My father-in-law brings by his copies of National Geographic from time to time, to add to the backlog of Sustainable Industries and World Ark and Cultural Survival and Yes! that are piled up in our main room. The January 2009 issue (yes, we’re behind on our magazine reading) featured on the cover an article titled “Gold: The True Cost of a Global Obsession.”

There’s a lot of information in the article, such as “In all of history, only 161,000 tons of gold have been mined, barely enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools. More than half of that has been extracted in the past 50 years.” I wonder where that statistic comes from—seems as if it would be hard to measure.

The article says jewelry accounts for two-thirds of the demand (which now far outstrips supply). And I can believe that. The shopping mall nearest my house, Flatiron Crossing, has 7 jewelry stores that sell gold, plus 3 department stores (Dillard’s, Macy’s, and Nordstrom’s).

Here’s my take: we should stop mining gold.

It’s so destructive. It’s not just a pit we dig in the earth that we might fill up and cover with grass. We run chemicals like cyanide through the ore, and the gold bonds to the cyanide. Somehow, I guess, the two are separated, the gold is shipped away to be made into jewelry or electronics, and the tailings are poured into a pond, which often enough overflows and contaminates nearby land and waters.

I’ve read that obtaining enough gold for a typical wedding ring requires digging out enough ore to fill a two-story house.

I like gold just as much as the next person. I have several pieces of gold jewelry, most of which were gifts. The last item I bought was a gold chain to hold a heart pendant my parents gave me for my 16th birthday. It’s still my favorite necklace. I looked for a used chain, but the clerk at Victoriana, which sells estate jewelry from its Larimer Square location, told me that the thin chains don’t last. I still feel that I should have tried harder.

But I don’t need it, and neither do you. We only need it, at present, for electronic and other industrial uses.

According to the article, India is the country that buys the most gold, for jewelry for brides. It’s a form of investment. Most Americans consider their homes to be their major investments; Indians think that way about gold. (It’s certainly more portable.)

But wouldn’t ending gold mining cost jobs?

Yes, of course it would. This 2003 post on Modern Ghana mentions that 60 percent of the people employed by Newmont Ghana Gold lived in the area. (It also mentions farmers having problems getting compensated for loss of crops.) I’m not suggesting that we just shut down the mines and never go back to them. But it’s time to realize that all the “easy gold” has been found and that mining the remaining gold will be too destructive to the environment. The jobs created by gold mining last a few decades, but the damage can last far longer, especially if the tailings are dumped into inland bodies of water or the ocean.

One possible way to finance cleanup of mine sites worldwide would be to levy a tax on gold trading. Since the price of gold would rise if mining were curtailed, a new tax wouldn’t reduce investors’ profits.

If the process of cleaning up the mines was conducted properly—by which I mean the planning and monitoring of mine cleanup involved local communities and employed local workers—then communities currently affected by gold mining would eventually have a cleaner environment. And they would have time to create a sustainable economy based on management, rather than exploitation, of local resources.

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  1. Beth Partin July 7, 2010 at 11:07 pm - Reply

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