In a disturbing case of the cure possibly proving as deadly as the disease, Christopher Pollon’s Pitfall: The Race to Mine the World’s Most Vulnerable Places provides an eloquent, clear-eyed warning that, absent a radical U-turn, the well-intentioned road to green energy alternatives could very well be paved with devastating ecological and social impacts.
A journalist whose excellent The Peace in Peril: The Real Cost of the Site C Dam (2016) explored the social, economic, and environmental impacts of B.C.’s controversial mega- dam on the Peace River, Pollon has performed another public service with this well-written, accessible, and thoroughly documented work. Indeed, those who’ve taken comfort in the seeming inevitability of an electrified future free of fossil fuels would do well to consider this collection of hidden stories from around the globe that illustrate first-hand the harm generated by our growing hunger for cellphones, personal computers, batteries for electric cars, and other mineral-dependent trappings of our voracious consumer lifestyle.
It’s a journey that introduces readers to the sources of the lithium and copper that power our daily lives, travelling from poor, exploited, and often Indigenous territories, from Bolivia and the Andes Mountains, to Inner Mongolia, to New Guinea. In each instance, Pollon exposes a dystopian world of mining companies in conflict with local populations that leave behind poisoned paradises, assassinations and massacres, and economic deprivation that never appears in the glossy, green-washed investment brochures of corporate prospectors.
Mining is and always has been a necessary corollary to human existence, Pollon notes, but how we mine, and for what purposes, require both thoughtful discussion about such impacts, as well as reflection on whether this fragile planet has the capacity to keep up with the pace of our plunder. Indeed, exactly how much fossil fuel mining, fracking, drilling, and combustion will be necessary to build and sustain a green economy is rarely addressed in climate change debates.
It’s an especially apt subject for Canadians, who host one of the world’s largest and most profitable mining sectors, thanks in part to its welcome access at the Toronto and former Vancouver stock exchanges, a global sales pitch executed by Export Development Canada, and the role of Canadian diplomats abroad acting as bulldozers for mine operators. While fast fortunes may benefit investors, lax regulations and oversight produce a dark legacy marked by perilous working conditions and premature deaths of ill-protected miners; depletion of drinking water aquifers and subsequent parching of farmlands; and massive, poorly secured toxic tailings ponds that annually spill billions of cubic metres of poisoned water that destroy the downstream flora, fauna, and food relied upon by Indigenous people.
Despite this bleak environment, Pollon finds hope in the Maya Qʼeqchiʼ land defenders who’ve sought accountability by suing mining companies in Canadian courts (similar to suits filed by Zambian and Congolese citizens in U.K. courts), the growing market to recycle and reuse metals already above ground, and historical precedents (such as the Second World War home front) that produced stunning conservation efforts and hugely popular scrap metal drives. He also points to responsible, ethical sourcing of minerals, the European Union’s “right-to-repair” legislation aimed at ending built-in obsolescence, and efforts to ensure green manufacturing is designed with an eye on eventual recycling as possibilities that can set us on a proper path.
Ultimately, Pollon invites us to consider new ways of thinking and to become miners ourselves; collectively, we hold a massive personal supply of mineral ores in the dead electronics, jewellery, and entertainment equipment that litter our homes. A truly green future can in no way match the rapacious consumption of the current carbon economy, he argues, reflecting on the 20 tons of waste and the mercury contamination generated by the production of his own gold wedding band. As fossil fuel opponents call on governments to leave the remaining oil in the ground, it’s a world view that may well need to apply to the alternatives as well.