Extracting the planet to death
The Red Queen's race with Alice in Through the Looking-Glass is invoked to show how our rush for ever greater economic growth is leading us nowhere.
Review by Susan Jappie
Greed for minerals has led to the quest for imperial domination throughout history. Firstly it was precious metals, like gold and silver that were used to fund further expansion to other countries where they could be mined, for example the colonisation of Latin America by the Spanish and Portuguese.
Later it was fossil fuels, starting with coal mining in Britain in the 18th century that led to the destruction of forests for timber to build bigger ships and make charcoal for smelting ores as well as land for food plantations. By the beginning of the 20th century the mining of coal had peaked, but oil took over as the new key fossil fuel, the struggle for access which Ugo Bardi argues was a key dynamic of World War II.
Extracted: How the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet is full of detail on the creation of mineral resources and the whole history of human interaction with the minerals that were used to build civilisation from the agricultural to the industrial age.
The author writes in an engaging and comprehensible manner that outlines our past, present and possible future relationship with our unique planet, building towards the present crisis. He gives clear choices of possible paths and their outcomes, with the message that we urgently need a change in our values.
Bardi opens with a gripping section on “how it all began”, using the idea of Gaia, the Earth Goddess, to whom we owe thanks for the gift of our world and all “her” resources. He uses the concept of feedback loops to explain the processes that stabilise the climate, seeing Gaia as a dynamic being that makes life possible.
He describes the geological carbon cycle as “like the knob on a thermostat”. Mass extinctions result from the rise in CO2 and temperature increase; ocean acidification as well as the loss of O2 and bacterial activity lead to a rise in poisonous hydrogen sulphide.
The image of The Red Queen's race with Alice in Through the Looking-Glass is invoked to show how the rush for ever greater economic growth is leading us nowhere, as we exhaust resources and seek to replace them with even more destructive mining like fracking and tar sand extraction.
Bardi examines three possible solutions: substitution (of common for scarce minerals); recycling and re-using resources; and reducing consumption. For substitution, he considers nuclear and biofuels for fossil fuels (but outlines their downsides in dangerous waste and using land needed to feed people). He suggests photovoltaic and solar concentration plants as well as wind turbines as the only long-term solution
For recycling and re-using he describes some pioneering attempts at waste management, to replace landfills and incinerators or dumping in the sea, and as we have recently seen on TV because of the World Cup in Brazil, the informal and co-operative recycling in the slums by the “catadores”. (this is also being done in Bolivia and Delhi in India)
One of the problems with recycling and re-using is the built-in obsolescence which is a key part of the economic development model based on the idea of unlimited growth and resources. We need to build awareness around the world away from rising consumption to sufficiency and simplicity. Transition Towns are mentioned as one way of aiming towards this “de-growth” before it is too late by trying persuade people to adapt before it is too late.
Bardi warns that the post-industrial Age could eventually reach a new equilibrium, which could be a catastrophic rise in temperature as a result of the feedback mechanisms of the greenhouse effect, leaving our planet sterile and dry like Venus, or so hot that humans could only survive near the poles.
His book is a stark reminder that communities throughout the world need to act now to create a sustainable future.
23 June 2014
Extracted: How the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet. Ugo Bardi, Chelsea Green Publishing