Podcast episode #3: Pitfall w/ Christopher Pollon

April 11, 2024

Christopher Pollon is a freelance journalist and author whose work focuses on the environment, business and the politics of natural resources. His writing has been published by National Geographic, The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, Mother Jones, and many other publications. He is a contributing editor at The Tyee. And he is the author of two books, the most recent of which is titled Pitfall: The Race to Mine the World’s Most Vulnerable Places.

You can listen to audio of the podcast episode here:

The interview transcript is below.


Umair Muhammad, Christopher Pollon

Umair Muhammad

Thanks for coming on the podcast, Christopher.

Christopher Pollon

My pleasure.

Umair Muhammad

So you’ve written this great book that spans much of the globe. In fact, you even look into what the future of mining might look like in the deep sea, as well as in outer space. So the scope of the book is beyond global, really. But given the nature of this podcast, we’re not going to be able to touch on much of that content. But you’ve graciously agreed to come on to talk about how the themes of your book apply closer to home, here in British Columbia. So thank you for that. But before we get to the main discussion, do you want to just give us a brief overview of the book, perhaps starting with why you decided to write it? 

Christopher Pollon

Sure. The book begins around 1945, the beginning of those post-war years, where humanity at that moment in history relied on about a dozen mined metals. What’s fascinating is that if you flash forward to this moment, where we’re talking, we use almost the entire periodic table. And the importance of mining in our lives is largely invisible. You know, things like fossil fuels get more attention, I think, because we have a more direct relationship with it. Most people directly buy it, they directly pump it into their vehicle—the people, I suppose, that aren’t driving EVs yet. 

So it’s invisible, but it’s absolutely vital. And it’s only going to become more important with the “critical metals”—what they called “critical metals”—to transition to climate change. The future will be metals intensive, by necessity, because things like copper, a whole bunch of other metals like rare earths, nickel in the shorter term, lithium—are going to be needed in enormous quantities if we want to decarbonize. 

So mining is going to become a lot more visible for people. And also just on a sidenote, mining was never invisible to me personally, because my family emigrated—on both sides—to Northern Ontario to the gold fields to work there—most of them in mining and all the rest in mining support industries. And my mom’s dad mined gold and developed silicosis, had to leave the mines, it’s a pretty common story. 

But my family were transmigrants from another place that came because of an emerging resource economy, which is something that fascinates me also. Because I went to Bolivia and I saw echoes of that in their mining industry. And I saw men working under the same conditions that my grandfather worked under. 25 year old men who might not live past 40 years old, you know, working as muckers, pushing wheelbarrows just covered with dust. So the books global, but it’s personal, too.

Umair Muhammad

As you say, you have a deep connection with mining, so you are the right person to write the book. And of course, you’ve covered mining in your journalism quite a bit. So it’s not like the first time you’re writing about it.

Christopher Pollon

No, I’m sorry, I didn’t fully answer your question. But I’ve covered an environmental beat for about 20 years, and mining has been a big part of that. And I think the reason why that is, is that as a freelancer—mining, at least up until recently, there’s less competition writing about it. Because it’s one of these things that’s not top of people’s minds. No matter how important mining is to Canada. But yeah, it’s been a big part of my environmental beat over the years.

Umair Muhammad 

So in the book, you describe the transition of mining to ever more remote and environmentally sensitive areas around the world. Why is this happening? And how do you see this trend manifesting in BC specifically?

Christopher Pollon

I see us going to, and I witnessed through the research of this book, I see us going to ever more remote and riskier places. And when I say risky, I mean places like parts of Sub-Saharan Africa for copper, to Pakistan, where Barrick Gold is going for copper and gold, or Afghanistan, which we’ve known for many, many years that they hold a lot of rare earth elements and even places like the Amazon—so places that are environmentally but also politically risky. And what we’re seeing is that we are going to be forced to go further and further afield. 

As I show in Pitfall, that includes the deep ocean, potentially. There’s always been a lot of talk about space, but at this point it’s more science-fiction than anything. What’s driving us to go to more remote places is that the lowest hanging fruit has been picked, so to speak, when it comes to the purity of the metals that we’re finding. 

I’ll give you an example. So, by the early 20th century, the open pit mines that we were seeing were digging about 5% copper purity. And a century before that, it was up to 20%. So what had gone down by 15% that early by. And if you look at mines in the world, the average right now—purity grade of copper that they’re exploiting—is like 0.6%. 

And there’s mines in the northwest of British Columbia that are are targeting even lower concentrations. And so what that means is like 0.2% copper in the rock. It means virtually everything is waste. Virtually everything is waste. And that’s a huge concern for the environmental—as grades plummet, we’re going to have to sift through ever greater amounts of raw. And that’s a huge red flag that I’m not really sure the world is ready for.

Umair Muhammad

Yeah, I think at one point in the book, you say a mine is, in one sense, not a place where you take things out, it’s a place where you just put a whole bunch of garbage.

Christopher Pollon

Right, I never thought of it that way before I started doing the research. But a mine is more than a source of valuable metals. If you’re looking at the long term: it’s going to be a toxic waste storage facility. So how well we plan for these facilities is so critical. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s up in northwestern BC or whether it’s in Chile or it’s in the Congo or wherever—there needs to be standardized safe ways to do this stuff. 

Just to jump to something you had asked about—how that moving to riskier places might relate to British Columbia. One thing that’s fascinating is that it’s been predicted in 2021—It was predicted by the University of Victoria glaciologist, a guy named Brian Menounos. He had done some analysis that found that about 70% of BC’s glacial ice will be gone by the end of the century. 

It’s a win-lose situation for mining because what it’s going to do is, it’s going to open up virgin ground that’s never been exposed before for mineral exploration. Like think the northwest corner of the province, tons of low-grade copper, there’s gold, lots of stuff. But it’s also going to create new hazards as well. 

In 2021, I don’t know if you remember the heat dome that struck, where it was just really intense summer temperatures. That caused a massive avalanche/rockslide that came about eight kilometers away from hitting the Brucejack Mine. And so, what’s going to happen is that it’s going to open up all this new ground, but it’s going to also create all these new hazards. 

There’s things called rock outbursts, outburst floods, where—you think about a melting glacier, it creates just a massive lake that’s kind of hovering up there at high altitude. And at some critical point, all the rock destabilized by the glacier melting is just going to become a giant tidal wave blowing down a mountain. We’ve already seen that recently. And with climate change, we’re going to see a lot more of that. So it’s an opportunity—the glacier is going away—for mining, but it’s also going to create some new risks.

Umair Muhammad

In the book, you have this concept that you deploy—of “sacrifice zones.” And you specifically talk about “sacrifice zones” in the Global South. Could you talk about what the term means and where it comes from? And are there any parallels with any regions in BC that have faced, or are facing now, similar challenges due to mining activities?

Christopher Pollon

Well, the earliest reference that I found to “sacrifice zones” was in reference to landscapes that had been rendered unlivable by either uranium mining and processing or the kind of nuclear testing that they were doing in the ‘50s. And even before that, to test nuclear weapons. So it’s a place made unlivable. 

And usually the benefits of the sacrifice zone accrue somewhere outside of that zone. With mining, you see a lot of examples. The first section of my book is called “founding sacrifice zones”—where I look at three very specific examples. The Grasberg mine in Indonesia, one of the world’s biggest mines. I look at Inner Mongolia, it’s home to the biggest rare earth mining sacrifice zone. And I also look at a mine in Guatemala. 

But just to get back to that term—”sacrifice zone”—it’s been used also in an economic sense. Joe Sacco and Chris Hedges wrote a book where they scanned around neighborhoods in the US, like parts of New Jersey, parts of West Virginia—where people had been economically abandoned, the state had disappeared—and they refer to those as “sacrifice zones” too. So it’s a term that refers—it can be beyond its original meaning. It has many applications in the modern world. 

As far as British Columbia goes, there’s been nothing quite so dramatic as you’d see in Sub-Saharan Africa. For example, in the Congo, in the area around Kolwezi, which I write about in my book. But Britannia, which is not that far from Vancouver, was for many years, a rich source of copper. And it was one of the most serious sources of pollution that flowed into Howe Sound—and for many decades, it had eradicated a lot of the life there. So in a limited sense that that was a “sacrifice zone” that we’ve seen close to home.

Umair Muhammad

So a big part of the justification for opening new mines in BC, as elsewhere, has to do with the jobs that these projects are going to create. But those jobs are often subject to mining’s boom and bust cycles. And as you point out, many of these jobs that local less-educated community members might get are now increasingly in danger of being wiped out by automation. Could you talk a bit about that?

Christopher Pollon

Sure. You know, in the 1920s, mining companies hired—for better and for worse—small armies of men to do work. And mining is now on track to becoming automated through AI, machine learning. Probably the best example of that, which has historically been an important source of employment—would be something like driving one of those giant house-sized trucks on a mine site. 

I had a friend that worked at Red Chris up in northern BC, and he described the work as completely monotonous, completely dangerous, but well paid. Those kinds of jobs will be going away. And actually, the self-driving technology is pretty advanced from what I understand. 

The challenge with automation happening at mine sites is that communities will accept a mine and the disruption that it creates based on the benefits it provides. And what happens when the jobs that people that live in the mining zone can readily do, disappear? I talked with my book, I talked with someone from UBC—he was an AI specialist—and he was saying that he thought that within about 10 or 15 years that there would be more data scientists working on a mine site than there would be geologists. 

And so we’re looking at data science, we’re looking at statisticians. Even people that are working machinery will have to have a working knowledge of technologies, that whole internet of things. Some of the mines of the future that they’re talking about—there’s a mine called Resolution in the US, in Arizona. And it’s largely automated, because it’s so deep. There are sensors, 1000s of sensors everywhere, that are constantly feeding information. And that’s how the mine is operated. 

So that is a look into—at least to some of the deeper mining—what we’re going to have to do. And so yeah, the question becomes: what is the local do who doesn’t have an advanced degree? For social license to exist, mining companies will have to find ways to put the community more at the center of the project than ever before.

Umair Muhammad

We’ll see how willing they are to do that. They are often quite reluctant. 

But one of the companies that you profile in the book is called TMC. It’s a Vancouver-based deep sea mining company that was founded in 2011. And you say of the company that—“it has positioned itself as a service to humanity in the current climate emergency”—and, you know, this is in reference to the company wanting to dig up so-called “critical minerals” from the deep ocean. And it’s going to save us from the climate crisis in doing that. 

What I found is that this narrative seems to be increasingly adopted by the mining industry as a whole—you suggest that this is going to happen in the book. From what I can tell in BC, the “critical minerals” discourse has just completely taken over. So the mining industry is going to dig up the “critical minerals,” they’re going to do it on the seabed, where the glaciers once were, they’re going to do it in space—and that’ll solve the climate crisis. 

Like, I don’t have to do anything, I can eat as much beef as I want. It’s great! But, it makes me wonder, given the industry’s historical—as well as current role—in creating environmental havoc, how would you assess their newfound role as a savior in the context of climate change?

Christopher Pollon

Well, when I was doing research about critical metals, one thing I came across that really struck me so much that I put it right in the front of my book. It was a statement by Larry Fink, who leads up the fund manager, BlackRock—which has over 9 billion in assets under management. And what he said was, “I believe the decarbonizing of the global economy is going to create the greatest investment opportunity of our lifetime.” I put that at the front of the book because I think we need to look critically at critical metals and companies that are doing it. 

A challenge I have is, I’ll go to a website and I’ll think I’m on the wrong website. I think I’m on an NGO website. We need to be critical of how altruistic a mining corporation can be. I don’t think it’s even fair to expect a publicly-traded mining company to have humanity’s best interests at heart. They’re not there to create jobs, and they’re not necessarily there to find critical metals. They’re there to maximize their shareholder value. That’s what they do. And they have a legal duty, most of them, to do that. 

So I think there just needs to be some honesty about the fact that this isn’t so much about saving the world. We need a lot of these metals, but we need to find a way to get them better. My book isn’t super prescriptive about this, but we need to start looking at alternative models to mining that can be more efficient. I’ll give you an example. With the mining exploration industry, depending who you talk to, the odds of one of those companies that are out drilling and just looking for metals—the odds of them finding a deposit are anywhere from one and 500 to 1 in 10,000.

The point is that that industry, the way it’s currently set up finding these things are next to nil. And so what business are they really in? If their odds of finding something are so low? So the way we we explore and the way we mine is going to have to change If we’re gonna ramp up mining in a meaningful way. And what I mean by that, especially, is the need to put the communities where the wealth is in the ground at the absolute center of the benefit. 

There’s already people thinking about this, and what this might look like. But it’s early days, because mining is a conservative industry. And so the “critical metals” is a narrative that is being pounced upon. And I think that we need to scrutinize claims about sustainability and responsible mining moving forward.

Umair Muhammad

You have a big discussion in your book about that, and the need to tackle consumption as part of this issue, as opposed to just digging up more stuff. You also talk about things that maybe we should stop mining. So in the afterword to your book, you argue that gold should just be left in the ground. BC happens to be a gold digging hotspot, and has been for much of its modern history. So why do you think we should leave it in the ground? You don’t like beautiful, shiny things?

Christopher Pollon

Good question. Just to be clear, in the book, the thought experiment I do about cancelling gold, so to speak, is directed at dedicated industrial gold mines—mines that exist just to dig up gold. Just to clarify, a lot of the gold that’s mined is for example—copper is often found with gold. And we need copper so that mining is going to continue. And another point too, is that artisanal mining for gold, which accounts for about 20% of all the gold mining is not going to stop. Because artisanal mining, which is basically small scale—you can think of families or even just small companies, using picks and shovels and even small equipment, but relatively primitive equipment—that kind of work is not going to go away. 

Until we eradicate poverty, that kind of gold mining is one of the only viable jobs that even women and children on the edge of survival can do. So I focused on dedicated gold mines. And it was a thought experiment. And the rationale for this, ultimately, is that there is very little practical use for the gold we mine. About 10% of it has an industrial use, which is usually as a conductor, you’ll see it in electronics. And in so-called e-waste, that is usually the most valuable stream that’s coming out of it out of electronics. 50% of it is for jewelry, and 40% of it ends up as bullion. 

So we take it out of the ground, out of big open pits, or we do heap-leaching—that has huge environmental and social cost. You end up with these large tailings dams that end up, quite often, as permanent liabilities on the ground. And in the case of bullion, you’re just purifying these blocks and putting them into the equivalent of a municipal jail beneath a central bank somewhere. And the question about the utility of gold in that function is pretty mixed. 

The afterword of my book where I explore this was recently published—an excerpt of that section—in The Guardian. And it’s garnered a lot of comments and a surprising amount of comments from industry people that were positive. But as you might imagine, and I note this in the book, when I floated this idea of leaving gold in the ground an Australian engineer that I talked to told me that it was “batshit crazy.” 

Now one interesting side part of this, though, is that in my research, I ended up finding out that Barrick Gold, the second biggest gold mining company on Earth, and based in Toronto—I talked with one of their former innovation officers, they had done an experiment and a project where they looked at leaving gold in the ground. Like quantifying the reserves as best as they could, and then selling the gold as e-gold basically. The idea being that the ground is the safest vault you’ve ever had on the planet. 

And you can trade that electronic gold and use blockchain as a ledger system to have some kind of integrity to it. It was such a revelation for me to see that this “batshit crazy” idea had actually been considered by one of the biggest mining companies on earth. 

Now, the idea from what I understand didn’t end up going anywhere, but they put some thought into it, which I think is encouraging. I think that it shows some potential for the idea of at least leaving—like, let’s prioritize critical metals, the permitting of critical metals mines. And if anyone’s putting forward, you know, the idea of a dedicated gold mine in 2024, the world doesn’t need it.

Umair Muhammad 25:17

And I think this idea that you’re talking about, came out of trying to market this to Canadians of Indian descent, right? To have to have them buy gold that’s in the ground, as opposed to digging it out and making jewelry out of it? 

Christopher Pollon

Right. I think they had gotten some success, or they’d had some success, where I was told there were some positive results from that. They figured that people would buy e-gold as a proxy for the real thing.

Umair Muhammad

So as someone of South Asian descent, you know, I started reading your chapter, and I got a little self conscious. Because I’m like, “Oh, he’s gonna bring up how much [gold] South Asians consume.” You know, and you did at the near the end. You have a couple of sentences on it. You mention that India is the largest consumer of gold. 

You know, for a region—not just India, but the surrounding countries—for a region that’s quite poor, it’s amazing how much gold is consumed there, how much jewelry is bought and sold. And I wonder, do you have an appeal to make to the South Asian community, Christopher?

Christopher Pollon

In no way at all. And also, you know, this thought experiment, as I term it, I plan to do more research on it, because I’m fascinated by it. You have to recognize also that, when I say gold has very few practical uses, there is a cultural value to some people. And it’s a store of value. And so I haven’t dug too deep into the cultural function of gold for South Asian communities. But I know that it’s important. So again, it’s part of the thought experiment, and it’s just part of the an aspect of the world yet another aspect of the world I’m interested in learning more about,

Umair Muhammad

Well, I’ll give you my take. So I know that in a lot of stuff around this, the idea that gold and jewelry functions as a store of wealth, you know, often for even the poorest of families—you go to a poor village, and they’ll have some gold bangles. And that’s just because that’s a good way to store whatever small amount of wealth that they have. I find that gets used as a way to kind of excuse the overindulgence that people who aren’t poor engage in when it comes to gold and jewelry. 

A lot of it is just used as a status symbol—around weddings and things like that. And so, it has a cultural importance, but cultures can change, and certainly think things have become worse in this regard. Gold consumption has increased as those economies have grown and people have some more money. And so we can certainly make an appeal. I can, if you don’t want to!

Christopher Pollon

On a positive note, with the use of gold for jewelry, it’s my understanding that jewelry is—probably has a pretty close to 100% recycling rate. Which is pretty unusual for metals given its scarcity and value. So the question becomes, you know, could we have the jewelry people want in the world—within certain limits, of course—without new mining? Like I said, you know, that the artisanal mining industry is not going to stop. When we eradicate poverty, that’ll stop. But when I think of Canada, when I hear that we’re permitting a gold mine, like dedicated gold mine—I think “Well, why?” But I’m gonna continue experimenting and digging into that one, because I’m fascinated by it. And I think a lot of people are interested.

Umair Muhammad

On jewelry, I saw recently, Pandora—which is one of the largest jewelry companies in the world—has decided that all of its gold will come from recycled sources. So, you know, that’s a good step.

Christopher Pollon

I saw that too. Now, you know, just one thing to add a quick aside. Diamonds are another issue—we get diamonds, again from artisanal sources, but a lot of them from big open pit mines. De Beers operates dredging vehicles in coastal parts of Africa for diamonds. At the very same moment when we can produce great quality diamonds in a lab under a pressure vessel. I don’t know what sort of dent lab-made diamonds are making. But I noticed that same company that you just mentioned, also in one of their ads that said they were using artificial diamonds or some percentage. 

Umair Muhammad

So in perhaps wrapping up, and in fact, this is the way that you wrap up your book: you reference the perspective of indigenous cultures on gold and its utility—or its lack of utility. Could you talk about that? And how do you think those sorts of viewpoints could influence mining policies and practices in a place like BC, given that the province has committed to indigenous rights and reconciliation?

Christopher Pollon

Well, maybe just to start out, one thing that’s fascinating is that there were quite a few indigenous cultures that were immune to gold fever simply because gold doesn’t have a lot of practical uses. So, for example, indigenous people in Australia, indigenous people on both sides of the Bering Strait—even in I presume, in British Columbia, where the Fraser Gold Rush happened—there were millennia where indigenous people saw placer gold flowing in a river stream, and just, you know, “Look at the pretty rock… otherwise, like, who cares.” 

So there’s some wisdom in that, I hope. Even though one challenge I’m seeing, and then maybe just to jump to British Columbia—I see governments in Canada, and I’m talking provincial governments and the federal government to a certain degree—as painting themselves into a bit of a corner. Especially around “critical metals” and moving forward. 

And a big challenge is that, on one hand, they want to be respecters of environmental rights and indigenous champions. And they want to, like in British Columbia, and federally as well, they want to implement UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—of which a key aspect is the concept of free and prior informed consent. What that means really is just that, if an indigenous government goes through its traditional processes and decides that a mine, for example, on their territory is not in their best interest, and they don’t want to do it—what that means is that government and industry have to respect that and walk away.

And you can’t be the champion of “critical metals” on one side—and today, there was a federal announcement that they’re going to cut in half the permitting times, and they’re going to subsidize or have tax incentives, and also lots of money for infrastructure. You can’t have that on one side and then the other side say, “We’re champions of indigenous rights.” Because sooner or later, what’s going to happen when an indigenous group says no? I mean, what do you do? You’re painted into a corner. So there’s a certain degree of talking out of both sides of their mouths, which I think is going to come back to haunt them.