The amount of resources consumed just to extract resources we can consume has become staggeringly high. How much farther can this go?
By Christopher Kiely
Published March 10, 2011
Resource extraction to support consumption has been going on for thousands of years, from the slave labour salt mines of ancient Rome to the coal mines of Europe and the first gold mines of the Americas.
Resource extraction has always consumed in order to extract resources. Salt mining in Rome consumed years off a slave's life, many parts of Europe were deforested in order to build coal mines, water cannon gold mining consumed our most vital resource (i.e. water) while decimating mountains, polluting rivers and destroying natural habitats.
None of that has changed. Something has changed, though, and that is the amount of resources consumed to get our resources. It has become staggeringly high.
Industrial-Scale Strip Mine
The days of mining with pick axe and wheelbarrow are long gone. Even the days of water cannon mining pale in comparison to the 400 ton mechanical behemoths of modern mining.
As global consumption has increased, so have the size of the machines used to extract resources. As the machine size has increased, so has the amount of resources required to build and maintain them.
is required for tires (synthetic rubber doesn't have the necessary heat dissipating ability), high-grade steel for structural components and barrels upon barrels of lubricants and fuel are required to keep them running. Just one machine will consume millions of liters of various lubricants and fuel in one year.
Often the machines themselves are consumed within a decade. Large mines will have several hundred of these machines, not to mention service vehicles, diesel generators, locomotives, buses and planes all consuming resources.
I wish I could say all these resources get recycled, because much of it can, but that is not the reality.
It isn't just equipment that consumes resources, either. Often small cities are built around these mines with roads, massive workshops, fire stations, hotels, airports, seaports, communication networks (e.g., phone, cable and internet) and the necessary water, power distribution and sewage systems.
All mines have a life expectancy, though, and many of these mining towns, just like mining towns of yore, end up ghost towns when the resource is tapped out.
Why do we do this? So we can collect ever increasing amounts of stuff? So we can breed like bunnies until we have over-populated our planet and consumed ourselves to death?
How many resources do we need to consume to continue consuming? How badly do you need that new iPad 2.0? Bad enough to support the Democratic Republic of Congo and risk the future of one of the world's most majestic animals?
Our consumption is out of control. Planned obsolescence and the cult of stuff benefit only corporations and the interests of corporations are diametrically opposed to the interests of people.
Our rate and mode of consumption are designed to increase corporate profits and nothing more. A race to the bottom is not won by anyone: the first one there is simply the first to discover we are all screwed.
There is much talk today about the distribution of wealth and the need for a fairer system of wealth distribution but I fear that may be missing the point. The problem is wealth itself.
The creation of wealth comes at great cost. It costs our environment it costs our societies and it costs people in remote parts of the world that most people shopping at Best Buy don't even consider.
Unfortunately, redistributing wealth is not the answer to the problem. Taking the wealth created by the rampant consumption of disposable goods and distributing it more equitably amongst the workers is only perpetuating the problem.
It may seem great for the workers who see a bigger cut of the profits, but as long as wealth is being created, someone, somewhere, is being exploited. That is the only way wealth can be created.
I'm not naive. I understand enough about economics to know corporations need to sell stuff to employ people and people need jobs in our current society in order to live. But I fear that, unless things drastically change, we are on the road to ruin.
Perhaps technology can save us. We could recycle anything and everything, slow down but not eliminate consumption and prey our resources last until we can find some way to reverse the damage we've done or get off this rock before our ecosystem collapses.
I'm not convinced any of that is going to happen, though. We are prisoners trapped in a world created by ignorance and hubris, and no matter how gilded the cage you're in, we are all in this thing together.
None of the options available to us that would truly change course from the inevitable are very appealing to the majority. The end of money, the end of wealth, the end of consumption: stuff, cars, gadgets, holidays in the sun. Most people don't want to hear about that.
But if we don't wake up and do something soon about this runaway system we have found ourselves dependent on, we may all end up there anyway. At that point, there may be nothing left besides survival of the fittest. That is, if our rampant consumption doesn't destroy our ecosystem first.
This essay was originally published on Christopher's personal website.
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