Thursday, November 24, 2011

I'm thankful for ... minerals?

So today is Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday for those of us in the U.S.; a day to set aside time for reflection about the things we are thankful for.  I think it's a great holiday.  Officially declared during the Civil War by the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, but it has deep roots in the settling of the Americas, and most of the time people think about pilgrims & native Americans on this day.

It is easy to be thankful for food.  Especially delicious food that's easy to enjoy when surrounded by family and friends.  That roasted turkey, mashed potatoes & gravy, sweet potato casserole, pecan pie, apple pie, and all the rest are going to put a smile on everyone's face; a few naps will be taken as well!

As a geoscientist, I think there is another dimension of thankfulness that often gets overlooked - the Earth itself. It's easy to be thankful for food at a meal - is it easy to be thankful for a tank of gasoline?  for copper wiring?  for concrete sidewalks?  for an aluminum can?  All of these things are part of our daily lives and make modern society possible.  Without them, life would be downright primitive. So I think I should be thankful for them, because they make life better.

Hold up, though - these things also bring about some serious problems.  In a typical copper mine, the copper makes up less than 1% of the rock, and the other 99% is worthless rock to be dug up and stuck in a huge pile somewhere, leaving an enormous scar in the surface that's never going to get filled.  Take a look at the Bingham Canyon Copper mine, one of the largest Cu mines on Earth:

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This hole in the ground is over 2 miles across, and is never going to be filled in because no one will ever want to spend the money to do it.  And gasoline?  Remember that incredible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago?  A huge disaster, destroying life and making a mess of the whole Gulf!  If you missed it, there were some great visualizations, such as this one and this one, that allow you to see how big the spill was compared to any other place on Earth.

So how can we be thankful for things that bring such disasters to our world?

Maybe that's exactly the point.  Maybe we get these messes because we never think about the natural resources we use, where they come from, the price that must be paid to get them, and the impact they have on our environment.  Maybe, just maybe, if we were more thankful for these things, instead of just ignoring them, our change in attitude might cause a change in consumption.  If we valued these things enough to be thankful for them, then maybe we'd start to see more responsibility, and less waste.

I said at the beginning that I think Thanksgiving is a great holiday.  And the reason I think that is because it is one that deals entirely with attitude.  It is impossible to celebrate Thanksgiving with a crummy attitude.  The need to take some time to reflect on the important things in life and be thankful shoves the crummy attitudes of cynicism out of my head.  There are major environmental problems that result from the abuse of Earth's resources, but maybe a more thankful attitude would help us change some behaviors from neglect to proper care.  So I'm thankful for the Li in my cell phone battery, the Cu wires in my house, and the Pt & Hg lightbulbs I use to light my home.  And hopefully I can turn my gratitude into more responsible use of these things, and less abuse on the planet they come from.


  1. Cool post. At least the majority of the people who do the mining tend to be very aware of the environmental impacts mining has. The mines and mining companies I've interacted with have always been very sensitive to the environment and communities.

  2. Wonderful post. I'll be sharing it with a number of people.

  3. Cath- Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you like the post. I do think that what you said is true in some, perhaps many, cases. But unfortunately, the mining industry has a long history of environmental issues, such as the metal mining at Butte, Montana for example, or Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where lots of damage was done. That being the case, it is going to take many years of good stewardship before mining and oil companies will be able to convince the public that they are sincerely interested in minimizing environmental impacts and that they are able to perform mining without the major problems that have plagued us in the past.