A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape

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The raw materials for building a civilization are mainly things we dig up out of the ground: fuels such as coal, uranium, and petroleum; the ores of iron, copper, aluminum, and dozens of other metals; stone, sand, and clay for building; and a miscellany of other minerals such as sulfur and phosphates. These things are basic inputs of the world economy—the ingredients for making everything else—and so they seem like a good place to begin an exploration of the industrial landscape.

This chapter describes what economists call the extractive industries—the various ways of scraping and drilling and blasting and digging to claw useful stuff out of the earth. We'll visit pit mines, strip mines, and underground mines, hard-rock mines, coal mines, and stone quarries. And we'll look at what happens to a few of these commodities after they are retrieved from underground: the smelting of copper, the conversion of iron ore into steel, the manufacture of cement and concrete. (Two other vital resources—water and petroleum—might have been discussed in the same context, but they are so important they deserve chapters of their own.)

To begin our tour of the industrial landscape with titanic mines and mills is to confront immediately the most spectacular ways that industry can transform the terrain. Over a period of a few decades, a big open-pit mine can blast away an entire mountain, leaving a deep crater in its place and filling nearby valleys with waste rock. Inside the mine, everything biological—the whole veneer of grass, trees, and soil that shapes and softens the contours of the human habitat—is peeled back to expose the raw, rocky heart of the planet. Critics of the industry describe such mines as wounds or scars. Miners, of course, see nothing so sinister or destructive in what they do. On the contrary, they are proud of the grandeur of their art: for the first time in human history, we have it in our power to move mountains.

Mining seems like a simple job: first you find pay dirt, and then you dig it out. But there are many ways of going about it. Different kinds of deposits call for different mining strategies, and a single deposit might be worked in several ways over the course of its lifetime.

Suppose you strike gold. You might start making your fortune by trying to recover loose flakes of metal in sandy stream beds—a technique known as placer mining. Later you might dig a small underground mine, following a vein of ore as it meanders through the rock. With a bigger capital investment, the tunneling operation could be replaced by an open-pit mine, with enormous earthmoving machines. Then, if the ore body continues still deeper, you might return to underground methods with a vertical shaft mine. Finally, just when you think the deposit is played out at last, the discarded wastes from earlier operations become a resource worth exploiting. In some mining districts all these activities are going on at once.

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