Remember the mines before China buys them all

by Timothy James LeCain

In 1911, Thomas Edison received an odd gift from some Western mining executives: a cubic foot of solid copper. The aging inventor joked that the 486-pound cube might make a nice paperweight. He kept it on display at his New Jersey laboratory, a shiny reminder that the light bulb that made him rich and famous owed much to a metal gouged from the ground somewhere out West.

Exactly a century later, even a modern-day Edison like Steven Jobs can forget that his iPads and MacBooks depend on basic metals from the earth. In all the recent media frenzy over Jobs' health and the new iPad, it was easy to miss the news that the Apple CEO had finally succeeded in demolishing a California mansion built by the Utah copper-mining genius, Daniel Jackling.

In 2001, Jobs sought permission to raze the sprawling Jackling mansion near San Francisco to build a new home. Historic preservationists challenged him in court, but fairly or not, Jobs thought the house was ugly and lectures on California architectural history did not convince him otherwise. But Jobs might have been persuaded to at least move the house to another site had he understood how much his iGadgets depend on Jackling's Utah copper.

Few remember him now, but in his own time Jackling was nearly as influential as Jobs is today. Jackling invented the modern open-pit mine, an immensely destructive new mining technology that gave the world billions of pounds of cheap copper. His gigantic Bingham Pit south of Salt Lake City bred dozens of similar pits in Arizona, Nevada and Montana. Together, those pits electrified America.

That Jobs was probably unaware of Jackling's importance suggests how little we care about metals today. A century ago, many Americans shared Edison's appreciation for mining and minerals, and books on the Western mines with titles like Romantic Copper were popular. Many of the nation's brightest young technical talents became mining engineers, including a future president, Herbert Hoover.

Mining and metals mattered -- they were even sexy.     

No more. Once the nation had been electrified, we quickly forgot about the millions of tons of Western copper buried under cities, strung along highways and encased in walls. Today, when online avatars pay real money for digital bronze swords, the actual copper and tin needed to make bronze seem quaintly old-fashioned. Even in the West, many now recognize mining's devastating environmental costs, yet fewer remember the benefits. Meanwhile, Americans all continue to consume imported metals at prodigious rates.

Ironically, digital wizards like Jobs have made us more dependent on copper and other metals, not less. Many were surprised recently to discover that China mines 97 percent of the world's supply of rare earth metals essential to cell phones, wind turbines and hybrid cars. When China slashed exports earlier this year, global prices soared. And whether they are slaying dragons in cyberspace or just brewing their morning coffee, every American depends on about 550 pounds of copper to live comfortably.

Meanwhile, millions around the globe still have no access to electricity, and bringing them light and power will consume vast amounts of new copper. China's per capita copper consumption has already increased more than tenfold since 1974, India's more than fivefold.

Today, copper prices are at record highs as China and other nations race to buy up mines around the globe. Only a few weeks after Jobs razed Jackling's mansion, China's state-owned Minmetal Resources submitted an unsolicited bid of $6.5 billion for Equinox Minerals, a Toronto-based copper mining giant. If the takeover succeeds, the Chinese government will win control of the massive new Lumwana open-pit copper mine in Zambia, one of the largest such mines in Africa.

Last year, when he unveiled the iPad, Jobs called it "a magical" device. But slick technical magic can be dangerous when we forget how much we still depend on the metals from the Western -- and now global -- mines that keep all our fancy new gadgets humming.

Edison knew better; his cubic foot of copper may have helped keep him grounded. Jackling's decaying old mansion could have served as Jobs' copper cube, a chance to remember the giant mines in Arizona, Utah and other Western states that gave us national electrification while also exacting a steep price in environmental destruction. Instead, the technological world has become a bit more magical, our connections to the earth more obscure.

Timothy James LeCain is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an associate professor of history at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana, and author of the recent book, Mass Destruction: the Men and Giant Mines that Wired America and Scarred the Planet.


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