Out of Our Mines

“Grandma, it’s Mines, not Mimes,” read the placard outside a building at the Colorado School of Mines. We were there to visit their geology museum the day after Thanksgiving, not being the types to brave the Black Friday crowds at the malls and big box stores. The campus, located just west of Denver in Golden, CO, was deserted, but the museum was actually doing a relatively brisk business, with something like 70 visitors before us that day. Gems and rocks draw a crowd, apparently, at least when the collection is as robust as the one you’d expect a leading mining school to be, and it’s what drew us. Two floors of displays of interesting bits of the earth, lit up and labeled, plus a little bit of mining history, made for a pleasant hour and a half. There was just enough snow to make the museum’s outdoor geology walk mostly undoable, but we did get to see the triceratops footprints and palm frond fossils in a nearby cliff up the hill from the museum. From our vantage point there we could look out over Golden and see the town with the massive Coors plant next to it. It was a striking sight: the sky hung low over the valley and the clouds merged with the clouds of steam escaping from the plant, a kind of beauty that only industrialization can provide (the fact that it can is one of the real if more subtle impediments to the economic changes planetary ecology requires we make).


A few years ago we went to a mining museum an hour to the south, near Colorado Springs. It was unabashedly a place of industry propaganda, extolling the engineering achievements in mining’s development and the usefulness of the substances brought up from under the surface. What it put front and center the CSM geology museum was more subtle about: “if it can’t be growned, it must be mined.” This is, as it happens, true. Think about whatever device you’re reading this on, whatever it is sitting on, what whatever it is sitting on is sitting on, the space around you, the space around that… The human built environment, including our food and clothing, is made up either of plant and animal materials harvested from the thin blanket of soil that covers parts of the earth or other stuff pulled out from under that blanket. As the Minerals Education Coalition rhetorically reminds us: “What would our lives be like without mining? Imagine a world without transportation such as jet planes or railroads, without communications such as cell phones or radar, without decorative items such as art or jewelry, without buildings such as skyscrapers or parking garages, without defense systems items such as missiles or submarines, without medical care items such as X-rays or surgical tools. We wouldn’t have any of these things without mining and minerals.” To drive home the point, a helpful poster was provided by the MEC at the CSM museum:


Presumably accurate, but more than a little alarming, right? For despite our reliance on it, the environmental downsides of mining are pretty obvious by now (to say nothing of the social justice problems that plague mining communities).

This led to the thought that a good way to determine at least roughly the ecological (and maybe social) sustainability of a culture would be to look at its ratio of the grown to the mined. It’s at least plausible when applied narrowly to agriculture. Those forms of it that don’t take more than they give to the soil are ones that rely on plants and animals for plant health and soil fertility, rather than on mined substances synthesized into substitutes; and they are ones that rely on human and animal labor rather than machine: organisms made from and fueled by plants (indirectly, if the organisms are carnivores) vs. fossil-fueled devices made of metals, plastics, synthetic rubbers, etc. (which are all pulled from the earth with…fossil-fueled devices made of metals, plastics, synthetic rubbers, etc.). So everywhere that modern industrial farming contributes to the denominator (the mined), sustainable agriculture contributes to the numerator (the grown).

Of course, even those forms of agriculture with a high grown–mined ratio can be unsustainable. When they are, it’s typically (or at least often) because they adopt the extraction-industry mentality which tries to take everything of short-term value from a spot as quickly as possible at whatever cost. The history of farming in the U.S. provides a vivid example of this, as rapid depletion of topsoil by farmers growing cash crops drove settlers westward in search of new soils to exploit. (On this, see Wendell Berry’s still relevant The Unsettling of America and the more recent work Larding the Lean Earth by historian Steven Stoll.)

At root, though, agriculture is itself a kind of mining, just a very, very slow form of it. We eat plants (and animals that eat plants) to get, among other things, minerals that we need to survive. This means we are relying on those plants, in conjunction with the complex soil ecosystems they inhabit and the energy they draw from the sun, to draw to the surface subsoil elements and compounds. As they do this, they break apart the underlying rocks, thus slowly altering the geological structures of the earth. So biology is an extractive industry too; it’s just one that is solar-powered, slow, and so, to that extent, self-sustaining.

And so a by now pretty familiar point: Agriculture that works within the cycles of solar-fueled biological extraction might thus hope to sustain us. Agriculture that doesn’t, probably won’t.

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