The Environmental Disaster That is the Gold Industry

The mining industry has had a devastating impact on ecosystems worldwide. Is there any hope in sight?

The 13,000-foot high Grasberg mine contains the largest single gold reserve in the world, and the largest copper deposit as well. (© George Steinmetz/Corbis)

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The road ahead for the Pebble Mine’s proponents will not likely be a smooth one. A major investor in the project backed out late last year, and the jewelry industry—which uses about half of all gold mined each year —has expressed opposition to the project. Several days ago, Tiffany & Co.’s chairman and CEO Michael Kowalski told JCK Magazine that developing the Pebble Mine site will almost certainly do more damage than it’s worth to the environment, the region’s salmon-based economy and the face of the gold industry itself.

“The possibility of this ending in disaster is so high, it’s hard to see how any mining company could go forward,” Kowalski told JCK.

The EPA released a report in January in which the agency said development of the mine would carry many risks of damage to the ecology and culture of the region.

There is an activist slogan that says, “The more you know, the less gold glows.”

But ethical, responsibly mined gold may actually be possible. It has been estimated that about 165,000 metric tons of gold have been mined in all of human history. Most of this gold is still in circulation—and a growing number of jewelers are making use of this material. Brilliant Earth, Leber Jeweler and Toby Pomeroy are three companies that have abandoned new gold and opted,instead, to only deal in recycled and second-hand material, thereby cutting mining out of the equation.

Beth Gerstein, co-founder of Brilliant Earth, based in San Francisco, says there have long been “inconsistencies” between the traditional perceived value of gold as a romantic symbol and the realities of extracting raw gold from the Earth.

“Jewelry is a symbol of commitment and values and we want this to be true inside and out,” Gerstein said.

Gerstein, along with her business partner, launched Brilliant Earth in 2005, and she says demand for recycled gold has grown since the beginning.   

“Consumers want to know that the product they’re buying hasn’t had a negative impact on the world,” Gerstein said. The gesture of recycled precious metals seems a virtuous one, and public interest in supporting the effort seems to reflect goodwill. But Webster, at the American Museum of Natural History, says that recycling gold has so far done little to offset the destruction of mining.

"Unfortunately, the demand for gold, annually, far exceeds the amount recycled," he wrote. 

He even feels that applying any symbolic or superficial value to gold, whether recycled or fresh from an open pit mine, is ultimately only furthering the problems linked to much of the mining industry:

"To me, it is interesting that because the majority of gold that is mined and extracted from ores is directed to the jewelry industry (an enterprise that societies might be able to survive with less of), we could run societies on Earth with much less gold mining."


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