One of the great lessons of the environmental movement is that we live in a connected world. Harming one part of an ecosystem can disrupt the entire balance, and it can have an impact on people living near and far. “In nature nothing exists alone,” wrote Rachel Carson in Silent Spring.
The celebration of Earth Week this past week has gotten us thinking about this powerful idea of connectedness and how it applies in the jewelry industry. When most people think about ethical issues related to jewelry, they think of conflict diamonds – about bloody civil wars in some distant African country. But irresponsible mining affects people everywhere. That observation is particularly true for gold mining, the effects of which are surprisingly global.
How global? Well, there is a link between gold mining in faraway places and the fish that you eat.
Modern industrial gold mining relies on a technique called open pit mining, in which companies use heavy machinery to dig giant pits in the earth. Open pit gold mining generates more than 20 tons of rock and rubble for every gold ring that is produced. The practice leaves permanent scars on the landscape and creates holes so deep that some are visible from space. Mining companies also usually construct tailings dams to hold cyanide-laden toxic waste. When the dams break or overflow, the environmental damage can be catastrophic.
Defenders of open pit gold mining argue that these environmental effects can be managed and restricted. That may be true in some cases, especially when a gold mine is placed in a remote location, like a desert. The problem is that gold is often found in vital ecosystems – and in these cases, the effects can suddenly go from local to global.
We recently wrote about a plan to open a new gold mine in the Bristol Bay region in southwest Alaska, home to the world’s largest remaining sockeye salmon fishery. If the mine opens, environmentalists fear it could poison or destroy the fishery. Native Alaskans would be most affected because they rely on salmon for food and jobs. But the effects could be far-reaching too. If the worst comes to pass, people around the world would no longer be able to enjoy wild Alaskan salmon.
But another type of gold mining known as artisanal gold mining is responsible for the biggest link between gold mining and fish. Artisanal gold mining is the kind of gold mining in which individuals use simple methods like panning in streams or digging make-shift mine shafts. Most artisanal gold miners are people in developing countries who live in conditions of extreme poverty. They generally rely on mercury, a toxic substance, to separate gold from unwanted rock and ore.
Mercury, although naturally occurring, is extremely dangerous to humans. When ingested by pregnant women, it can cause brain damage and other birth defects in newborn babies. Regular exposure to mercury can cause serious health consequences like tremors, weight loss, and personality shifts.
The people most affected by mercury exposure are artisanal gold miners themselves. But mercury pollution is also a very global problem. Mercury is usually released by gold miners as a vapor. It then enters the atmosphere, where it can be carried across great distances and returned to the earth through precipitation. Rivers and streams carry it further, emptying it into lakes and oceans. Fish with elevated mercury levels are then caught and then sold around the world – thereby affecting your sushi.
One recent study found that 84 percent of all fish have unsafe mercury levels. Another study of Manhattan sushi restaurants in 2008 found that the tuna at most restaurants contained so much mercury that eating just six pieces a week could be harmful.
The contribution of the jewelry industry to mercury levels in fish is probably more than negligible. Most gold is used to make jewelry. And artisanal gold mining is actually the leading cause of man-made mercury pollution, dumping more mercury into the environment than even coal-fired power plants. An estimated 15 million people around the world now work as artisanal gold miners, many of them lured into gold mining by high gold prices in recent years.
We should also mention another serious global impact of artisanal gold mining. Because a lot of artisanal gold mining takes place in the Amazon rainforest, gold miners there are speeding up deforestation rates and thus contributing to global warming.
To be sure, many of the problems besetting gold and diamond mining – ranging from violence to the use of child labor – may not add toxins to the fish on your plate or change the climate where you live. Why should jewelry consumers care about these problems too?
One reason, of course, is basic human empathy. But we believe jewelry consumers should care for another fundamental reason: the jewelry industry is itself global. The truth is that there is really no such thing as purely local consequences to irresponsible mining. When diamond miners live in extreme poverty or when gold or diamonds fuel civil wars, these issues touch us, literally, because we as jewelry consumers wear the diamonds and gold being mined. And when an engagement ring is produced in a responsible way, using recycled gold and beyond conflict free diamonds, that makes it much so more beautiful and meaningful, and so much more adequate as a symbol of love and commitment.