Running or changing the Red Queen’s race – a review of Ugo Bardi’s ‘Extracted’ - By Griet Juwet

In his book ‘Extracted – how the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet’ (2014), Ugo Bardi looks at the depletion process of mineral resources. He gives an overview of how the earth’s valuable resources were formed in a delicate process that took billions of years. He also looks at the history of mining and the close relation between resources and society, showing how important empires in the course of human history have always depended on wealth created by the extraction of relatively cheap minerals. Throughout the book, it becomes clear how our current society of technology and consumption is based on, and completely dependent on, mineral resources and fossil fuels. As it turns out, not simply money but mining underpins economy, and therefore society and power.


Mining and energy - we will not run out of minerals, but we will run out of fossil fuels and cheap resources

The thesis of the book (a report to the Club of Rome) is that we will never completely run out of mineral resources. We will, however, probably within the coming decades, run out of cheap resources and of the cheap energy from the fossil fuels that we need, to extract more minerals. As mining has progressed, easy-to-extract and high grade ores have been depleted, and it becomes ever more (energy-) expensive to extract the minerals we need. More and more energy is required to obtain the pure elements we use, and today 10 percent of primary energy is used by the mining industry.
However, the energy used by the extractive industries is mostly based on fossil fuels, and these are rapidly being depleted as well. As we shift towards more difficult-to-extract resources (such as shale gas and shale oil), and as we mine ever more coal, our impact on the environment is growing and so is the cost of energy extraction. The relation between minerals and energy is therefore essential in understanding our economies.


Complex science presented through clear images

‘Extracted’ gives a clear overview of the origins and consequences of mineral extraction. Sound science is presented in a clearly understandable way. Bardi explains difficult processes and brings a hard message through vivid images. For example, he uses a metaphor to explain one of the scientific models of depletion: Hostelling’s rule. Comparing the depletion of mineral resources to the situation of beer cans in a refrigerator that cannot be replaced, he states that in a condition of a perfect monopolist, each can will seem more valuable as fewer cans remain, so you’ll drink less as time goes on. However, if there are several drinkers (as there are many mining companies), the best strategy is to drink as much as you can, as fast as you can, as long as there is beer (resources) available. This simple image explains why it is so difficult to change the dynamics of mineral extraction. Instead of slowing down as resources get depleted, so that future generations and the environment would benefit, the objective of the mining industries is to realize short-term profits. What will happen as the fridge runs empty, is not their concern, but should be the main issue for anyone willing to invest in a prosperous future for human societies on earth.


Extractive industries and power

The extraction of mineral resources is dominated by mostly multinational companies, that work for the interest of a few and externalize almost all social and environmental costs of mining to society. This a major limit for change towards a sustainable economy, and places a large part of the responsibility with these multinationals. Governments should aim for the general good and limit the negative social and ecological impacts of extractive industries, but often lack the capacity, economic power and political will to do so. Local societies are impacted the most by the social and ecological consequences of mining, but don’t always have the knowledge nor the power to influence the processes of extraction fundamentally.

By looking at society as a whole (‘we should change’), Bardi overlooks these very real power-relations and the inequalities in access to, and benefit from, mineral resources within society. These complexities, inequalities and diverging interests are the main limit to a more sustainable approach towards mineral extraction and require an extremely critical look at the way mining influences economical and political power, and impacts local societies and ecosystems.


What can we do?

But how should we deal with these conditions? Bardi’s overview proves that there is no doubt that great change will happen. However, we can choose to accept and be part of these changes, or try and fight them.  He uses the image of the Red Queen’s race from Lewis Carroll’s book Through the Looking-Glass, where everyone in the kingdom of the Red Queen has to run as fast as they can, just to stay in one place. Obviously, this metaphor relates to the dynamics in our society and its relation with mineral resources: we would require an incredible amount of energy to remain at the same level of extraction and consumption.

In general, Bardi sees several attitudes of how to deal with the depletion of mineral resources. We can try and substitute minerals that become too expensive to extract, by other, more abundant elements with similar properties. However, this would not mean a fundamental change in extraction dynamics, and in the long run, depletion will still be a problem.
We can also use the available resources more efficiently. So far they’ve been relatively cheap and were used in rather wasteful ways. But as minerals become more expensive, we can use them more efficiently and improve the production and consumption cycle so that minerals can be recycled more. However, often recovering minerals from waste is expensive, and is not economically viable in industrialized countries, although it is a form of income generation in poorer societies. Moreover, recycling often leads to downcycling whereby the recycled minerals have lower quality than the original resource. Therefore, reusing would be an even better way of dealing with mined resources. However, this requires a fundamental shift in our current patterns of production and consumption. Changing our way of living (call it degrowth, transition or simple living) is clearly inevitable, but even stronger: it is rapidly ceasing to be a choice.

Which brings us back to the general message of the book: we will never completely run out of minerals, but they will become so expensive that a fundamental change will happen in our dynamics of extraction and consumption. We can either try to maintain our current way of doing things in a desperate attempt to win the Red Queen’s race. Or we can try and understand the underlying principles of the extractive industries, so that we can become a part of the changes we need to make in our relation with the earth’s finite resources that underpin our societies.