Ebola Expertise Veers Epidemic


The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is both terrible and horrifying. But it should not be, for those of us lucky enough not to live in the region, terrifying. That is, it should evoke the empathetic emotion horror; it should not invoke the irrational response terror.

Let me be clear up front that I’m not an epidemiologist or biologist. I’m a reporter of wide interests. But by education I’m an evolutionist.

Let me also be clear that evolutionary biology is not a seer. But it it is sound science. And its lessons suggest informed citizens should give the side-eye to the freakout over Ebola by two prominent people who should know better, and, more important, throw shade at the media outlets who keep giving them column-inches to freak out upon.

I’m talking about Laurie Garrett and Michael Osterholm. Garrett is the author of The Coming Plague and the senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. The Coming Plague won a Pulitzer. Osterholm is an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Minnesota. Last week he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times purporting to reveal “what we’re afraid to say about Ebola"—namely, that it will evolve from a bodily-fluid-borne disease to an airborne one.

The Coming Plague came out twenty years ago. The plague hasn’t come. Osterholm has been predicting the breakout of high-mortality, tropical, Third World disease into the industrial, sub-tropical West for years. It hasn’t happened.

Yet the auguestest of august media institutions—the voices of record in the U.S.—continue to reward them for their alarmist prognostications. No doubt this is good for page-views. It’s also bad science, bad for science, and bad for institutions like the CDC, which can only do their work—protecting the U.S. from disease threats—well when they can do it independently. Public panic in a democracy makes that difficult.

Reporters who value analysis over hype and evidence over projection should consider speaking with Paul W. Ewald, who, like Garrett, published a widely lauded book in 1994. Unfortunately it had the unsexy title Evolution of Infectious Disease. A plague of scientists descended upon it wielding praise; The Coming Plague, unfortunately, infected the Pulitzer committee before it could book its tickets.

In his book, Ewald confronted a deathless axiomatic assumption of pathogens—that they “want” to kill—with a foundational tenet of evolutionary theory: that organisms’ sole measure of success is their own propagation. Logical progression from this tenet suggests that, since pathogens rely on hosts to propagate, evolution will encourage pathogens not to kill, but simply to incapacitate their hosts. When the hosts are human, dead hosts get buried or burned. Living hosts draw potential new hosts—moms, friends, nurses, doctors—to their side. Thus do pathogens find outlets.

And lo, evidence backed Ewald up. His research strongly suggested that the mode of transmission—and definitively disproved that some innate “desire”—is the primary influence on pathogenic virulence. For instance, water-borne diseases like dysentery, easily spread to large host populations by a common resource, evolve toward relatively high, though not rapidly fatal, virulence. But pathogens that transmit only after considerable effort by their hosts—the common cold, HIV—evolve toward benignity. Colds are mostly spread by mucosal contact—your coworker sneezes, then opens the office door; you open it later, then pick your nose. HIV spreads via sexual contact—a fraught and complex social vector. (HIV, speaking of benignity, doesn’t kill; in fact, it multiplies slowly in its hosts, in Ewald’s view because evolution favors this: slow growth leaves more time for each host to spread the infection. But HIV’s devastating effect on the immune system invites other, deadlier infections.) Ewald explains his theory and evidence in detail in this PBS interview.

As for Ebola, Ewald’s evolutionary theory of disease argues against panic.

In the Times, Osterholm raises the specter of an airborne version of the virus, despite the fact that no known disease has ever switched from one mode of transmission to another. Ebola is transmitted via bodily fluids, not air. Suggesting that this might change is akin to suggesting that cobras might develop wings: a frightening image; a preposterous idea.

For her part, Garrett writes in Foreign Policy that

Nothing short of heroic, record-breaking mobilization is necessary at this late stage in the epidemic. Without it, I am prepared to predict that by Christmas, there could be up to 250,000 people cumulatively infected in West Africa. At least 30 nations around the world, I dare predict, will have had an isolated case gain entry inside their borders, and some will be struggling as Nigeria now is, tracking down all possibly exposed individuals and hoping to stave off secondary spread. World supplies of PPEs (personal protective equipment, or “space suits”), latex gloves, goggles, booties — all the elements of protection — will be tapped out, demand exceeding manufacturing capacity, and an ugly competition over basic equipment will be underway. The great African economic miracle will be reversing, not just in the hard-hit countries but regionally, as the entire continent gets painted with the Ebola fear brush.

That’s a lot of being prepared and daring to predict. And Garrett’s  doomsday scenario goes on from there, propagating like an airborne hemorrhagic Ingmar Bergman film. But little of it is anchored in firm evidence. And appearing as it does in FP, America’s most steadfast mouthpiece of Something Must Be Done punditry, that lack of evidence glows like neon.

Here’s the thing: Pathogens are stupid. Literally brainless. And humans are smart. Indeed, we are so smart that we often outsmart ourselves—we smoke, we skip the condom, because we invent reasons to believe that “It won’t happen to me.” But Ebola is not lung cancer or HIV. It presents itself plainly, quickly, and ruthlessly. And so people respond plainly, quickly, and directly. Liberian journalist Makanfi Kamara describes the way Liberians have already—wisely and sadly—altered their familiar, convivial social relations to thwart the disease.

That pragmatism alone will do more—far more—to stop the outbreak than any of the vague “responses” Western pundits are demanding. And the UN, the U.S. military, and other highly experienced and capable institutions are preparing direct interventions that promise to do even more.

People, in short, evolve faster than disease. Or can evolve faster than disease. That potential is increased by evidence and expertise. It is reduced by irresponsible projection and clickbait.

Image: Ebola virion, public domain via the CDC and Wikipedia.

Dammed if you do


My old friend and fellow journalist McKenzie Funk hipped me to a really impressive piece of reporting out of Brazil. The Folha de Sao Paulo (the nation’s largest newspaper) has produced an immersive study of the Belo Monte project, which will see the construction of the third most productive hydroelectric dam in the world—and the destruction of a sizable patch of rainforest and the displacement or death of its human and wild denizens.

The Folha piece is long, but worth your time. The United States had largely completed its iconic hydro projects by 1970, two generations ago (Hoover, 1934; Grand Coulee, 1942; Glen Canyon, 1966). It’s easy to assume that the rest of the world worked on the same timeline. But it didn’t. Major hydroelectric projects are underway all over the globe, as billions of people enter the modern, electrified economy for the first time. Each dam forces a difficult cost-benefit decision, with economic (and downstream) benefits on one side and environmental and social disruption on the other. The Folha piece illuminates the universal conundrum with its remarkably deep and broad study of Belo Monte.

I’m interested in dams in part because they are often built expressly to power mines and smelters. This is not the case with Belo Monte, which will power homes and businesses in Brazilian cities, but not all that far to its north is the example par terrible. The Afobaka Dam, in Suriname, was built by Alcoa in the early 1960s to provide electricity to its major aluminum operation there. Afobaka is about as simple as dams come. It’s an earthen dike, or embankment, with a single concrete section housing a hydro plant. But it is remarkable in one way: it is by far the least efficient hydroelectric dam ever built.

One way to express the efficiency of a hydro project is in hectares per megawatt—that is, the area flooded by the dam’s reservoir relative to its electrical output. A 2003 World Bank report (“Good Dams and Bad Dams”) ranks 49 significant projects according to this criteria. At one extreme, the Arun II dam in Nepal and Pehuenche dam in Chile have ratios of less than one: each flooded hectare generates more than a megawatt. At the other extreme is Afobaka (a.k.a. Brokopondo). It produces a measly 30 megawatts. But to get it, the dam drowns more than 1,500 square kilometers of Surinamese jungle. That works out to an appalling 5,333 hectares per megawatt. The drowned area is considerably larger than Los Angeles. The electricity would barely keep the lights on in Barstow.

Measured by this metric, Belo Monte is among the “best” dams in the world: Its hectares-to-electricity ratio is just over 4. At 11,000 megawatts from a reservoir of 45,000 hectares, Belo Monte will produce 366 times more electricity than Afobaka while flooding an area only a third as large.

But, of course, the moral calculus for building Belo, and any dam, is much more complex and much less black-and-white than a simple ratio. As mining firms, bringing with them the dams they need, seek to push further into the remaining wild corners of the globe, it’s to be hoped that those doing the math look beyond the value of a mine’s ore, and beyond the few decades of a mine’s working life, when answering the question of whether to build. The world needs what mining produces. But mining doesn’t need to produce another Afobaka.

Image of drowned trees in the Brokopondo (Afobaka) Reservoir. By Rutger Hermsen / Creative Commons.

Big pebbles make big ripples

I am, obviously, fascinated by mines. I’m no longer exactly awed by them, but I am glad when I can help others feel awe, as Gizmodo’s Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan did after reading my 2013 Pacific Standard feature about Bingham Canyon Mine, “The New Bronze Age”. My hope is that awe will give way to excited curiosity and finally a sober grasp of what these mines represent: the inevitable consequence of a growing, increasingly wealthy and technology-dependent human population. That was my path. I think it’s a wise one, and I hope to lead others down it.

The reason I think it’s a wise path is foreshadowed in some important but underreported developments over the past few months regarding the proposed Pebble copper mine. 

Pebble, in southwest Alaska, would be colossal by every measure. The verified ore deposits are worth half a trillion dollars. It contains at least 80 billion pounds of copper—about $250 billion worth at today’s price—and an equal treasury of molybdenum, gold, silver, palladium, and ultra-rare, ultra-valuable rhenium (it makes jet engines work). It’s by far the largest, richest single mine in development in the world. If fully realized, it would  physically and financially dwarf Bingham Canyon, the biggest and most productive manmade hole on earth. And like all mines of its species, it would support some of the most basic and vital industries: electricity generation and delivery, construction, automaking, tooling and dies, oil extraction and refining, aerospace.

On the flip side, the Pebble mine would produce one of the biggest toxic-waste sites on earth—in its largest potential configuration, as much as 10 billion tons of rock and slurry, rich in sulfuric acid and dissolved metals like lead and arsenic. This waste material, called tailings, is an unavoidable consequence of processing copper ore and exposing the byproduct to water—to rainfall and snow. According to Pebble documents filed with the state of Alaska, the mines tailings would be stored (as at most mines) behind huge dams—one of them, at 2 miles long and 700 feet high, the largest tailings dam ever constructed. The tailings dams would lie in the watershed of Bristol Bay, the most important chinook salmon fishery in the world, and a dam failure would be an environmental and economic catastrophe. (Our Bristol Bay, an organization that opposes Pebble, has a summary of its concerns here.)

Which brings us to the events of the past several months. They boil down to these: The EPA stated its intent to block the Pebble mine unilaterally, using a rarely-invoked power granted it under Clean Water Act. The mine’s developers lost their remaining major partner, mining giant Rio Tinto, which walked away from more than half a billion dollars of investment. And the mine’s supporters, including several power Republican members of Congress, vowed to fight the EPA and even strip it of its power.

In short: some very big players made some very big moves that will have very big consequences, for the Pebble mine itself, for other proposed mines around the world—which are now more attractive to developers—for American environmental law, and, of course, for the magnificent and vulnerable Alaskan wilderness. Quite literally, for our land.

But unless you follow Pebble specifically, or you live in Alaska, odds are you’ve never read a single story about this.

That’s one reason I believe it is wise for civilians to understand the mining industry: because it involves big players whose far-off decisions have enormous consequences for everyone and every thing downstream from their seats of power.

But I think it’s wiser still simply not to hold mines in awe—not to grant them that god-like power and remove. For this reason: Because they exist for and at the beckoning of regular people like you and me. They don’t exist at a remove, and they aren’t machinae ex deus. They exist because we demand what they provide.

Economic realities and EPA regulations can and do stop the building of a mine now and then, but if the sight of Bingham Canyon or the specter of Pebble fills you with dread, that’s no comfort. Another mine in a other land will takes its place—and the process will continue until there are fewer of us on this planet, or we decide to consume a lot less of its resources.

Image: Ando Hiroshige, Rough Sea at Naruto in Awa Province, 1855.

59 Tons and What Do You Get?


A few weeks ago, in the heart of a winter that now seems to be ending, I wrote a piece for Slate about my snow shovel. In fact it’s not a snow shovel, but a old coal shovel, and it’s a highly refined piece of equipment. The article has the details, but the essentials are these: In the early 1900s, Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific business management, went to the Bethlehem Steel factory in Pennsylvania and measured the output of its army of shovelers. Some of them were tasked with moving dense coal, some even denser pig iron, some lightweight materials like ash. But all used the same model of shovel. This meant that some laborers were lifting 40 pounds or more in each shovel-load, and others 5 pounds or less.

Taylor recognized that this created huge inefficiencies. His study identified 22.5 pounds as the ideal weight for a laborer to lift, being neither fatiguingly heavy nor wastefully light. Bethlehem Steel refitted its workers with new shovels, some larger and some smaller. In place of normalized form, it adopted normalized effort. As a result, the average laborer went from moving 16 tons of material per eight-hour shift to 59 tons.

This had profound and ambivalent consequences. Bethlehem Steel, the business, hugely increased its efficiency and profitability. Bethlehem, the community, was shattered. Fully two-thirds of its dominant employer’s labor force was laid off. Hundreds of families lost their sole source of income. In ensuing years “Taylorism” became one of the chief motivating forces of the early American labor movement, and Bethlehem became its rallying cry.

But to return to my purpose in writing this: When researching the Slate piece, I was struck by the vital figure 59 tons. It’s even bigger than it sounds to American ears. Taylor measured British long tons, which in avoirdupois equals not the 2,000 pounds we’re used to, but 2,235. So Bethlehem’s Taylorized laborers were shoveling nearly 132,000 pounds of material a day.

A big number, but one that’s hard to visualize, so out of curiosity I did some math. This incredibly handy list of the densities of various solids puts coal—anthracite and bituminous differentiated—as having a mass of 1,200 to 1,800 kilograms per cubic meter. Not knowing which type Bethlehem used, I averaged the mass to 1,500 kg/m3. Converting that to avoirdupois yields a volume for 59 short tons of coal of roughly 46 cubic yards. And that allows a familiar comparison.

American dumpsters come in standard lengths and widths; their heights vary. The XL model, the sort you often walk past at construction sites, holds 40 cubic yards. You can recognize it easily. It’s eight feet high—too high to peep into, versus the 6-foot-tall 30-cubic-yard and 4-foot-tall 20-cubic-yard versions.

So the average coal-shoveler at Bethlehem Steel in 1911, the year Taylor published his seminal Principles of Scientific Management, moved enough coal each working day to fill one of our biggest dumspters. Enough to fill it and then some, in fact; enough to make a rounded dumpster-full.

Now picture doing that yourself. And keep that image in mind whenever you give a thought to the remaining laborers of today, and whenever you ponder the earthmoving machines that have largely replaced them. Their capacities are measured in horsepower. But their true measure is in human muscle. It has been replaced by hydraulic force, to the great benefit of economic efficiency and the great loss of living wages.

* About the title: it’s from an old song.

Image of a CNR shoveler from the City of Vancouver Archives.

Ash Wednesday


These days I do a fair amount of work for Matter, the online magazine, and today a piece I copy- and line-edited (and fact-checked in an ad hoc fashion) went live. “When the Rivers Run Black" is Rachel Cernansky’s deep investigation of the aftermath of the December 2008 Kingston, Tennessee, coal ash spill. This was a terrible industrial disaster, by some measures the worst in U.S. history. The human and environmental aftermath was swift and clear: the spill, of 5 million cubic yards of coal ash slurry, destroyed homes, killed wildlife, choked two rivers, and contaminated the immediate area and a huge swath of land and water downstream with toxic elements including arsenic, mercury, and hexavalent chromium. Half a million cubic yards of the slurry were deliberately left on the riverbeds rather than removed; they will eventually be sealed in by natural sedimentation.

The regulatory aftermath is only clear now. It amounts to a whopping zero. Coal ash, an unavoidable waste product of coal-fired electrical power plants, was essentially unregulated before Kingston, and it remains so today. It’s easy, and not unreasonable, to point fingers at the coal and power industries for resisting regulation, and at the EPA and state agencies for kowtowing to their pressure.

It’s difficult, but more accurate and useful, to point fingers at us, the public, for not insisting on change. Certain costs of modern life have caught the public imagination and led to stronger environmental protections. Lead paint, leaded gas, energy and fuel efficiency: the list is familiar. Its entries share in common the obvious personal costs associated with each. Lead harms children. Inefficient cars and appliances harm wallets.

Electricity, though, is one of those essential modern resources that’s largely taken for granted. What it costs is a concern for most homeowners; how it’s made isn’t. Well, 40 percent of it in this country is made by burning coal, and burning coal means making coal ash, and making coal ash means storing it somewhere. And that means occasional devastating incidents like Kingston. Like the wastes associated with mining basic materials—iron, copper, gravel—that I write about, coal ash generally isn’t a problem until it becomes a disaster. Then the public demands, and generally gets, a response to the crisis. But the coal and power industries know well that if they address the crisis, the public will soon forget its cause. And it’s the cause that regulation would address. Don’t hold your breath. Or maybe, do.

Image: Fly ash magnified to 750x, by user wabeggs, via Wikimedia Commons.

Elemental threats


As I begin working in earnest on my book project, I’ve been chewing this recent paper by Thomas Graedel et al in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Graedel is one of the leading scholars of industrial ecology — the study of the flow of energy and materials through the modern economy. And as any industrial ecologist will tell you (as will I, until you’re sick of hearing it), the pathway almost always begins underground, in a deposit of ore or oil.

In “On the materials basis of modern society,” Graedel and his colleagues note an often overlooked characteristic of modern technology: that it uses a much greater diversity of elemental materials than it did just 50, let alone 100, years ago. The aerospace superalloys I’ve written about, the microprocessors in my “phone made of aluminum, copper, and sand," the petrochemical catalysts that I’m beginning to write about now — these all rely on small amounts of vanishingly rare elements in order to function. Graedel et al identify 62 of these, and rate them according to what you might call their criticality. If an element can be satisfactorily substituted by another, its criticality score drops. If their is no substitute, its criticality rises.

And if you’ve ever heard me rant about copper, you won’t be surprised to learn that none of the 62 elements has a perfect substitute, and most of them have only poor substitutes or no substitute at all. In other words: to the extent that we rely on the technologies that use them, we rely on maintaining the supply of these extraordinarily rare materials.

Reports like this tend to result in silly, sensationalist media coverage — “We’re Running Out of X,” “The End of Y,” “A World Without Z”. So it was very pleasant to find Brad Plumer’s nuanced, non-panicky summary of the report in today’s Washington Post. (His headline writer succumbed to the sensationalism disease, however.)

Here’s the reality: We are in no danger of running out of any industrially important element. Even at scarcities measured in parts per billion, there are thousands of tons of each of them in the earth’s crust.

The danger, rather, is that supplying some of these elements will become considerably more expensive in the coming decades. In part this will be due simply to increased demand pinching existing supply. But in part it’s because many of these elements are produced as byproducts of more common materials which are themselves being depleted. Rhenium, critical for superalloys, is largely a byproduct of copper mining, for example. But as existing copper ore bodies are used up, that supply will dry up — and not all the new copper ore deposits contain rhenium. (If you follow this general field, you also encounter concern that some of the elements may become political chesspieces, with those who own the ore (read: China, Russia, and their client states) withholding it from the market to extract what amounts to bribes or obeisance from those who need it (read: the U.S. and Europe). For reasons too long to go into here, I think this is largely fantasy — although American politicians certainly use the specter of materials shortages to push for relaxation of restrictions on mining on public lands.)

At any rate, this is the danger from an economic perspective. From an ecological perspective, the danger is what we’ll do in response to the supply crunch. As I’m fond of noting, all the mines in the world could shut down tomorrow and we’d still be able to get all the metals we desire. We’d just have to boil off the ocean to distill the metals dissolved in it. That’s an extreme example, of course. But it’s not at all difficult to imagine us making ever greater concessions to our own needs, at the cost of our conservationist values and the already precarious health of the planet, as we dig ever deeper and further afield. Here’s a bet I’d take: we’ll run out of breathable air, drinkable water, and recognizable wilderness before we stop chasing any of the 62 elements in the Graedel report.

Closeup of image from Wikipedia.

Honors Due


A couple of weekends back, Andrew Sullivan posted Breece D’J Pancake’s “Trilobites" as that week’s "Short Story for Saturday." He kindly linked to an article about Pancake that I wrote for The Atlantic Unbound nearly a decade ago. 

I had not thought about that article in years, but Pancake is often on my mind, and always in my blood. No writer worth the name simply apes the words and style of any other, but all of us learn from and emulate a handful of writers whose work does the things we hope to do ourselves, in our own way. I’d list John McPhee, Ian Frazier, and Wilfrid Sheed, three masters of nonfiction; and Pancake, a master of fiction. Here’s how “Trilobites” begins:

I open the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave.

If asked to summarize what it is about Pancake’s writing that hits me between the eyes, I’d say it’s his combinations of verbal economy and expansive vision, and rootedness in a physical place with a porous sense of time. In the seven sentences above, Pancake gives us a truck, a town (and not just any town, but a mining town: Company Hill got its name for a reason), a river, the air, the season, the birds in the air, and his narrator’s presence there and not somewhere else. “I have never very much wanted to leave.” So he did want to leave, a little bit, but he stayed instead. Why? That’s the seduction. It’s what makes you keep reading. Breece knew how to tell a story.

But in those same seven sentences, time shifts from a crystal-clear now to a misty “long time ago” to the liquid flow of river over stone for “over a million years” to the narrator’s own youth, when he looked all over the hill for trilobytes—which must be older yet than hill and river—to the limitless reaches of past and future (“always been there and always will be”), to a vaguely sensed gathering doom (“at least for as long as it matters”), and finally back to the crystalline now, and the starlings. We readers know where we are. When we are is a slipperier thing.

And oh, those starlings. They don’t fly, they swim. In air made of summertime. The way the trilobites once swam, or crawled anyway, in a sea that once lay where the starlings now soar, on a seabed that became a craggy island that has been worn down to a rounded hill. One word triggers all those connections, all those startling equivalencies between distant planes of time and space. It could have been any of a dozen words. But swim was the magic word. And Pancake knew to pluck it from the deck to disturb and delight his audience.

I would have become a writer without Pancake. And I am not confident that anyone would, unprompted, see parallels between his technique and mine. But they’re there, because Pancake is always here with me. I first read him 15 or 20 years ago, when I pulled his collected stories off a shelf in the home of family friends in West Virginia—the state Pancake called home for most of his too-brief life. It was his odd name* that caught my eye, but his stories quickly wiped my silly grin. He was above all an astonishing craftsman, and when I write now his same level, though not his exact form, of craftsmanship is my goal. Proportionality, not consistency; balance, not symmetry; contrast, not perfection; words, as Pancake continually reminds me, are the tools of art, not the product.

* About that name. Pancake is a common surname in West Virginia; open a phonebook there and you’ll find lots of listings under it. It probably began as a mean joke by an officer at Ellis Island or other port of entry, who changed the German Pfannekuche to its English equivalent. Breece himself was just Breece D. J. Pancake—Dexter John—but when the galleys for “Trilobites,” his first published story, came back from The Atlantic, the odd “D’J” had somehow been typeset. He apparently thought this was a hoot and asked that it be kept. When I was an intern at The Atlantic in 2000, an editor who had been there when Breece was writing gave me the correct pronunciation: Deh-JAY.

Breece Pancake shot himself in 1979 at age 26. His thirteen completed stories—seven of them published posthumously—were collected as The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake in 1983. The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “I give you my word of honor that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I’ve ever read. What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good.” 

Image from Wikipedia Portugal.

Heavy metal Thanksgiving


Tomorrow, “winter storm Boreas" bedamned, most Americans will sit down to what The New York Times dubs “the year’s most important meal.” We’ll overeat, go through the five stages of guilt, and eat nothing but kale on Friday to atone.

But there are appetites that know no limits of date or conscience, and that dwarf our annual lust for Melagro gallopavo. The aluminum roasting pans in the photo above hint at their nature and their scale. To make these quintessential single-use luxury items (No cleanup! Just throw them away when you’re done!), vast chunks of the planet are dug up, pulverized, and electrocuted. And to make the electricity, vast other chunks of the planet are dug up—I’m speaking of coal here—and incinerated, sending vast quantities of carbon dioxide and much nastier stuff, like sulfur dioxide and mercury, into the atmosphere.

Two points to make. The first is familiar to readers of this site and my other writings: the modern, digital, notionally “green” society we live in in fact is based on ancient, physical, decidedly un-green materials. Aluminum, iron, copper, cement; oil, water, stone. Getting them from where they are to where they’re demanded, and turning them from their natural forms into usable derivatives, consumes almost unimaginable quantities of money, fuel, and effort. Tomorrow, Americans will cook 700 million pounds or so of turkey. While we’re chewing, the world will smelt about 15 billion pounds of iron ore, and dig up about 46 billion pounds of Mother Earth in the pursuit of copper. That’s a mouthful. And it’s not something we consume once a year. It’s what we consume every day of the year.

Related to this, the second point: I said “most Americans will sit down to eat” deliberately. Ore doesn’t mine itself. Smelters don’t smelt by themselves. And mines and smelters don’t shut down for holidays. Tomorrow, thousands of people will get their Thanksgiving meal out of a lunchbox. Spare them a thought.

Photo by me, using a phone made of aluminum, copper, and sand.

Pandora’s cavern


One of my interests highlighted in the Esquire “Big Analog” feature is large-scale mining. Over the summer I wrote about copper mining for Pacific Standard, and in that piece I described at length the Bingham Canyon mine, outside of Salt Lake City, which is the oldest open-pit mine on earth and the largest hole ever dug by man.

In the same article I mentioned half a dozen or so new or planned mines that will rival or even surpass Bingham in scale, output, and/or technical challenge. One of them, the proposed Resolution mine in Arizona, took a big step toward reality last week. After years of planning, the two giant mining firms that own the Resolution project—BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto—formally launched the permitting process.

By any measure Resolution is a major prospect. It could produce a billion pounds of copper a year, run for more than 60 years, employ thousands of workers, and earn tens of billions of dollars. But it’s the physical nature of the planned mine that really makes jaws drop. The Resolution ore deposit isn’t on the surface of the earth, just waiting for the shovels. It’s 7,000 feet underground. To get it out, the companies plan to dig under it, then dynamite the ceiling and let the ore collapse under its own weight into extraction tunnels bored through the rock below. The Resolution website has a good explanation of the process, with video.

As with any large mining project, there is controversy and bitter political opposition. The mine plan rests on the transfer—in trade for other land—of a square mile-and-a-half of public property. And the mine site is  very near to Apache Leap, a dramatic cliff that draws tourists, and to land held sacred by the San Carlos Apache people.

Wait, wait, you may be asking: the mine is underground. How come there’s so much worry about the land above? Two reasons. First, to pull a billion pounds of copper out of the mine each year, the companies will have to pull out approximately 100 billion pounds of ore—98.5 billion pounds of which is garbage, which has to be dumped somewhere. And copper tailings, as this garbage is known, aren’t very welcome neighbors.

Second, when you pull half a cubic mile of rock out from underground, the land above collapses into the void. Like so. Some are concerned that this subsidence will threaten Apache Leap, although the mine engineers are confident that it won’t. But I think the concern comes from a visceral, not a logical, place in the human mind. We have already dug thousands of Resolution-size holes into the earth the standard way, from above, in our pursuit of copper, iron, and other metals. But those holes are really no different from, and no scarier than, the holes we dug as kids in our sandboxes. There’s something much more alarming about digging so big, so deep underground, that the bones of the earth itself crack and collapse. Maybe it triggers fear of our own power. Or maybe it triggers the ancient fear of waking something terrible that’s been sleeping down there in the dark.

Image: The Eyes of God, a natural geologic formation in Bulgaria’s Prohodna cave. Via Wikipedia.

Clooney, Pharrell, and me

The picture above is of pages 146 and 147 of the December Esquire. To my continuing surprise and honor, it shows off some of my work from the last two years (with more on 148 and 149), and names me and my “big analog” journalism among the Best & Brightest of 2013.

Also, the editors’ introduction compares me to Boswell, which is hard to credit but easy to accept.

The article isn’t yet online. You can wait a few weeks for it to be so, and then read it for free, but for reasons personal and professional I hope you’ll pick up—pay for, to be plain about it—a print issue. Making a magazine is expensive; making one as overstuffed, creative, and wide-ranging as Esquire is very, very expensive. It takes a lot of people doing a lot of work to create a single issue that covers—among other things—the Boston Marathon bombings, a radical new cancer treatment, and Hollywood’s tentative steps into S&M cinema. Oh, and Pharrell WIlliams and George Clooney and a guy who writes about industrial “colossi of another time.” Y’know: Esquire men.