Look around you, says David Howe, and just about everything that you can see that’s a product of human agency (unless you can eat it) will almost inevitably at some point have been brought to you by a geologist. From the scratch-resistant screen on your smartphone to the ceramic cup your coffee’s in, from the bricks and steel used to construct the building you’re sitting in to the fuel that powers your car, it all started off as a rock or mineral vein, a layer of ancient seabed or the remains of a dormant volcano.
Living in the Anthropocene era of geological time – in other words the two hundred thousand years or so that humans have had an impact on the planet – comes with a long bill of costs for the environment. One of the items on the invoice is the sheer amount of digging we do, scouring away at the surface of planet Earth. Howe’s ‘Extraction to Extinction’ (Saraband, £9.99, ISBN 9781913393274) looks at what the environmental cost is so far and examines what might lie in store for our over-heated, depleted and exhausted home.
Every year, we mine, quarry, pump, cut, blast and crush billions and billions of tons of the rock that lies beneath our feet, says Howe in his impassioned narrative of how humans have abused the planet’s natural resources down the ages – both to their great advantage and, now we realise, to their potential detriment. From concrete to copper, from aluminium to rare earths, from plastics to steel, so much of the material that makes up the world we live in today is finite.
There may have been a time, perhaps well into the 20th century, when the assumption was we’d never run out of all this matter, or that the environmental effects of gathering it were simply negligible. But if the five millennia that separate today from the Bronze Age have taught us anything at all, it surely is that there is a there is a huge environmental cost-difference between forging a few ploughshares and systematically flooding the world with billions of unnecessary smartphones.
Subtitled ‘Rethinking our Relationship with the Earth’s Natural Resources’, Howe’s lyrical and solemn examination of the human impact on the material world in its most literal sense is both an eye-opener and statement of the obvious. The surprising element is just how closely the development of the human race is related to our ability to manipulate the material we scrape out of the Earth’s surface.
As Howe says, the very first axe-heads, the glass windows we take for granted and the chipsets that power our digital comms devices are all made of the same stuff: sand. Meanwhile, the consistent and manifest truth is that whether we’re talking about minerals, fossils or metals, our collective focus has always been to ignore environmental sustainability in favour of economic gain. Compelling reading.