IGP Stories

Unearthing the Earth

Dr Bridget Storrie

29 April 2022

Attending a sustainable prosperity workshop as a mining specialist can be fraught. I was once asked by the organizer of one of them what ‘a nice girl’ like me is doing tied up with the extractive industry. She was holding her mobile phone in her hand as she talked, an intricate assemblage of minute pieces of mined ore keeping her connected to her social and academic networks, her family, and the daily churn of events, local and global, with which her life is entangled. Surely, she is as tied up with resource extraction as me?

Or perhaps not. I have been connected to the mining industry directly and indirectly for 26 years. I have worked as a consultant, been part of a mining-related research consortium in the Balkans and spent four years fossicking at three mines in Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo, as part of my PhD. But I have also been married to a mining engineer for all this time, moving our home from the UK to Namibia, Alaska, South Africa, Australia, northern Canada, Mongolia, Serbia, Namibia (again) and then back to northern Canada. For a quarter of a century, we have made and unmade our lives in relationship with uranium, gold, silver, copper, diamonds, and lithium and the deep complexities, controversies and questions that surround their extraction.

What I have learnt is that our human relationship with the geological strata that shape our lives is a strange one. The metals and minerals they yield mediate our relationships, change our behaviour, rewire our brains, and restart our hearts. They help shelter us, clothe us, and feed us. And yet, we seem reluctant to admit that we even know them. As Robert MacFarlane writes in his book Underland. A Deep Time Journey we are disinclined ‘to recognize the underland’s presence in our lives, or to admit its disturbing forms to our imaginations.’

We need to pay more attention to our relationship with the subterranean. We can’t talk about a net zero future, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, indigenous reconciliation, the future of the Balkans, for example, without also thinking about the metal and mineral-rich geological bodies beneath our feet and the peculiar things we want them to do for us.

The established way of understanding these bodies is not as nature, but as natural resource. According to this logic, the lithium-rich rock under Serbia, for example, exists to be used by people. The only question it invites is how? How can it be extracted in a way that contributes to local and national prosperity, causes minimal damage to the environment, avoids exacerbating conflict and leaves some sort of positive legacy behind for the people that live closest to it? Indeed, these geological bodies are sometimes known as extractive resources as if the question of their extraction is the extent of the challenge that they extend us.

This is the challenge mining companies engage with. The concept of the social licence to operate (SLO) is based on the idea that the economic, environmental, and social issues associated with extraction have been settled in a way that is satisfactory enough for a project to go ahead. It is also the challenge the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) takes up when it argues that well-managed mining can contribute to peacebuilding in countries recovering from violent conflict. It’s not the philosophical if of mining that’s at stake here, but the technical how.

A second way of thinking about these geological bodies turns this logic around. They are not natural resources but nature. They only become resources in relationship with us. We are the ones that decide they are useful, invest them with value and join their geological story to our human one. The problems associated with them are not just problems of extraction, therefore but also problems of human expectation and none of us are neutral there. As the geographer Gavin Bridge has said what we deem to be a natural resource tells us more about a society that it does about the substance itself. This is more complex territory not just for a mining company but for all of us. It hints at a different kind of resource-related problem that is not just about extraction but consumption, too.

It is easy to argue from this that we need to be more thoughtful about our patterns of extraction and consumption, and we do. We all know these are non-renewable resources and we can’t live beyond our geological means, forever. But it is also easy to remain stuck on the idea that this is our world, and we are the ones with the power to change it. Nature or natural resource. We are still in control.

Perhaps a little more humility is required.

I love looking at geological maps. They remind me that beneath the troubled surface we inhabit with our uneasy borders, our rhizomatic flows of people escaping war and economic hardship, and the walls and fences we build to restrain them there is another, deeper realm that carries on regardless. The former Yugoslav republics that collapsed into violent conflict thirty years ago and are still struggling to emerge from its legacy are situated on the same ancient geological belt rich in zinc, lead, silver, lithium, and bauxite that runs in stacked bands from northwest to southeast down the Balkan peninsula. There is a timeless (or timeful) geological story beneath our hasty human one.

It's tempting to claim at this point that we can learn something from this. That these ancient, slow-moving, subterranean bodies have something to teach us about our quick and greedy ways. Indeed, the geologist Marcia Bjornerud has written a wonderful book, Timefulness. How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Save the World, in which she does exactly that. As she argues, we have forgotten that our human stories are embedded in larger, longer – and still elapsing Earth stories whose constancy we take granted. We can learn something about endurance and resilience from the ancient rocks around us if we pay them more attention.

But when I look at those strange transgressive swirls on geological maps, it also makes me wonder what those deep strata are up to. What strange geological master plan might we be part of? Are we using them? Or might they be using us?

We are carriers of geology. Without humans, those slow-moving geological bodies would stay on their incremental subterranean trajectory to who-knows-where. Instead, we unearth them, and make them mobile. In our hands they become shapeshifters, space-travellers, and deep-sea divers. They are our buildings, our transportation systems, our energy networks, our means of communication, our medicines, and our war machines. They are our border fences, our bridges, our bullets, and our barriers. Our incubators and our MRI machines. Geology expresses itself in our politics, subtends our economies, ties our societies down and gives them heft, although not equally, for everyone. Through us those restless geological strata have become indispensable, and everywhere. They have come a long way since the Bronze Age.

They have become powerful, too. They change our relationships, undermine our ability to navigate and remove our need to remember things. They tell us how we sleep, where we have walked and what we might want to buy next. Our lives are increasingly encouraged, influenced, monitored, manipulated, directed, authorised, and forbidden by the lively geological entities with which we share them. Perhaps that feeling of excitement we get when we unwrap a new smartphone – what Jane Bennett refers to as the charged up feeling of consumerism – is a small, triumphant salute from the metals and minerals in our bloodstreams to the ones in the box in front of us.

In her book Vibrant Matter Jane Bennett argues for the vitality of things we consider inert - trash, food, wood, metals, minerals – as a means of engaging more ethically with the world. Her point is that we should treat these non-human entities more strategically, more carefully and with more civility, if we are to live better lives together.

Being more frugal with the resources necessary for human survival is too simple a response if we understand the world this way. Perhaps it is not just care that these troublesome strata demand, but curiosity, and respect. What sort of worlds are human bodies and geological bodies creating together? Who (or what) are these worlds for? And what alternatives exist?

In the end I think these geological bodies invite a much more difficult and a far more interesting question to the one we usually ascribe them. Not ‘how are we to extract?’ but ‘how are we to live?’ Humans and geology together. Not just now, but far into the future.

Dr Bridget Storrie is a trained mediator and a specialist in post-conflict peacebuilding and reconciliation.

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