—although probably not to those of us who, like Pollon himself, have family history with the mining industry—is that the rapacious greed of the Gilded Age robber barons such as BC’s own Robert Dunsmuir lives on a century later. The scene of the crime has shifted from the coal mines of Northumberland, Kentucky and Vancouver Island to the so-called “global south,” but the methods remain the same: secure the terrain, steal the resources and move on, leaving a terrible mess behind.
In places like New Guinea, the corporate thieves are abetted by politicians who contend that since Western nations grew rich by despoiling their own terrain, Third World counties should be allowed the same. Increasingly, though, the residents of areas affected by mining’s devastation and toxic aftermath are organizing, often with the aid of environmentally focused NGOs. Despite being met by a torrent of misinformation and, sometimes, lethal force, activists are beginning to win enough legal and public-opinion battles that the words “social licence” are starting to be heard more frequently in corporate boardrooms. This is encouraging, and Pitfall is not entirely a catalogue of past disasters, current worries and future horrors.
The downside of victories on the ground, however, is the aforementioned move to explore for minerals under the sea, and this provides Pitfall with additional urgency. Under the guise of the green economy, companies such as Vancouver’s The Metals Company (TMC) are touting deep-sea trawling by vast robotic submersibles as a means of supplying Big Tech with the rare minerals it needs. It remains to be seen whether this is an economically viable plan or simply a way of excavating the pockets of credulous investors, but the danger is that our species’ technological arrogance will once again rush into an environment that is not well understood, ruin it and move on.
But move on to where? As there is no Planet B, the answer to that question can be found under Science Fiction. 9781771649124
Alexander Varty is a senior West Coast arts journalist living on unceded Snuneymuxw territory.