No such thing as “green” transition

Mining is devastating to the environment. The explosion in mining since the 1970s is one of the key reasons we have climate, water, air and multiple other crises. As a species we have begun to devour the Earth, and the environment simply can’t cope with our voracious appetites. We are now trying to convince ourselves that we will achieve a “green” transition if we double the amount of mining.

The closer you live to a mine, the more devastating the effects will be on you. Mining expert Pietro Jarre told me about how, after an inevitable mining waste disaster in Andalucia, Spain, they closed the mine “not because the ore was no longer available, but because, in essence, the economy of that region, of Andalucia, was no longer so poor, hence the local administration and the politicians—and even the society as a whole—could afford the idea of stopping mining activities … From a situation of extreme poverty, the society surrounding the mine had reached a level that would allow the people to live without the mine.”

Modern mining is even more devastating to local communities because it offers so few opportunities to the community, as Pietro explains. “Now, what has changed dramatically from 200 years ago, is that while mines 200 years ago lasted many decades—and so when a mine was opened, a new society would be created, with schools, infrastructure, houses and the like—the new mines which are created now in Africa, for instance, last very often for one decade, if not less. And so that change in the social conditions—the sudden wealth created by the mining, and the sudden poverty created by shutting down the mines—is a much quicker process.”

The mining machines are much bigger and thus more destructive. The jobs are more technical. Thus, what often happens is that mining companies arrive and set up what are essentially occupation forts. The skilled worked are brought in for the period of the mining, and the locals at best get menial jobs. What also tends to happen is that prices in the locality rise. So if you are a member of the broad community it becomes more expensive for you to live in an area whose environment is being ruined.

So, why do we mine? It’s simple. Economic growth is increasingly based on minerals and metals, and on the production of waste, which is in fact the secret driver of modern economic growth. We create current wealth by overdrawing on and damaging Nature. Rich countries consume about three or more Earths’ worth of resources a year to support their lifestyles. The two extra Earths are extracted from the Earth’s finite reserves. We impoverish the future to live rich in the present. Worse, the extraction and consumption of these metals and minerals cause massive pollution and warming.

Digital is hugely demanding of materials, metals, minerals. There can be 70 materials in a smartphone, which weighs about 130 grams and will have caused about 90 kg of toxic mining waste and 14,000 liters of waste water to manufacture. And all the while we have convinced ourselves that it’s all in the Cloud, that digital is somehow green and clean, when, in fact, it’s the exact opposite.

What’s the solution? We must learn to live with much less materials. We must use the materials we have for as long as possible. We must never allow those materials to become waste. They must be reusable. In digital, for starters, we need phones that last a minimum of 10 years and laptops that last a minimum of 20 years.

Pietro Jarre: No such thing as sustainable mining

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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