The Real Cost of Plundering the Planet’s Resources

The town of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, doesn’t have a lot to say for itself. Its Web site, which features a photo of a flowering tree next to a rusty bridge, notes that the town is “conveniently located between Asheville and Boone.” According to the latest census data, it has 2,332 residents and a population

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The town of Spruce Pine, North Carolina, doesn’t have a lot to say for itself. Its Web site, which features a photo of a flowering tree next to a rusty bridge, notes that the town is “conveniently located between Asheville and Boone.” According to the latest census data, it has 2,332 residents and a population density of 498.1 per square mile. A recent story in the local newspaper concerned the closing of the Hardee’s on Highway 19E; this followed an incident, back in May, when a fourteen-year-old boy who’d eaten a biscuit at the restaurant began to hallucinate and had to be taken to the hospital. Without Spruce Pine, though, the global economy might well unravel.

Spruce Pine’s planetary importance follows from an accident of geology. Some three hundred and eighty million years ago, during the late Devonian period, the continent of Africa was drifting toward what would eventually become eastern North America. The force of its movement pressed the floor of a Paleozoic sea deep into the earth’s mantle, where, in effect, it melted. Over the course of tens of millions of years, the molten rock cooled to form deposits of exceptionally pure mica and quartz, which were then pushed back up toward the surface. In the twentieth century, Spruce Pine’s mica was mined to make windows for coal-burning stoves and insulation for vacuum tubes. In the computer age, it’s the town’s quartz that’s critical.

Silicon chips are essentially made of quartz, although this is a bit like saying that the “Mona Lisa” is essentially made of linseed oil. Manufacturing microchips is phenomenally complex and supremely exacting. The process generally begins with quartz’s cousin, quartzite, which consists in large measure of silicon dioxide. Under very high heat, and in the presence of carbon, the quartzite gives up most of its oxygen. Then acid and a great deal more heat are applied, until the silicon reaches a purity level of 99.9999999 per cent, or, as it’s known in the business, “nine nines.” At this point, the silicon is ready to be fashioned into a “boule,” or ingot, that weighs upward of two hundred pounds and consists of a single perfectly aligned crystal. It is here that Spruce Pine’s quartz comes into play.

To form a boule, pure silicon has to be heated in a special crucible to twenty-seven hundred degrees Fahrenheit. The crucible must be tough enough to withstand this temperature, and, at the same time, it must have the right chemical composition, so it won’t introduce contaminants. The only substance that meets both these criteria is high-purity quartz, and one of the only spots where the right sort of quartz can be found is Spruce Pine.

Spruce Pine’s quartz is so valuable that, as the Vancouver-based journalist Vince Beiser observes in his book “The World in a Grain,” almost everything about it, outside of its purity, is a closely guarded secret. The company that owns the town’s largest mine—Sibelco, a Belgian conglomerate—doesn’t publish production figures. When contractors arrive to make repairs at the mine, they are reportedly led to the equipment in blindfolds. According to documents filed in a case that the company once brought against a former employee, it tries to divvy up its contracting jobs, so that no individual can learn too much, and for the same reason it purchases its supplies from multiple venders.

All this stealth, Ed Conway suggests in his new book, “Material World: The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization” (Knopf), is justified. “There are few such cases where we are so utterly reliant on a single place,” he writes. He quotes an unnamed industry veteran who notes that someone flying a crop duster over Spruce Pine and releasing “a very particular powder” could “end the world’s production of semiconductors” within six months. No production of semiconductors would mean no production of computers, cell phones, automobiles, microwaves, game consoles, fitness trackers, digital watches, digital cameras, televisions—the list goes on and on.

“Even in devices that don’t have ‘smart’ in their name, mechanical linkages have long since given way to a network of semiconductors,” Conway, a London-based journalist, observes. “Nearly every economic activity, nearly every dollar of global GDP, relies in one way or another on the microscopic switches of semiconductors.” Prudently, he does not reveal what that very particular powder is.

Of the ten largest corporations in the world, six are tech companies. In 2src21, fifty per cent of Americans said they spend more than half the day in front of a screen, and a recent survey found that kids in the United States devote almost seven hours a day to staring at pixels. Statistics like these can produce the sense that matter doesn’t matter all that much anymore. Conway thinks that this is an illusion, and a dangerous one. Contemporary society continues to rely on raw materials, like Spruce Pine’s quartz, taken from the earth. Indeed, extraction rates, far from slowing, keep accelerating. These days, Conway reckons, humanity mines, drains, and blasts more stuff out of the ground each year than it did in total during the roughly three hundred millennia between the birth of the species and the start of the Korean War. This comes with immense consequences, both ecological and social, even if we don’t attend to them.

Consider sand, the first of Conway’s not so dark materials. According to a 2src22 report from the United Nations Environment Programme, global demand for “sand resources” has tripled in the past two decades, to something like a hundred trillion pounds a year; this amounts to almost thirty-five pounds a day for every person on the planet. A lot of sand (though no one seems to know exactly how much) goes into land building. Among the world’s biggest sand importers is Singapore, which has grown by more than fifty square miles since the nineteen-sixties. Among the major exporters is Vietnam, where sand dredging along the Mekong Delta has caused so much erosion that whole villages’ worth of homes have been swept downstream.

“Where once there were riverbanks, today there are sheer drops into the water,” Conway writes. Such is the hunger for sand that, in many parts of the globe, an illicit trade has sprung up. In India, so-called sand mafias are rumored to pay off cops and politicians. According to the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a Delhi-based advocacy group, at least a dozen civilians and two government officials were killed by sand mafias between December, 2src2src, and March, 2src22. (This was down from twenty-three civilians, five journalists and activists, and eleven government officials killed during the two years prior.)

A lot of sand also goes into building buildings, not to mention dams, bridges, overpasses, and roadways. Sand and gravel are the major ingredients in concrete, some seven hundred billion tons of which now slather the earth. Often, concrete is reinforced with rebar, which is made with iron, the third of Conway’s six materials. (The material I’ve skipped here is salt, which, Conway says, is essential to just about every chemical process that’s ever been invented.)

Worldwide, nearly three billion tons of iron ore are extracted each year. Australia is currently the leading source, and its biggest mines are in the Pilbara, a region in the country’s dry, dusty northwest. Iron from the Pilbara is mined by blasting the landscape apart and then carting away the pieces, using, as Conway puts it, “church-sized diggers.” Just the other day, several people died in the Pilbara when a truck carrying ammonium nitrate, an explosive used in the blasts, collided with another vehicle.

Conway devotes a hefty chunk of his discussion of iron to the story of the rock shelters in Juukan Gorge. These were sacred to two of the Pilbara’s Aboriginal peoples, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and the Pinikura, and contained artifacts that were some forty thousand years old. After assuring the communities that “all reasonable endeavors” would be made to minimize the impact of its operations in the area, the mining company Rio Tinto blew the rock shelters up. (The company has since apologized for what happened.)

“Perhaps what makes the destruction of the Juukan caves most disturbing is that we are all, one way or another, complicit,” Conway writes. Most of Australia’s iron ore is shipped off to China, where it’s converted into steel and used to construct the factories and machinery that churn out the phones, consoles, chargers, T-shirts, running shoes, housewares, and assorted tchotchkes the rest of the world buys.

Like many books in its genre—about how x number of y items explain z—“Material World” has trouble sticking to its chosen integer. One of Conway’s six raw materials is oil, but into this category he also squishes natural gas. Both are obviously fossil fuels, but, as Conway himself notes, they have distinctive properties that make them essential in different ways. Oil powers the transportation sector—cars, trucks, airplanes, and supertankers—and its by-products go into plastics, which show up in just about every consumer product you can name, from air mattresses to zippers. Natural gas, meanwhile, is primarily used to generate heat and electricity. It’s also a key ingredient for synthesizing nitrogen fertilizer, without which, it is estimated, half the world’s eight billion people would starve.

“Quit hogging the covers!”

Cartoon by Ollie Wootton

“Much of what we eat today is, one way or another, a fossil fuel product,” Conway observes. Despite a lot of talk about cutting back on fossil fuels, the world, he points out, is consuming just as much oil and gas as ever before (and very nearly as much coal). But, if Conway is concerned about our continuing reliance on fossil fuels, he’s also concerned about what it will take to replace them. Two of the alternatives are solar and wind. Conway calculates that building enough wind turbines to shutter a hundred-megawatt natural-gas plant would take fifty thousand tons of concrete and thirty thousand tons of iron. Meanwhile, a transportation sector that runs on electricity will require a whole lot more of his fourth material, copper. A recent report from S. & P. Global predicted that, worldwide, copper consumption will double over the next twelve years and that “there is a looming mismatch” between the available supply and the growing “copper demand resulting from the energy transition.”

Conway visits the Chuquicamata copper mine, in northern Chile—Chuqui, for short—which is believed to be the largest open-pit mine on the globe. When a blast goes off at the bottom of the pit, more than half a mile down, the noise, he says, is “shattering.”

Industrial mining operations began at the site a century ago. In the intervening decades, most of the best-quality ore there, and indeed around the globe, has been churned through. “Even as people demanded more copper the earth became considerably less willing to give it up,” Conway writes. In 19srcsrc, fifty tons of rock yielded a ton of copper; to obtain that ton today, some eight hundred tons of rock must be processed.

Next to the Chuquicamata mine sits a town of the same name, which was abandoned in the early two-thousands, as waste rock began tumbling into people’s gardens and residents fell ill. (The citizens of the town took to calling it Chuqui qui mata, or “Chuqui which kills.”) By now, the waste has piled up high enough to consume a quarter of the vacant houses and a seven-story hospital.

Lithium—the last of Conway’s materials—is equally essential to electrification. A typical electric-car battery contains nearly twenty pounds of the metal, which, in the era of climate change, has been dubbed “white gold.” Like many strategic resources—see, for example, high-purity quartz—lithium is unevenly distributed. More than three-quarters of the known resources lie in just four countries: Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Australia. Competition over lithium supplies is one of the many sources of tension between the U.S. and China. Conway fears a replay of the nineteenth century, “when European countries colonised their way through much of the world, seeking rubber here, copper there.”

The best option he sees for the future lies in what he calls “unmanufacturing.” Iron, copper, and lithium, in contrast to oil, can be recycled. Faced with climate change on the one hand and the material demands of new energy infrastructure on the other, perhaps humanity will finally figure out how to reuse the gazillions of tons of resources it’s already dug up. Conway doesn’t believe this will happen anytime soon—“We are still a long, long way from that promised land,” he cautions—but it is at least theoretically possible.

Chip Colwell, too, argues that it’s time to rethink our ties to the material world. But Colwell is an archeologist, and, as such, he takes a longer view. In “So Much Stuff: How Humans Discovered Tools, Invented Meaning, and Made More of Everything” (Chicago), he seeks to explain how Homo sapiens went from knapping chert to ordering granite countertops. What happened, he asks, “that led our species from having nothing to needing everything?”

Colwell, a former curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, divides humanity’s association with “stuff” into three periods. At the start of the first (and by far the longest), our hominin ancestors realized that some of the objects that were lying around—rocks, primarily—could be fashioned into implements. By two and a half million years ago, hominins—it’s uncertain which species they belonged to—had mastered what’s known as “secondary tool use”; they could take a stone and bash it against a different kind of stone to produce a blade with one sharp edge. This method of tool production continued, pretty much unchanged, for a million years or so, until some other group of hominins—probably Homo erectus—made a breakthrough: they figured out how to make stone tools with two sharp edges. Meanwhile, the story goes, humans began to evolve in concert with their technologies. Their hand axes allowed them to chop up other animals (and also, presumably, plants); this, in turn, allowed them to devote less effort to digestion and put more toward cogitation. The result was a feedback loop.

“Bigger and smarter brains led to the ability to create better tools, which in turn provided more energy for bigger and smarter brains,” Colwell writes. Eventually, early humans became so dependent on their tools that they couldn’t do without them.

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