Mining the Anthropocene

April 10, 2014

As part of my continuing participation in the MOOC run by Prof. Bruno Latour, here are some reflections on mining as an indicator of the planet’s entry into the Anthropocene. It was supposed to by accompanied by some funky data visualization, but I haven’t got the data in a format I need it and, well, time’s passing. So here’s the post:

Mineral exploitation is particularly suitable as a diagnostic of the Anthropocene for a variety of reasons, but most basically because of the radical temporal disjunction between the rates of formation of mineral resources (geological) and the rates of their exploitation and depletion (on the order of centuries or decades). If this new geological epoch is indeed characterized by human-induced change, it is well to reflect on the incredible rapidity of that change…

One “floating utterance” sometimes heard about the global impact of mining is that human mineral exploitation now moves as much surficial material as do geological processes such as weathering, etc. The volume of this material, the vast majority of which is “waste,” is on the order of thousands of millions of tonnes annually.

Statistics on mineral production reveal a similar Anthropocene “signal” as the metrics highlighted by Steffen in his TED talk video. By and large, this expansion has mirrored (and indeed, partially driven) modern industrial development. For instance, minerals for use in electrification (copper), construction/alloys (iron ore and zinc), armaments (nickel), as well as precious metals like gold (see below), all show exponential growth in production in the past century. These trends continue apace: global mineral production for all mineral raw materials surged between 1984 and 2011, from 9.4 billion tonnes to 16.6 billion tonnes.


There are some important implications of this growth for considering the scope of Anthropocene impacts. First, declining ore grades (the amount of the target mineral in any given rock formation) has meant that, even as mineral production increased, mineral waste production did so even more. These days, target minerals are often fractions of a percent of the total material moved and processed, meaning that mines may have exponentially greater landscape and environmental impacts, perhaps best illustrated in the stunning photographs of open pits and mine wastes by Edward Burtynsky.

Second, reflecting the basic point about rates of extraction noted above, concern has emerged over “peak minerals,” the rapid depletion of key industrial minerals and the prospects for scarcity of key industrial minerals this trend suggests. Given the oft-repeated importance of minerals to modern industrial society, an interesting thought experiment might be to consider whether the end of these minerals might signal the end of this (perhaps short?) geological epoch…

Key statistical sources and charts: World Mining Data 2013, World Mineral Production 2008-2012 (Centenary edition)