We are living in a state of desperation. The great paradox of our time is that so many of us in this country have access to more power, in the form of technology, than any other humans have ever imagined, and yet we feel incredibly powerless, unable to wield any meaningful influence on our economies, our governments, or our communities. In a time of such great abundance, why are literally billions of people, even those with great power at their finger-tips, struggling to survive day-to-day?
Our society has become addicted to power and ever-increasing consumption. Think about it – when you hear politicians, economists, and industry leaders talking about fossil fuels and other resources, what do you hear them saying? Things like “We need it. We always need more. The more we get the more we need. We have to be willing to do anything to get it, because we need it so desperately.” Symptoms of addiction like dependence, tolerance, withdrawal, can all be seen in the ways we relate to technology, and the violence and hierarchy of drug cartels are just another version of the colonial pyramid scheme structure.
I am intimately familiar with the problem of addiction – I am a smoker. I have many friends and family members who are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. I am sure that is true for many of us here tonight. In this country especially, addiction is often a boring, every-day kind of thing. But we keep using the word “extreme” tonight because the addiction we are talking about here has reached an extreme level.
With the introduction of extreme resource extraction processes, we are all in danger. These low grade resources exist in many places, anywhere could be the next sacrifice zone. In Western Wisconsin, where I grew up, there are thick layers of sand under the topsoil. For nearly 150 years, there has not been any kind of resource extraction other than family dairy farming. But now with the fracking boom, in only 3 years about 150 large-scale sand mining operations have opened up, with dozens more proposed. It is totally transforming the landscape, and because everything is moving so fast, there are no regulations and very little consideration of long-term effects.
I made this map when I was trying to figure out for myself where all that Wisconsin sand is going. The sand is being used for fracking, primarily in the Dakotas, but also it is going to Ohio and Pennsylvania, and soon it will be traveling in ever-larger quantities to Michigan, Illinois, and other locations.
The Bakken Shale in the Dakotas mostly yields oil. This oil is used to make fuel, fertilizers and pesticides, plastics, and countless chemicals. Natural gas that comes from fracking in other regions is being used for some things you may find more surprising. For one, it is displacing coal in power-plants. I say dis-placing rather than re-placing, because we are still mining just as much coal, only now more of it is being sent to other places. Coal is used not only to generate electricity, but also to make steel, concrete, numerous chemicals, and it powers almost all manufacturing because it is so cheap and abundant. Think about that for a moment – what in our world is made out of steel, concrete, chemicals, or cheap plastic crap? Everything! It is the foundation of our industrialized economy. And now, more and more US coal is being shipped overseas, especially to India and China, to fuel the development booms there and to power rapidly expanding factory zones – factories that make a lot of plastic stuff that gets shipped back to here, consuming more oil all along the way. Oil and coal have both made the might of the US military empire, especially post-World War II, when countless factories were built or converted to contribute to the war effort.
Natural gas is also used to power the Alberta tar sands refineries, for electricity and heat needed to separate the bitumen. Tar sands oil travels in pipelines out to the coast for refining and export. Chinese investors, again, are particularly interested and invested in the tar sands. Here the US military gets concerned, because they see the tar sands as a “domestic” source of energy, a strategic resource to be aggressively protected.
Coal and oil are being imported into sulfide mining areas to power huge mining machines. To power the proposed Penokee Hills Mine, the company wants to build a 300 megawatt coal plant. And all those giant dump trucks consume lots of oil. The metals that come out of sulfide mining go to many destinations. Iron is made into steel, of course. Nickel, copper, and zinc are in thousands of products all around us every day, but they are also crucial components in making bullets and bombs, so there is the military interest again. I would also like to take a moment to talk about gold. We all know that gold is used to make electronics, but actually only about 10% of it is used for that, while about 40% is used to make jewelry. The other 50% is made into gold ingots, to be buried in heavily guarded underground vaults – which is basically where it was to begin with!
Sulfide minerals also may contain elements known as “rare earths” – the scientific name is lanthanides. They have a whole row on the periodic table, right above the radioactive elements, and they have weird names like Neodymium, Prometheum, and Ytterbium. Rare earths are widely dispersed heavy metals, hard to find on the earth’s surface, and they are very valuable. Most geologists estimate that about 90% of the recoverable rare earths are in China, so once again the military is paying close attention to these resources. They are very valuable not only because they are rare, but because they have unique electric qualities and are used in many high-tech applications. Rare earths are used in catalytic converters. They are used to make batteries, especially the new kinds like those found in hybrid cars, and they are used in solar panels and LED lights too. They are used in fiber optic cables – the physical infrastructure of the internet is based on rare earths. Computers are completely dependent on rare earths – they are in smart phones and in smart bombs, in satellites, GPS devices, and drones.
So I started by asking “where is all the sand going?” and I found that it was going all over the world and back again, through a convoluted series of processes. Each step along the way is inefficient, violent, wasteful, especially destructive to life-giving water sources, and dependent on maintaining a colonial system that makes war and ravaged landscapes the norm. And all of that is so that I can have this cell-phone. And if I wanna stay hip, I gotta buy the new model every 3 months right?
There is a term in the mining industry called “rock bottom” – it means we have hit bedrock and there is nothing left. Rock bottom is also used in the language of addiction. It is the point where there is only one choice left o be made – to change or to die. With an economy based on trickery and extortion, a government subservient to greedy corporations, and a military that barely thinks twice about killing people around the world in order to steal their resources, I fear that our society is fast approaching that point.