The Fruits of Civilization (72-2) Mining


Mining is like a search-and-destroy mission. ~ American politician and environmentalist Stewart Udall

Mining gouges the ground like no other human exploitation. Great swathes of land are gashed by strip and open-pit mining. Whereas surface mining bares hidden toxic metals, underground mining brings huge volumes of noxious waste up from the bowels of the Earth.

Beyond denuding forests, prehistoric man dug for flint: the material of choice for Stone Age weaponry. Chalk and other minerals followed.

As soon as man developed metallurgy, around 40,000 BCE, metals were excavated. Gold caught the eye early on. But so did silver, copper, tin, and other metals.

In 3000 BCE, before it was known how to forge metal, Egyptians cherished weapons made from meteoric iron as “daggers from heaven.” That in no way lessened the enthusiasm to dig daggers out of the earth.

In line with other economic endeavors, industrialization took mining to a scale unimaginable mere decades earlier. Machines now easily do what no army of men ever could.

Coal is commonest material mined nowadays, but every nonrenewable resource valued by man, from gold to clay, is dug out of the ground in grotesque quantities.


Mining destroys ecosystems by driving off animals, eliminating vegetation, and ruining the soil. Any freshwater near mined sites is invariably polluted, as is the air. On southern West Virginia, coal mining on 5% of the land surface polluted 1/3rd of the region’s rivers.

Coal mining leads to widespread declines in aquatic biodiversity. ~ American biologist Ryan King

In the US, 2.4 million hectares (5.9 million acres) of natural landscape, mostly forest, was destroyed by mining between 1930 and 2000: an area equal to the state of Vermont.

By 2004, China had strip-mined at least 3.2 million hectares: an area twice the size of the capital province of Beijing, which is home to over 20 million people.

Once a targeted material has been taken to the point where further extraction is economically undesirable given available technology, the spent area is abandoned. Although many countries require reclamation plans for mining sites, undoing the environmental damage of mining is impossible.

As the contamination is thorough, land never really recovers from mining. At best, only ~15% of reclaimed real estate can be made to resemble anything natural for over a century after being mined.

Technology advances have made deep-sea mining possible. It is impossible to contain the pollution generated by seafloor mining. As the ocean floor is essentially unregulated, miners should have no problem destroying oceanic ecosystems in vast areas without repercussions.