However, such wealth has not come without its problems. Mining is a dirty, dangerous business. The world watched in horror as dozens of miners were trapped for months below ground in Chile in 2010. They were rescued, but a few months later workers in a New Zealand mine were less fortunate. These incidents occurred in some of the world’s best-run mines operated by the biggest companies: every year, thousands of small-time miners, many operating in illegal shafts under terrible conditions, perish without publicity. In China alone, around 50 miners die each week.
Mines are often plunged into land owned by poor local people with few rights, who have received little or no profit or compensation for their polluted fields, air, waterways or wildlands. Nigeria’s Niger Delta is a ruined slick of oil spills and leaks, which continues to poison the health of some of the world’s poorest people, infiltrates their drinking water and farmland, and kills fish. The ongoing environmental catastrophe there shows no signs of abating while one of the world’s richest oil companies pollutes with near-impunity and the poor continue to illegally tap the pipes, spilling and spreading the noxious liquid. Across the globe, from the Amazon to the Gulf of Mexico, oil formed from the burial, millions of years ago, of algae and plankton has been spilt and spread around the terrestrial surface with ecologically devastating consequences.
Coal and oil are not the only buried pollutants we’re bringing to the surface. Mining involves huge amounts of energy – obtained from burning fossil fuels – and water, often in places where both are scarce, which increases environmental pressure, as well as producing greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. And the methods used to separate out desired metals from the rest of the rock are often poisonous – whole river systems have been contaminated with mercury from gold panning, for example.
In our haste to reach the buried materials, we have resculpted the landscape, carving the tops from mountains, boring and shattering the ground with fracking, creating new mountains of slag and rock, even making artificial islands where none have existed before. The palm-shaped island off the coast of Dubai was formed from some 400 million tonnes of geological material, says Simon Price of the British Geological Survey, who studied it. "All the materials we use to build our modern world – our cities of glass and concrete and steel – are made from geological ingredients that are mined and put together in unnatural combinations," Price says.
Our hunger to reshape the planet with Earth-moving machinery is inching us closer and closer to a troubling end-point: we are depleting some resources to the extent that they are in danger of running out, or at least becoming economically unviable to extract, and our mining is moving into ever-more environmentally fragile areas.
In the next column, I'll be asking whether it's time to slow our planetary plundering, and I'll be looking at what happened in the last 60 years to produce such an escalation in our lust for Earthly materials.
On Wednesday 21 November, you can hear my conversation with Simon Price and others, as we discuss the changes humans are making to the planet in the Anthropocene, on Frontiers, BBC Radio 4 at 2100 GMT.