"If you can't grow it, you have to mine it" goes the miner's credo. The extraction of minerals, metals and fuels from the ground is one of humankind's oldest industries. And our appetite for it is growing.
Society is more dependent on both greater variety and larger volumes of mined substances than ever before. If you live in a middle-income country, every year you use roughly 17 tonnes of raw materials – equivalent to the weight of three elephants and twice as much as 20 years ago. For a person in a high-income country, it is 26 tonnes – or four and a half elephants' worth.
Extracting new materials continues to be cheaper than re-use for many substances, leading some experts to sound the warning about the increasing pressure of mines on the natural world. A growing chorus is concerned that environmental toll of mine-caused pollution and biodiversity loss, as well as the social impacts caused to local communities, could sometimes outweigh the benefits of mining.
But what if we stopped extraction of fossil fuels and minerals entirely? What if, in order to better protect the environment, humanity decided the contents of the Earth's crust were off limits?
Workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo's deep cobalt pits would drop their shovels, colossal bucketwheels in Germany's brown coal mines would cease to strip mine
It's an unlikely scenario, to be sure, and one that would cause hardship for many people – particularly if it happened suddenly. But imagining a world without access to the underground allows us to examine how dependent we have become on this ongoing extraction. It also invites us to consider the frivolousness with which we often then throw these materials away, and to examine the overlooked potential in this waste as a source of new materials.
So could considering the end of mining help to change how we use materials today?
Victor Maus, a researcher in geoinformatics and sustainability at the University of Economics and Business in Vienna, Austria, has spent the last three years poring over satellite images of the Earth's surface to estimate the total area humans currently give over to mining. The results surprised him. "It's a country-sized area, and that's just with the mines that are reported," he says.
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The land size of mining had never been surveyed by satellite before, making it tricky to train a computer how to identify mines from thousands of photos. Maus and his team therefore had no choice but to make his estimates by eye, and spent hours tracing polygons around the shapes of open pits, shafts and waste tailings ponds. "I was seeing polygons in my sleep," he says.
Above ground, he found, mining sites covered around 100,000 sq km (38,600 sq miles), larger than Austria or five times the size of Wales. "And that's just the mines that are active," says Maus.
Mining is also one of the most basic forms of enterprise, and many locations are unreported. "In reality, the world's total mining area is even larger."
In a world of no mining, ghost towns would be created almost overnight
On the first day of a world that stopped mining, the activity across this collective expanse would grind to a halt. Workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo's deep cobalt pits would drop their shovels, colossal bucketwheels in Germany's brown coal mines would cease to strip mine, and the small boats in the Mekong delta would stop sucking up sands.
The first shockwave would be to jobs. Across the world, ending mining would terminate an estimated four million formal jobs in the industry. And the toll wouldn't stop there.
"There's a number of [further] people that rely indirectly on mining sites that would make it greater," says Eléonore Lèbre, who researches the social impacts of mining from the University of Queensland. More than 100 million livelihoods in work connected to artisanal mining – groups and individuals that mine on smaller scale, often informally – would be lost.
Lèbre's research has involved studying the effect of mine closure on towns in remote Australia. "In rural areas, where there might have been mining operations for decades, you have communities that have grown to depend on them." In a world of no mining, ghost towns would be created almost overnight.
The town of Pedro de Valdivia, Chile, was deserted when a nearby mine closed. In a world of no mining, ghost towns would be created almost overnight (Credit: M.Bernetti/Getty)
These impacts wouldn't stay confined to those communities for long. By day seven, massive ripples would be felt in society. "Energy would be the chief worry," says John Thompson, a mining consultant and professor of sustainability based in Vancouver. "And coal would be the first to go."
Coal is heavy and bulky, so it moves around the world in short supply chains – often going straight from mine to power plant. "Because it takes up so much space, power stations don't have much to rely on in terms of stockpiles," he says. The constant conveyor belt would empty very quickly if mining came to an end.
With 35% of the world still relying on coal for electricity, few countries would escape a sudden energy crisis. However, coal use for electricity generation is not equal the world over – it is 15% in Europe, 63% in China and 84% in South Africa – so energy inequality between countries would soon be felt.
To cope with this cut off from electricity, governments might begin looking to the past. The UK's mining strikes of the 1970s, where rolling blackouts and electricity rations were enforced, could be used as a form of damage control. "The three-day-week policy could make a comeback," says Thompson, referring to how the UK government reduced working and manufacturing to three days instead of five to handle the electricity shortage from the strikes and the oil crisis of 1973.
An indirect, but crippling effect of such electricity drops in the modern day would be the cut to communications. The internet, many of whose servers still rely on coal-powered electricity, would be slashed or reduced. Mobile phone networks might hang on for longer, but with less electricity in the grid, charging devices could become a luxury. Corded land lines, which are connected to centralised telephone exchanges, would last longest – at least as long as back-up generators and batteries could keep them going.
We mine vastly more sand than anything – Aurora Torres
Soon after, bulky materials would become scarce. Stocks of sand and gravel, which are essential ingredients for making concrete, are relatively shallow. Reserves of the two would be depleted within two to three weeks, says Thompson.
"Sand and gravel are the most mined solid materials by mass," says Aurora Torres, who researches the environmental pressures of sand use at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. "We mine vastly more sand than anything." The UN estimates we get through 40-50 billion tonnes of sand per year. (Read more about the world's extraordinary demand for sand.)
There is some capacity to recycle used concrete, but the rate at which we use fresh concrete far outstrips current recycling rates. There would also be quality concerns. "Most recycled concrete is 'downcycled' to lower-grade uses such as road building," says Torres. So while there would be a rush to implement better recycling processes, in the short-term, the building of new homes would plummet.
Meanwhile, the temperature in existing homes would become increasingly uncomfortable as gas stores began depleting after a handful of weeks, reducing power for heating and cooling. In economies that rely on gas-fired power stations for electricity such as the United Arab Emirates (95%), Russia (45%), the US (41%) and the UK (36%), blackouts would become more frequent. Any plastics production able to remain working would be restricted to recyclables as its gas feedstock disappeared.
In a world of no mining, old wastes and tailings ponds could present an opportunity to access metals (Credit: M.Bernetti/Getty)
But there is more to modern society than energy and buildings. "It's after about two months that things would get really interesting, as the mining halt would hit metals," says Thompson. Many mined metals are traded through exchanges in London and New York, where numbers and figures swapped over the trading floor denote the real-life movement of physical stockpiles between warehouses all over the world. For copper, an excellent conductor which is essential for almost all electronics, stockpiles would dwindle to nothing in around six to 10 weeks, Thompson estimates.
This would lead the price of metals to skyrocket. "It's not hard to imagine that theft would increase at this point," says Thompson. When the copper price rose to all-time highs in the 2010s, crime rose with it. Buildings, streetlamps, train lines – anything with copper in – were stripped of their cables for resale. Theft might increase for all the industrial metals – copper, iron, aluminium, zinc, lead and nickel – which by mass account for 98% of all mined metals. The shortage would reveal how much this handful of metals have become the lifeblood of society.
The production of petrol, diesel, plastics and road asphalt would come to end. And with them, the fossil fuel age
Most countries mine something. China, Australia and the US are the global leaders for production value of raw materials, but extraction makes up a far larger share of the economy for some other nations. In at least 18 countries, metallic minerals and coal account for more than half of all exports; for some of these, it's more than 80%. In a no-mining-of-metals scenario, the entire economies of countries such as Suriname with its industrial gold mining, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where cobalt is king, and Mongolia, a leading exporter of copper, would be at risk.
Simon Jowitt, an economic geologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, does not mince words on what he thinks the end of metals mining would look like. "It would be the end of society as we recognise it today," he says, noting that we mine more now than we ever have before.
A good example of our increasing reliance on a wide array of metals is the average mobile phone, says Jowitt. In the 1980s, a mobile needed 20 or so different elements. A new smartphone today needs more than twice that. "Modern life is simply minerals- and metals-intensive. We wouldn't be having this conversation without them," he quips via video call from his home in Nevada.
Around three months after the end of mining, stockpiles of rare earth metals and other metals useful to technology would be finished, leading to worrying trends for the pharmaceutical, car, electronics and construction industries. This would lead to massive unemployment that on "a never-before-seen scale", says Thompson.
Pressure would soon increase to redirect all metals recycling into renewables
Just in time for the collapse of supply chains, oil reserves would finally run out. The US's strategic petroleum reserve, the largest fallback oil stockpile in the world, contains 730 million barrels of oil stored in salt caverns across the country – enough for three months at most. The production of petrol, diesel, plastics and road asphalt would come to end. And with them, the fossil fuel age.
After a handful of months, global food supplies would be in crisis. An estimated 50% of food production depends on synthetic fertilisers, which are made up of varying formulas of phosphorus, potassium and natural gas. Lower crop yields could lead to food shortages. "Particularly in countries where climate doesn't support food production," says Thompson.
Artisanal miners collect gravel from the Lukushi river searching for cassiterite – the major ore of tin – in Manono, Democratic Republic of Congo (Credit: J.Kannah/Getty Images)
Nuclear fuel is stocked months in advance, so it could be up to a year before society ran out of nuclear power. Renewables, however, would be the ultimate kingmakers. Nations with the highest renewable power generation per person would be at a huge advantage. Iceland and Norway, which both source nearly all their power from hydroelectric and geothermal sources, would be among the best equipped nations to ride out the socio-economic storm.
In a cruel twist of fate, though, despite huge demand for new renewable power, deployment rates of wind and solar power would slump. The paradox of renewables is that, in their current form, they need unprecedented volumes of non-renewable mined materials.
"Increasing renewables, while it means fewer fossil fuels out of the ground, means large upticks in battery metals such as cobalt and nickel," says Thompson. Solar panels demand large amounts of silicon for the semiconductors in their cells. Wind turbines need rare earth metals such as neodymium for powerful magnets that generate electricity with the turn of the blades.
Pressure would soon increase to redirect all metals recycling into renewables. "We do recycle a fair amount already," says Jowitt. "Most of the base metals and a handful of other elements are already recycled at their end-of-life by a rate of more than 50%."
Other metals that are critical to renewables, however, such as rare earths, are "lost by design", he says. "The way we currently use them is inherently non-recyclable." This is because technologies use tiny amounts of more and more elements, all in different ways, making it difficult to separate them to get the individual metals out.
There may also be the development of new biomaterial that could mimic or replace the role of metals – John Thompson
But even if technology developed to extract these tiny quantities of rare earth metals, it's unlikely that it would meet the amount needed to vastly expand renewable energy. "The metals demand is already set to exceed current production many times over," says Jowitt. According to the World Bank, in a world on track to keep global warming below 2C, the annual production of graphite, cobalt and lithium will be five times higher by 2050 than today's production.
There is also a huge inequality in the current distribution of already-extracted metals across the world. Most mined and processed metals are in use in the Global North, where they have been imported, meaning populations in the Global South would have less access to recyclable material. The richest 20% of the global population have access to 60-75% of the world's in-use metal stock per capita, according to one study, a spread even more unequal than carbon emissions inequality. A new world with no mining would have to think carefully about equal access to materials.
An unprecedented rush for research could lead to breakthroughs in recycling technology and circular design, however. "Products would be designed so that they last longer or so that they can be taken apart more easily, and the components returned into the system," says Thompson. This would be an about-face for the tech industry, which today creates produces batteries that are notoriously difficult to recycle. Research might be funnelled into methods of gleaning metals without mining, such as the electrolysis of seawater and brines. "There may also be the development of new biomaterial that could mimic or replace the role of metals," says Thompson. "Luckily these would probably be more recyclable.
Aerial view of the Alto Bandeira iron ore mine in Brazil. Copper, iron, aluminium, zinc, lead and nickel together account for 98% of all mined metals (Credit: M.Pimentel/Getty)
Meanwhile, energy production might need to adapt to smaller, more decentralised systems, probably using already-invented tech. Last year, the environmental campaign group Seas At Risk imagined a society in 2050 that had banned mining in 2020. Bereft of a constant supply of metals, the blueprint completely overhauls the electricity grid, with a transition from large, metals-heavy solar and wind farms to decentralised and low-tech distribution. "Direct hydro- and wind-power were other age-old technologies that made their comeback, not only for industrial applications but even for water-powered household devices," it says. Instead of large lithium-ion batteries, compressed-air systems, thermal energy storage and gravity batteries become the champions of energy storage.
A mine that is abandoned can have chronic pollution for hundreds if not thousands of years – Eléonore Lèbre
Seas At Risk argues for the importance of rethinking energy consumption in a no-mining scenario, as well as for careful environmental policy. Without a clear vision, controversial biofuel production might make up the energy shortfall, with vast areas of land given over to forestry practices to provide wood as a source of building materials, energy and biofuels.
But the work wouldn't stop there. For Lèbre, who researches mine closure, the closed mines themselves would be a huge source of concern. If all mining stopped there would still be an area at least the size of Austria with degrading and in some cases dangerous levels of heavy metals. "Mining is a process of entropy. We are bringing material from locked-up concentrations underground and letting them out into the world."
Ensuring the clean-up and and rehabilitation of these areas would be vital. Mines usually operate at depths below the water table, which need to be constantly dewatered using pumps. When a mine is abandoned, the ground water gradually refloods underground passages and mineral seams over many months, creating acidic reservoirs of water. Above ground, meanwhile, tailings ponds and piles of low-grade ore with traces of heavy metals lie in wait. "All of this material is exposed to water and oxygen," says Lèbre. Exposing such elements to, well, the elements, wreaks havoc on ecosystems, soils and water supplies through acid leaching. "A mine that is abandoned can have chronic pollution for hundreds if not thousands of years," says Lèbre.
Cleaning up a mine consists of reducing water acidity, detoxifying the soil and treating waste before reintroducing flora and fauna to the site. It's a lengthy, expensive process and can cost billions for a single, large mine. Avoiding an environmental catastrophe, and cleaning all the world's mines at once, would cost hundreds of billions or even trillions.
Mining is not going anywhere anytime soon: in fact, experts predict a new surge in metals and aggregate mining over the coming decades
Global inequalities would be seen in this mining clean up too. Maus, in his tracing of polygons across the map, has discovered that the majority of reported mines are located in the tropics, one chapter of a larger shift of mining from the Global North to the Global South over the last century. In a world that ended mining, these regions would have the bigger burden of the clean-up projects.
With healthy soils and water re-established, though, eventually nature would return to mining sites. Wastes and tailings ponds, meanwhile, could present an opportunity to access metals. "Most of a mine's desired elements are [the very same] pollutants present in the waste," says Lèbre.
Mining is not going anywhere anytime soon: in fact, experts predict a new surge in metals and aggregate mining over the coming decades. With the exception of a handful of elements, such as lead and tin, the extraction of all metals is even increasing on a per capita basis, notes Jowitt.
Warranting more concern, perhaps, is the fact that more mining will likely create more land impacts. Mining and biodiversity researcher Laura Sonterand her colleagues recently warned that mining the materials needed for renewable energy will increase the threats to biodiversity. Without careful planning, these new threats could surpass those avoided by climate change mitigation.
Perhaps in time, the concept of material footprints, as an addition to carbon footprints, will catch on with governments, as they increasingly realise how much care we need to take of all our non-renewable resources.
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