A powerful and poetic story from National Geographic about the “21st Century Gold Rush“.
No single element has tantalized and tormented the human imagination more than the shimmering metal known by the chemical symbol Au. For thousands of years the desire to possess gold has driven people to extremes, fueling wars and conquests, girding empires and currencies, leveling mountains and forests. Gold is not vital to human existence; it has, in fact, relatively few practical uses. Yet its chief virtues—its unusual density and malleability along with its imperishable shine—have made it one of the world’s most coveted commodities, a transcendent symbol of beauty, wealth, and immortality.
The price of gold has soared by 235 percent in the ast 8 years, but global supplies are dwindling.
Now the world’s richest deposits are fast being depleted, and new discoveries are rare. Gone are the hundred-mile-long gold reefs in South Africa or cherry-size nuggets in California. Most of the gold left to mine exists as traces buried in remote and fragile corners of the globe. It’s an invitation to destruction. But there is no shortage of miners, big and small, who are willing to accept.
And, what came as a surprise to me, was who is (or isn’t) the top consumer of gold in the world.
Nowhere is the gold obsession more culturally entrenched than it is in India. Per capita income in this country of a billion people is $2,700, but it has been the world’s runaway leader in gold demand for several decades. In 2007, India consumed 773.6 tons of gold, about 20 percent of the world gold market and more than double that purchased by either of its closest followers, China (363.3 tons) and the U.S. (278.1 tons).
The article goes on to document the wars, violence, crime, and degradation (human and ecological) wraught by the continuing gold frenzy. Armies of migrant workers labor tirelessly extracting the gold from precarious environments while armies and countries often profit off these trades amidst civil and regional wars.
Juxtaposed to these images of “artisanal” gold mining is industrial gold mining, which accounts for 3/4 of today’s gold extraction.
[Industrial] Gold mining, however, generates more waste per ounce than any other metal, and the mines’ mind-bending disparities of scale show why: These gashes in the Earth are so massive they can be seen from space, yet the particles being mined in them are so microscopic that, in many cases, more than 200 could fit on the head of a pin.
The article is pretty lengthy, but the stories are fascinating. From Peru to Indonesia, gold is leaving a not so sterling mark on much of this world.