We are the planet's greatest diggers and miners. For tens of thousands of years humans have chipped away beneath the soils of this vast rocky planet, plundering its hard surface for tools, building materials and sparkling jewels. The question is what’s driven our hunger to churn up more and more of our planet's rocks and sediments and spread it around the surface, and does it matter?
We’re not the only species to recognise the value in strong, inert materials – chimps use stone tools and Neanderthals mined flint in Europe – but we’re the only creatures to have delved further to reach the metals and other minerals within. Whole civilizations have been based on this – some metals became so important that they defined cultural periods, the Iron Age and the Bronze Age, for example. Empires extended across the seas in search of precious metals, gems and fuels. The Romans invaded Britain for its metals, using hydraulic mining to harvest gold from deep within the rocks. Spain’s wealth 400 years ago is largely attributable to silver scraped from the hills of Potosi in Bolivia.
Some of this unearthed treasure, such as iron, was created billions of years ago inside a star; others, such as coal, were more recently formed from living forests that were buried in bogs and compressed by sediments some 300 million years ago. Some of these mined materials, like iron, are common in the Earth’s crust, some are rare, but none of these are replaceable or renewable within a thousands-of-years timeframe.
The industrial revolution, which made Britain the powerhouse of the world, catalysed a sharp increase in the volume of mining. Steam power, fuelled by coal, rapidly increased our capacity to delve for materials (including coal), as well as transporting and processing it. In 1700, more than 80% of the world’s coal was mined in Britain. Over the 18th and 19th centuries, as technologies improved, speculators explored new territory across Africa, Australia and the United States, looking for gold and other high-value metals and gems.
But it is over the past 60 years that we’ve witnessed a truly global revolution in the scale of our mining and extractions. We now move more than three times as much sediment and rocky materials than all the world’s rivers, glaciers, wind and rain combined, according to sedimentary geologist James Syvitski of Instaar, University of Colorado, Boulder.
“Every year, rivers move about 13 gigatonnes (billion tonnes) of sediment. To put that in perspective, 1 GT [gigatonne] is equivalent to 2 Great Walls of China,” Syvitski says. “We already mine around 9 GT of coal each year – by 2030, it will be 13 GT of coal. And we produce 13 GT of aggregate, 2 GT of iron ore each year….”
We are sculpting the Earth’s surface and taking material away at rates not seen before in geological time, says Syvitski. “There are millions of holes and burrows through the rock – kilometres long – from our drilling expeditions,” he says. We’ve left 568,000 mines abandoned in the US alone, and many millions more throughout the world.
We are even plundering some of the most inhospitable places on the planet, such as the freezing Arctic Ocean, the burning Atacama Desert and the deepest Atlantic, to reach oil and gas, diamonds and copper, uranium and rare metals that were unknown decades earlier but are now an indispensable part of the conveniences of modern life.
New “finds” promise untold wealth to the territories they lie beneath – and to the speculating companies that dig and drill – so nations from Uganda to Brazil are eagerly pursuing all explorations. The world has already seen some of the poorest nations dramatically rise to prosperity after substantial finds. Saudi Arabia, for example, is now one of the wealthiest nations after vast oil and gas wells were drilled, and Botswana has rapidly risen from poverty to a functioning, economically healthy democracy after diamonds were discovered.