Social Metabolisms: Precious Metal Mining and it’s Demands on Local Environments and People

The following is an excerpt from The Three Deaths of Cerro de San Pedro: Four Centuries of Extractivism in a Small Mexican Mining Town, by Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert, available now wherever books are sold.

Social Metabolisms

As the rate and scale of precious metal mining increased with each cycle of extractivist mining, its demands on local environments and people rose proportionally. The social metabolism concept helps clarify these links. The concept entered into social theory in the nineteenth century with Justus Von Liebig’s and Karl Marx’s critiques of how trade and capital drove the exhaustion of land and fertility. It has, since the 1990s, returned as a key heuristic in the work of Juan Martínez Alier and the Barcelona school of ecological economics and is now adopted in the fields of political ecology, and environmental history. Analyzing an activity like mining as a metabolism widens the view from a narrowly economistic consideration of investments, costs, and profits. It takes in the flows of energy and matter in to, and out from, the work of extraction. It follows these flows as they drew from, and voided into, adjoining ecologies and bodies. It places importance on the intensity at which a given metabolism operates, that is, the rate and volume with which energy and matter flow through a given productive or extractive operation. All these aspects are important for historical understanding. They allow us to see the cyclical intensification of mining more clearly—as measured by accelerating rates of consumption and release—and from there assess its environmental and social repercussions.

The defining ecological pattern of the extractivist metabolism is that it simultaneously exhausts and wastes the natural and human bodies with which it interfaces. The historical evidence shows that the intensity at which it operated exceeded the rates of replenishment and safe absorption for existing forms of life. In the preindustrial colonial period (1590s–1880s), the mines and smelters at Cerro de San Pedro relied on human and animal labor for mechanical power. In turn, these “human engines” (as per Fernand Braudel) depended on the cultivation of plants and the rearing of animals to keep them fed, and, in the case of the people, clothed and otherwise provisioned. The metabolic needs of labor explain how the opening of mines at Cerro de San Pedro in the sixteenth century created a new agrarian landscape around it. At more individual, embodied scales, the exertions demanded of mine and smelter labor were such that workers’ bodies were not regularly or fully replenished. The sources describe how mine and smelter workers were consumed by their labors, the emaciation of their bodies, their physical deterioration. The extractivist metabolism also had a voracious appetite for heat energy. Critical to achieving the high-temperature chemistry of refining, heat was produced through the combustion of charcoal derived, in turn, from existing forest stands. The take-off in smelting drove deforestation, mass soil erosion, and landscape change across the region. As for the outflows produced by the mines and smelters, these consisted of the release of heavy metals—primarily lead and mercury—through emissions, effluvia, and dust transport. They produced their own kind of wasting, undermining the healthy physiological and ecological function of local peoples, waters, and lands. The different elements that composed the new mining ecology at Cerro de San Pedro, with its flows, exhaustions, and wastings, are all amply documented across the mining belts of Spanish and Portuguese America. That is to say, the mines at Cerro de San Pedro presented the local variant of a general pattern.

Their bodies were slowly laced with heavy metals.

When the American companies arrived to revive the abandoned mines of Cerro de San Pedro in the nineteenth century, they created an industrial mining and smelting complex that greatly sped up the extractive metabolism. The stepwise increase in energy and material flows shifted the spatial configuration, scale, and form of social and ecological exhaustion. Energy consumption, for instance, exceeded what local bodies—human, animal, trees, or waters—could produce and so provisioning depended on inter-regional flows of train-borne fossil fuels. Whereas under the Spanish bonanza crews of miners drew out subterranean material by the hundredweight, now, with fuel-driven machinery, the rate of extraction from Cerro de San Pedro rose to the hundreds of tons. Moreover, the consolidated smelter-works established by the US company, received and processed ores from a national network of mines. Every day the smelter’s banks of furnaces processed over a thousand tons of ores. And since only a tiny fraction of this material was recovered as metal, it resulted in a daily voiding of around one thousand tons of mining waste. Drawn from the underground, highly charged with toxic heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, this material was dispersed across the surface environment. It was dumped in massive piles of tailings, volatilized as smokestack emissions, and mixed with local waters. New atmospheres were created inside the working environments of the industrial mines and smelters. They were exceedingly hot, suffused with gases, and densely fogged by the dust kicked up by mills and the new pneumatic drills. New exactions on workers’ bodies were added to the old. Atop the persistence of over-exertion, heat prostration, exposure to mine gases, workers now had to contend with chronic silicosis, diesel and furnace emissions, and the injurious touch of heavy machinery. Above ground, families composed with water supplies that were either scarce or contaminated. A constant, barely perceptible mist of heavy metal dust fell on their barrios and coated the surface of life. Their bodies were slowly laced with heavy metals. Rivers and streams were sterilized. Mining towns, rapidly assembled to house the influx of workers and poorly provisioned with water or waste disposal, provided the optimum ecological conditions for the mass propagation of parasites, bacteria, and viruses.