After a weekend in the Alma, CO, mining district, I have come around a bit on the merits of gold mining. Oh sure, I have always known that it was a dirty business, what with the mercury, the cyanide, the acidic tailings piles, and the blighted landscapes. But for God sakes man, it’s GOLD!
Last weekend was different. It wasn’t a dispassionate examination of mining history. I could see miles of blighted landscape heaped with spent alluvium along the road from Fairplay to Alma. To the north, over Hoosier Pass, are the McMansions of Breckenridge where new and old wealth mingle. To the south of Fairplay is a sizeable expanse of gravel and cobble heaps from past placer mining.
The photo shows just a short stretch of the creek bed undergoing placer mining on the north end of Fairplay. Granted, the mining company is using gravity separation by way of the sluice to recover the gold. The stones are all rounded and well weathered, so one might expect the tailings to release little in the way of toxic leachate. But what a colossal mess they have made of the landscape. Perhaps they have put up a bond assuring that restoration of the landscape will happen when the mining ceases. I don’t know. That does not seem to be the way of past mining in the district.
My point is this. Isn’t there some madness in gold mining? At best a handful of people get wealthy from putting more gold on the market. I would argue that gold does not have the utility of iron, aluminum, or copper for instance. It does not go into items that advance civilization and economics like tractors, bridges, ships or wires. Gold does not go on to enable the growth of industry in the manner a base metal. Some of it adorns our fingers but most falls into the hands of anonymous individuals and governments who hoard vast caches of the metal. Granted, a bit of the annual production goes into electronics and a few other applications.
The madness in gold mining is that people are willing to go to any length or bankrupt themselves to obtain a metal that in the end benefits approximately no one. Most of the metal will quietly sit in a vault somewhere producing nothing. It won’t support a building or a roadway over a river. It won’t produce goods or services, nor will it bring a silent heart back to life. It can only support abstractions like the notion of value. We’re willing to put up with scarred landscapes, mercury pollution and acidic runoff produced by other people for an abstraction. That is pretty funny.