Bardi, Ugo. 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth Is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green Publishing.
“Clearly there wasn’t much of an incentive to move an army or a caravan across the mountains and deserts that separated Egypt from Mesopotamia. Most likely the Sumerians didn’t have much that the Egyptians couldn’t manufacture themselves, and vice versa. Besides, most of what could be bought or seized by such an expedition was perishable: grains, sheep, cattle, and even slaves would have been difficult to transport over long distances on land.
But with the diffusion of precious metals, there appeared a good reason for raiding neighbors, even at some distance. As a consequence, we see armies leaving their countries of origin and invading other areas.
The very first of these clashes to have been recorded in history was the battle of Megiddo, 9 at around 1460 BCE. It was fought by the Egyptians against the Canaanites who lived in what is today Syria. By our standards it was a minor battle, involving some 10,000 to 20,000 fighters on each side. However, it impressed our ancestors so much that, perhaps, the term Armageddon derives from it. It was the first step toward a kind of warfare that was to revolutionize the world forever. These ancient wars were the first symptoms of a deep change in the structure of human society. It was a transition from static agricultural civilizations to aggressive predatory empires, societies that lived mainly on conquest.
Soon precious metals became not just a currency for trade, but a major military weapon that generated a form of enhancing feedback. The more gold a king had, the more retainers he could hire; the more retainers he had, the more gold he could raid from his enemies.
Cheap coal also made steel cheap, allowing it to be used for a new generation of weapons, from cannons and muskets to “ironclad” battleships, which started being manufactured in the early 19th century.
The 20th century started with the buildup to an unprecedented confrontation between the industrial nations, in great measure to define access to resources in the rest of the world.
Empires are by their very nature unstable structures; they can exist only by either expanding or contracting.
With the defeat at Salamis, the Persian Empire entered an irreversible spiral of decline, perhaps also caused by the depletion of its gold mines.
The silver of Laurium pushed Athens to a brief imperial period in which it dominated the central Mediterranean region. Athens declined with the decline of the Laurium mines, while the rise of the Macedonian kingdom, with Philip II, seems to have been linked to the discovery of silver in Macedonia and to development of mining there. 29 It may have been because of these silver resources that Philip managed to conquer Greece, succeeding where the Persian king Xerxes had failed. Later, Philip’s son, Alexander “the Great,” went on to conquer Persia and to create a vast empire that reached up to India. The decline of Alexander’s empire may be related to the decline of the Macedonian silver mines that had produced it. In time the lead passed to the western Mediterranean region, which still had largely untouched mineral resources.
The abundance of gold and silver in Spain may have been the element that propelled Rome to domination over the whole Mediterranean region and most of western Europe. The last phase of the Roman expansion in Spain came in the first century BCE with the conquest of the northwestern regions that we call Asturias and León. Soon these regions would become the largest source of gold and silver in Europe for a few centuries. The control of these mines gave to the Romans a wealth that had never been seen before in Europe.
The Roman society was a structure dedicated to war, its main economic activity. In this sense the Romans used money largely as a military technology. With money, they paid a standing army, one of the first recorded in history. They also used money to pay auxiliary troops that augmented the Roman legions. Finally, they used money to bribe enemies. Especially during the last period of the empire, it was common for Romans to buy off enemies rather than fight them. The mechanism worked wonders, at least for as long as the Romans had gold and silver available to them.
The Roman approach to war was that of a commercial enterprise; it had to create a profit. So the Romans did very well against societies that were similar to their own but outmatched in terms of military resources. In conquering the Hellenistic states and Gaul, they could bring home booty in terms of precious metal and slaves that repaid their expenses for the campaign and allowed them to start new ones.
Apart from gold and silver, the Roman Empire never produced much more than two things: legions and grain, neither of which was a tradable commodity with the outside world. So the Romans imported all sorts of luxury products from Asia and the Middle East: silk, spices, ivory, pearls, slaves, and more. They paid in gold, and that gold never came back because the Romans had little that they could sell outside their borders. Gold and silver also disappeared from the empire as foreign mercenaries took their pay with them when they went back home. And in the last period of the empire, a perverse negative mechanism took place: deflation. With gold becoming rare, it became more and more valuable, so people tended to hoard it. Many buried it underground, removing it from circulation in the economic system.
While the Europeans were busy with their feuds, the Arabs put to good use the gold that they had gained in their trade with the Roman Empire. They embarked on a campaign of conquest that led them to create a new empire embracing North Africa, Spain, and most of the Middle East. With the dynasty of the Umayyads, the Arab caliphate reached its greatest extension during the seventh and eighth centuries.
Starting in the 18th century Britain became the first empire in the world to base its wealth on fossil fuels. With its abundant coal resources, Britain could produce plenty of iron for cannons. With her powerfully armed fleet, Britain could get timber from anywhere in the world without needing to over-exploit her forests. More timber meant more warships, and more warships meant more world domination and, therefore, even more timber. Weapons and warships also meant that powerful armies could be ferried overseas.
Everywhere in the world Britain conquered foreign kingdoms and transformed them into colonial plantations that produced food for their remote rulers. More food meant larger armies, and that, in turn, meant more plantations and even more food. It was this self-reinforcing mechanism that created the British empire, the first global empire in history.
At the height of national coal production, in the 1920s, the coal produced in England could have matched the heat produced by burning almost all of the world’s forests. 47
Crude oil was a critical resource that was soon to show depletion problems. In 1970 US crude oil production reached its peak and started declining. That posed a critical strategic problem for the US government. Without an abundant supply of oil, the American empire risked the same decline that the British empire had seen just a few decades before, when it had passed its coal peak. The solution to the problem was found in the control of the still abundant resources of the Middle East. The United States had relied on Middle East resources for a long time. In 1945 President Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia and seeded an alliance that lasts to this day. As discussed by Michael Klare in his book Blood and Oil, 48 this strategic vision continued with the oil crisis of the 1970s and was stated most clearly in the so-called Carter Doctrine expressed in President Carter’s 1980 State of the Union address (and perhaps actually written by Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor at that time 49 ): Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
Much US foreign policy after the fall of the Soviet Union can be seen as a continuation of the Carter Doctrine. The first Gulf War (1991), the invasion of Iraq (2003), and other events in the Middle East have clearly been a manifestation of the need for the United States to keep a tight grip on the region and control its petroleum resources.
If we go back to the times of the Roman Empire, we see that the Romans didn’t take the depletion of their gold mines with philosophical resignation. They tried as hard as they could to keep them producing, and the result was “ruin of the mountains”, as described by Pliny the Elder in his Historia Naturalis. The mountains of the Spanish region of Asturias still show the destruction wreaked on them by Roman engineers.
But what the Romans could do to their mountains with picks and hydraulic fracturing is very little in comparison with what we can do to our mountains with explosives and diesel-powered machinery. We are already destroying one mountain after another in order to get at the coal seams they contain. It is a process that is not soon going to stop, as the world’s economy gears up to recover the last accessible ores on the planet. It is truly a war waged against the planet, a take-no-prisoners war. It also is a war that cannot be won. In the long run the planet will recover from the assault of human miners, and the only possible casualties will be us.