Artisanal miners collect gravel from the Lukushi River in search of cassiterite, the main ore of tin, in Manono, Democratic Republic of the Congo

“If you can’t farm it, you have to mine it,” goes the miner’s creed.

The extraction of minerals, metals and hydrocarbons from the ground is one of the oldest industries of humanity.

Society relies more than ever on a wider variety and larger volumes of extracted substances.

The extraction of new materials is still cheaper than the reuse of many substances, leading some experts to warn about the increasing mine pressure on the natural world.

A growing group is concerned that the environmental cost of pollution and biodiversity loss caused by mines, as well as the social impacts caused to local communities, may outweigh the benefits of mining, says BBC Future’s Laura Cole. .

And he wonders: What if we stopped the extraction of fossil fuels and minerals altogether?

What would happen if, to better protect the environment, humanity decided that the content of the earth’s crust is no longer used?

It’s an unlikely scenario, to be sure, and one that would cause difficulties, especially if it happened suddenly.

But imagining a world without access to the subsurface allows us to examine how dependent we have become on extraction.

It also invites us to consider the frivolity with which we often dispose of these materials.

Artisanal miners collect gravel from the Lukushi River in search of cassiterite, the main ore of tin, in Manono, Democratic Republic of the CongoGetty Images

Victor Maus, a researcher in geoinformatics and sustainability at the University of Economics and Business in Vienna, Austria, has spent the last three years reviewing satellite images of the Earth’s surface to estimate the total area that humans devote to mining.

He discovered that the mining sites covered around 100,000 square kilometersan area similar to the size of Cuba, Guatemala or Honduras, and larger than the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Panama or El Salvador.

“And those are just the mines that are active,” Maus tells BBC Future’s Laura Cole.

On the first day of a world that stopped mining, the first shock wave would be for jobs; would eliminate approximately 4 million formal jobs. But the account would not stop there.

“There are a number of people who depend indirectly on mining sites,” says Eléonore Lèbre, who researches the social impacts of mining at the University of Queensland in Australia.

“In rural areas, where there may have been mining operations for decades, there are communities that have come to depend on them,” he adds in an interview with BBC Future’s Laura Cole.

Thus, more than 100 million people would lose their livelihood.

remove carbon

In a world without mining, ghost towns would spring up almost overnight.

But these impacts would not be confined to those communities. On the seventh day they would see each other massive consequences on society.

“Energy would be the main concern,” John Thompson, a mining consultant and professor of sustainability in Vancouver, tells Laura Cole. “And the Coal I would be the first to go.”

“Because it takes up so much space, power plants can’t have a lot of reserves,” he adds.

The constant conveyor belt of coal would empty very quickly if mining came to an end
The constant conveyor belt of coal would empty very quickly if mining came to an endGetty Images

With 35% of the world still relying on coal for electricity, few countries would escape a sudden energy crisis.

The use of coal for electricity generation varies in the world: it is 5% in Latin America and the Caribbean, but 22% looking only at Chile.

Furthermore, it is 63% in China and 84% in South Africa, so the pressure would soon be felt. energy inequality between countries.

To deal with the reduced supply of electricity, governments could start looking to the past.

Mining strikes in the UK in the 1970s saw rolling blackouts and the rationalization of electricity imposed.

“The three-day-a-week policy could come back,” Thompson says, referring to how the British government cut work to three days instead of five because of electricity shortages.

An indirect but crippling effect would be communications cut off.

The Internet, many of whose servers still rely on coal-fired electricity, would be cut back.

Cell phone networks may last longer, but with less electricity on the network, charging devices could become a luxury.

Impact on construction

Shortly thereafter, bulky materials would become scarce. The stored amounts of sand and gravelessential for making concrete, are relatively low and would run out in two to three weeks, says Thompson.

“Sand and gravel are the most massively extracted solid materials,” Aurora Torres tells BBC Future’s Laura Cole. Torres researches at the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium) the environmental pressures of the use of sand.

There is some capacity to recycle used concrete, but the amount of fresh concrete we use far exceeds current recycling rates.

There would also be quality issues. “Most of the recycled concrete is used for lower-grade uses, such as road construction,” says Torres.

While there would be a rush to improve recycling processes, construction of new homes would plummet in the short term.

the gas problem

Meanwhile, the temperature in existing homes would become increasingly uncomfortable as gas reserves began to run out after just a few weeks, reducing energy for heating and cooling.

In economies that rely on gas-fired power plants for electricity, such as United Arab Emirates (95%), Bolivia (71%), Mexico (62%), Russia (45%), USA (41%) and Argentina (34%), blackouts would be more frequent.

And any plastics production that did continue to function would be restricted to recyclables as their gas feedstock disappeared.

metal shortage

There is more than energy and buildings in modern society.

“After about two months, things would get really interesting as the mining halt would hit metals,” Thompson tells BBC Future’s Laura Cole.

Many mined metals are traded through exchanges in London and New York, where traded figures denote the actual movement of physical stocks in warehouses around the world.

For copper, an excellent conductor that is essential for almost all electronic products, reserves would be reduced to nothing in about six to 10 weeks, Thompson estimates.

This would lead to the price of metals skyrocketing, and with it their theft.

The scarcity would reveal to what extent metals have become the soul of society.

In at least 18 countries, metallic minerals and coal account for more than half of all exports; for some is more than 80%.

In a scenario without metal mining, the entire economies of countries like Suriname with its industrial gold mining, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where cobalt is king, and Mongolia, a leading exporter of copper, would be at risk.

It would be the end of society as we know it todaysays Simon Jowitt, an economic geologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, noting that we are extracting more now than ever before.

A good example of our growing reliance on metals is the average cell phone, Jowitt tells Laura Cole.

In the 1980s, a cell phone needed about 20 different elements. A new smartphone needs more than twice that.

About three months after the end of mining, reserves of rare earth metals and other metals useful for technology would run out, raising concerns for the pharmaceutical, automotive, electronics and construction industries.

This would lead to mass unemployment on “a scale never seen before,” says Thompson.

hydrocarbons and food

At the moment of collapse of supply chains, oil reserves would eventually run out.

The production of gasoline, diesel, plastics and asphalt for highways would come to an end. And with them, the era of fossil fuels.

After a few months, world food supplies would be in crisis.

It is estimated that 50% of food production depends on synthetic fertilizerswhich are made up of various formulas of phosphorous, potassium and natural gas.

Renewable energies, however, would be the definitive kings.

Nations with the highest renewable energy generation per person would have a huge advantage.

Iceland and Norway in Europe, or Costa Rica and Uruguay in Latin America, which get almost all of their energy from hydroelectric and geothermal sources, would be among the nations best equipped to weather the socioeconomic storm.

The paradox of renewable energies is that, in their current form, they require unprecedented volumes of non-renewable extracted materials.

Solar panels demand large amounts of silicon for the semiconductors in their cells.

Wind turbines need rare earth metals like neodymium for the powerful magnets that generate electricity as the blades spin.

According to the World Bank, in a world on track to keep global warming below 2°C, annual production of graphite, cobalt and lithium will be five times higher by 2050 than current production.

Mining and biodiversity researcher Laura Sonter and her colleagues recently warned that extracting materials needed for renewable energy will increase threats to biodiversity.

A radical change in the industry

An unprecedented race for research could lead to breakthroughs in recycling technology and circular design.

“Products would be designed to last longer or be more easily disassembled and components put back into the system,” says Thompson.

This would be a radical change for the tech industry, which today produces batteries that are notoriously difficult to recycle.

Research could be channeled into methods for extract metals without miningsuch as the electrolysis of seawater and brines.

“There may also be the development of new biomaterials that could mimic or replace the role of metals,” says Thompson.

“Fortunately, these would probably be more recyclable.”

If all mining stopped, there would still be an area the size of Guatemala with degrading levels and, in some cases, dangerous heavy metals.

“An abandoned mine can be chronically contaminated for hundreds, if not thousands of years,” says Lèbre.

prevent an environmental catastrophe clear all the mines in the world at one time it would cost hundreds of billions or even trillions.

Without careful planning, these new threats could outweigh those averted by climate change mitigation.

Perhaps over time, the concept of material footprints, as an addition to carbon footprints, will catch on with governments, as they realize more and more how much care we need to take with all of our non-renewable resources.

Leave a Reply