The extraction of minerals, metals, and fuels from the ground is one of humankind’s oldest industries, and our appetite for it is growing. But what if we stopped the extraction of fossil fuels and minerals entirely? What if, in order to better protect the environment, humanity decided the contents of the Earth’s crust were off-limits?
Imagining a world without access to the underground allows us to examine how dependent we have become on this ongoing extraction. It also invites us to consider the frivolousness with which we often then throw these materials away, and to examine the overlooked potential in this waste as a source of new materials.
Most countries mine something; China, Australia, and the US are the global leaders in the production value of raw materials, but extraction makes up a far larger share of the economy for some other nations. In at least 18 countries, metallic minerals and coal account for more than half of all exports; for some of these, it’s more than 80%.
Under a no-mining-of-metals scenario, the entire economies of countries such as Suriname, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Mongolia would be at risk. Around three months after the end of mining, stockpiles of rare earth metals and other metals useful to technology would be finished, leading to worrying trends for the pharmaceutical, car, electronics, and construction industries.
Just in time for the collapse of supply chains, oil reserves would finally run out. Renewables, however, would be the ultimate kingmakers because they need unprecedented volumes of non-renewable mined materials. Solar panels demand large amounts of silicon for the semiconductors in their cells. Moreover, wind turbines need neodymium for powerful magnets that generate electricity with the turn of the blades
Mining is not going anywhere anytime soon: in fact, experts predict a new surge in metals and aggregate mining over the coming decades. Global inequalities would be seen in this mining clean-up. Wastes and tailings ponds, meanwhile, could present an opportunity to access metals.
More mining will likely create more land impacts. Mining and biodiversity researcher Laura Sonterand and her colleagues recently warned that mining the materials needed for renewable energy will increase the threats to biodiversity, as without careful planning, these new threats could surpass those avoided by climate change mitigation.