Book review: Extracted – How the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet

Minerals analyst Ugo Bardi sounds every economic, social and environmental alarm bell in Extracted – How the quest for mineral wealth is plundering the planet.

A report to the Club of Rome, the detailed analysis starts out by explaining exactly how minerals are formed, how much of the key resources are left, and how we ended up with economies so firmly grounded in a sector that has, by definition, a limited horizon.

Extracted is extremely readable, offering many “Crikey! Yes! Exactly!” moments. It is also impeccably and very broadly researched and referenced, and draws on a range of experts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to minerals policy analysts, geologists, historians, economists and engineers. Contributing essayists include former head of the Australian Coal Association Ian Dunlop, who outlines the case against continued exploitation of fossil fuels, and the pressing environmental risks we run due to the fracking industry.

Bardi continually brings it back to the business case for economic and industrial transformation. As he points out, the very nature of our manufacturing can either change by choice – through embracing closed loop and circular economy approaches to resource use – or it can change through disaster, because we could run out of key elements like iron, platinum group metals, rare earths and copper before we have come up with alternatives.

Energy is also covered thoroughly, including detailed specifics such as the Jevons Paradox – the observable trend where energy efficiency investments sometimes lead to people actually using more energy, because they can now afford it.

The relationship between ways of generating energy and mineral resources is also analysed, with Bardi pointing out that many renewable technologies do have an environmental footprint in terms of the materials used in manufacture of the generating machinery, and transmission and storage systems. Still, he comes down firmly on the side of renewables as our most sustainable pathway, but with the caveat that the amount of energy we use may need a re-think, even if it is produced by wind, sun or other non-fossil source.

And he explores the “what if?” scenarios of a world where there is no more natural resources to be mined, speculating it could mean a return to an agrarian society with a far smaller population, or to catastrophic climate change that wipes everything out, or to a society where choices have to be made about what is most important to produce from the reclaimable resources of our urban ore deposits in landfills.

Part indictment of short-sighted planning and bottom-line focused approaches on the part of policymakers and part a mandate to embrace the challenge and opportunities of re-visioning our relationship with metals and energy, this is a book that could very well join The Limits to Growth as a fundamental contribution to the ongoing dialogue around mapping pathways to a sustainable global economy.

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