A mere sixty years ago, seventy miles deep within a pristine rain forest in New Guinea, a mountain considered sacred to the local indigenous population rose 14,000 feet into the sky. Visit the crest of that mountain today, and what will you find? A scarred and poisoned landscape surrounding a vast pit one mile wide and half a mile deep. This is the Grasberg Mine, one of the largest and highest open-pit mines in the world.
Christopher Pollon’s book Pitfall: The Race to Mine the World's Most Vulnerable Places, published last October, takes us to mining operations around the globe, focusing on the economic, environmental and social devastation surrounding them. It’s a problem that is getting worse, as the world’s consumption of the metals being mined is growing at an ever-faster rate. There are some scientists who believe that our demand for metal will soon outstrip our technological ability to mine it, and the cutthroat economics behind trying to keep up with demand promises to bring even more depredation on the world’s vulnerable peoples and places.
Metal and mineral extraction grew almost five-fold between 1979 and 2017. The technology needed to achieve a slowing of the rate of global warming in the coming decades is estimated to require some 3 billion tons of metals and minerals. The industrialized mining of just seven of the world’s most needed metals already contributes 10% of global greenhouse gasses.
Pollon notes that there was a similar cycle of increased demand coupled with a swift evolution of the mining industry. Up until the middle of the 19th Century, mining was more of a small-scale traditional enterprise, working rich veins of minerals. But as those rich veins were increasingly becoming tapped out, the new technology of open-pit mining was developed. Now, huge expanses of low-quality ore could be exploited. Without this new mining technology, it would have been difficult to meet the greatly increased demand for the copper needed for electrification, for the iron, gypsum, gravel and other metals and minerals are what enabled to growth of the transportation system and of cities. Our modern society owes its existence to the development of open-pit and strip mining.
But this sort of mining is much more environmentally destructive...and it’s also expensive. This, in turn, led to the creation of huge multinational mining corporations powerful enough to run roughshod over governments and their laws and regulations, and over the people who lived in the lands targeted for exploitation.
Much of the current growth in demand for mined metals comes from our modern technology, which requires vast quantities of the so-called rare earth minerals (which actually aren’t rare at all, as they are abundant throughout the Earth’s crust; what makes them rare is the effort needed to get them out in large quantities.)
The book opens with a detailed look at the Grasberg Mine in New Guinea. The mining potential of these mountains deep in the rain forest was first surveyed by the Dutch colonial government in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until Suharto took control of Indonesia in the US-supported coup in the 1960s, with the US goal being the usual government that would be anti-Communist as well as pro-foreign investment. The first goal was achieved when the military under Suharto killed as many as one million ‘communists,’ and incarcerated a similar number. And the second goal was achieved when big transnational corporations swooped in, including mining corporations. Many more have been killed in the ensuing years as the government puts down groups protesting the mines. The environmental destruction, largely due to the tailings (leftover material from mining), which has poisoned land and rivers all the way down to the sea.
The book takes us to similar stories around the world, from Guatemala to Mongolia to the Congo. I found the section on Bolivia to be very interesting, as I’ve had some experiences there myself. He goes over the history of Cerro Rico, the mountain rich in silver that looms over the city of Potosi, 13,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. The Spanish Conquistadors mined an estimated 45,000 tons of silver from the mountain beginning in the 1500s, and Potosi was nearly as populous as London. Millions of indigenous people and Africans were enslaved to do the work, and millions died from the labor.
Today, Cerro Rico continues to be mined, though it is now mainly tin and other base metals rather than silver that are extracted. And while huge transnational corporations dominate global mining, they are not the entire story. There are still an estimated 45 million people doing small-scale mining around the world, eking out a bare existence with their hands and basic tools. The Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado documented the Serra Pelada gold mine, a vast hole, some 200 meters wide and deep, teeming with tens of thousands of barely-clothed men. I saw an exhibition of these photos, and own a book of them. If you’ve ever seen them, I’m sure they stick with you (one of them is in the image header for this diary.)
In Potosi today, there are between ten and fifteen thousand such miners, impoverished and usually living shortened lives due to lung disease. Pollon describes a visit to one of these informal mines, which brought back to me similar memories of my visit to one of these mines back in 1988. Some of the miner syndicates have developed a side income by taking tourists into the mines. On the drive up the mountain, our guide stopped at places for us to buy dynamite and coca leaf as gifts for the miners (coca leaf, from which cocaine is derived, has a long traditional use as a chewed stimulant among the indigenous people of the Andes.) The mine tunnels were low, narrow and stifling, and the occasional boom of dynamite elsewhere in the maze of tunnels sent dirt dropping from above. A couple of our small group, including myself, accepted the invitation to descend to a even deeper tunnel. After half-scrambling, half sliding down a narrow dirt chute, we emerged into a small area with more tunnels leading off. The heat was so intense, and the air so stale and thick, that it was hard to imagine how anyone could spend hours laboring down there. Because of the poor air quality, most miners forgo masks—it’s already so hard to breathe—and this is why so many miners suffer and die from lung disease. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll share more photos of this mine visit below.
But for Pollon, the story of Cerro Rico is just a preface to a more current story: the battle over control of lithium mining in Bolivia. Lithium is one of the crucial elements of our modern technology, used extensively for batteries and electronics. Sony developed the first lithium-ion batteries in 1991, at the dawn of the computer age. Today, a typical battery for an electric vehicle contains some twenty pounds of lithium. The vast salt flats of Chile and Bolivia hold extensive deposits of this element.
Enter Evo Morales, first indigenous person to be elected president of Bolivia in 2006 (the Bolivian population is over 40% indigenous.) Deeply cognizant of the history of exploitation, not only of silver, but also of quinine, rubber, tin, natural gas, and yes, even coca leaf, was determined to keep control of the mining and value-added processing of lithium in Bolivian hands. He redistributed land, he adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, he pushed for reparations from rich to poor nations for the losses from climate change, and he enacted a ‘Law of the Rights of Mother Earth,’ extending personhood and legal rights to nature, along the lines of that enjoyed by corporations in places like the United States. Still, many of his plans to nationalize resource extraction companies were stalled, corruption was stubbornly entrenched, the country remained reliant on raw material exports, and in 2019 Evo Morales was forced from office. There is speculation that outside intervention of those interested in exploiting the lithium deposits had a role in Morales being forced from office, and a year later into exile in Bolivia. Indeed, Elon Musk himself, someone with an obvious interest in access to lithium, tweeted to his 70 million followers in 2020 “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” Just being sarcastic, he later said. (I met and spoke briefly with Morales in 1991, fifteen years before he became President. At the time, he was leader of the coca leaf growers union, and I was in La Paz, where I managed to wangle a press pass to attend the first convention of coca growers from Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. But that’s a story for another day.)
In all, an interesting and informative book about a problem with a long history and an uncertain future.
A FEW PHOTOS FROM MY 1988 VISIT TO A BOLIVIAN MINE IN POTOSI
THIS WEEK’S NEW NONFICTION
- We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt's Lessons in Love and Disobedience, by Lyndsey Stonebridge. The violent unease of today’s world would have been familiar to Hannah Arendt. Tyranny, occupation, disenchantment, post-truth politics, conspiracy theories, racism, mass migration: She lived through them all. We Are Free to Change the World is a book about the Arendt we need for the twenty-first century. It tells us how and why Arendt came to think the way she did, and how to think when our own politics goes off the rails. Both a guide to Arendt’s life and work, and its dialogue with our troubled present, We Are Free to Change the World is an urgent call for us to think, as Hannah Arendt did—unflinchingly, lovingly, and defiantly—through our own unpredictable times.
- The Alternative: How to Build a Just Economy, by Nick Romeo. Confronted by the terrifying trends of the early twenty-first century – widening inequality, environmental destruction, and the immiseration of millions of workers around the world – many economists and business leaders still preach dogmas that lack evidence and create political catastrophe: Private markets are always more efficient than public ones; investment capital flows efficiently to necessary projects; massive inequality is the unavoidable side effect of economic growth; people are selfish and will only behave well with the right incentives. But a growing number of people – academic economists, business owners, policy entrepreneurs, and ordinary people – are rejecting these myths and reshaping economies around the world to reflect ethical and social values.
- Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth, by Ingrid Robeyns. Ingrid Robeyns has long written and argued for the principle she calls "limitarianism"—or the need to limit extreme wealth. This idea is gaining momentum in the mainstream – with calls to "tax the rich" and slogans like "every billionaire is a policy failure"—but what does it mean in practice?
- Sheridan’s Secret Mission: How the South Won the War After the Civil War, by Robert Cwiklik. "Cwiklik's fast-paced narrative takes us on a harrowing journey into the aftermath of the Civil War, a largely forgotten period when the White League and other Klan-like organizations dominated the South. It was a time when threats and intimidation gave way to violence and murder as the nation, weary of Reconstruction, averted its eyes from the disenfranchisement and outright persecution of former slaves. It's a story of horrifying atrocities, arrogant villains, and compelling and tragic heroes. A stunning read." — Ben Cleary
- Our Hidden Conversations: What Americans Really Think About Race and Identity, by Michele Norris. The prompt seemed simple: Race. Your Thoughts. Six Words. Please Send.
The answers, though, have been challenging and complicated. In the twelve years since award-winning journalist Michele Norris first posed that question, over half a million people have submitted their stories to The Race Card Project inbox. The stories are shocking in their depth and candor, spanning the full spectrum of race, ethnicity, identity, and class. Even at just six words, the micro-essays can pack quite a punch, revealing, fear, pain, triumph, and sometimes humor. The breadth of this work came as a surprise to Norris. For most of the twelve years she has collected these stories, many were submitted by white respondents. This unexpected panorama provides a rare 360-degree view of how Americans see themselves and one another.
Tripping on Utopia: Margaret Mead, the Cold War, and the Troubled Birth of Psychedelic Science, by Benjamin Breen. Far from the repressed traditionalists they are often painted as, the generation that survived the second World War emerged with a profoundly ambitious sense of social experimentation. In the '40s and '50s, transformative drugs rapidly entered mainstream culture, where they were not only legal, but openly celebrated. American physician John C. Lilly infamously dosed dolphins (and himself) with LSD in a NASA-funded effort to teach dolphins to talk. A tripping Cary Grant mumbled into a Dictaphone about Hegel as astronaut John Glenn returned to Earth. At the center of this revolution were the pioneering anthropologists—and star-crossed lovers—Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Convinced the world was headed toward certain disaster, Mead and Bateson made it their life’s mission to reshape humanity through a new science of consciousness expansion, but soon found themselves at odds with the government bodies who funded their work, whose intentions were less than pure. Mead and Bateson's partnership unlocks an untold chapter in the history of the twentieth century, linking drug researchers with CIA agents, outsider sexologists, and the founders of the Information Age.
Witchcraft: A History in Thirteen Trials, by Marion Gibson. A fascinating, vivid global history of witch trials across Europe, Africa, and the Americas, told through thirteen distinct trials that illuminate the pattern of demonization and conspiratorial thinking that has profoundly shaped human history. Offering a striking, dramatic story, unspooling through centuries, about the men and women who were accused—some of whom survived their trials, and some who did not—Witchcraft empowers the people who were and are victimized and marginalized, giving a voice to those who were silenced by history.
- The Allure of the Multiverse: Extra Dimensions, Other Worlds, and Parallel Universes, by Paul Halpern. The epic story of how science became besotted with the multiverse, and the controversies that ensued. The questions that brought scientists to this point are big and deep: Is reality such that anything can happen, must happen? How does quantum mechanics “choose” the outcomes of its apparently random processes? And why is the universe habitable? “The implications of quantum mechanics (a scientific theory that has passed every experimental test of it so far devised) are often bizarre — but none more so than its suggestion of a multiverse of parallel worlds. Once found only on the pages of philosophy journals and in the stories of science fiction magazines, the multiverse concept is now being taken seriously by no-nonsense physicists. In clear, accessible prose, Paul Halpern’s The Allure of the Multiverse explains how this evolution in our scientific understanding of reality has occurred.”—Paul J. Nahin, University of New Hampshire
- American Zion: A New History of Mormonism, by Benjamin E. Park. Drawing on sources that have become available only in the last two decades, Park presents a fresh, sweeping account of the Latter-day Saints: from the flight to Utah Territory in 1847 to the public renunciation of polygamy in 1890; from the Mormon leadership’s forging of an alliance with the Republican Party in the wake of the New Deal to the “Mormon moment” of 2012, which saw the premiere of The Book of Mormon musical and the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney; and beyond. In the twentieth century, Park shows, Mormons began to move ever closer to the center of American life, shaping culture, politics, and law along the way.
- American Girls: One Woman's Journey into the Islamic State and Her Sister's Fight to Bring Her Home, by Jessica Roy. Raised in a restrictive Jehovah’s Witness community in Arkansas, sisters Lori and Sam Sally eventually married a pair of brothers and settled down in Elkhart, Indiana, just around the corner from each other. And it was there that their lives totally diverged. While Lori was ultimately able to leave her violent marriage, Sam was drawn deeper into hers—and deeper into the control of a husband who slowly radicalized, via the internet, into a jihadist. With their daughter and Sam’s child from a previous relationship, the couple moved to Raqqa, Syria, where Moussa fought for ISIS and Sam, who never even converted to Islam, attempted to survive and protect her children. Sam says her husband coerced her to move, but Lori—who quit her job and worked tirelessly to try get Sam out of Syria—isn’t so sure. “Roy’s diligent research chronicles the rise of ISIS, Lori’s efforts to retrieve Sam from Syria, and Sam’s enigmatic narrative, portraying Sam as both victim and perpetrator of transgression – to what degree, Roy leaves to the reader. Timely and chilling.”
- The Last Fire Season: A Personal and Pyronatural History, by Manjula Martin. When Manjula Martin moved from the city to the woods of Northern California, she wanted to be closer to the wilderness that she had loved as a child. She was also seeking refuge from a health crisis that left her with chronic pain, and found a sense of healing through tending her garden beneath the redwoods of Sonoma County. But the landscape that Martin treasured was an ecosystem already in crisis. Wildfires fueled by climate change were growing bigger and more frequent: each autumn, her garden filled with smoke and ash, and the local firehouse siren wailed deep into the night. In 2020, when a dry lightning storm ignited hundreds of simultaneous wildfires across the West and kicked off the worst fire season on record, Martin, along with thousands of other Californians, evacuated her home in the midst of a pandemic.