The devastating environmental impact of technological progress

| December 16, 2019 Leave your thoughts

An insatiable demand for the copper, lithium and rare-earth metals required to fuel the consumer electronics and electric vehicle industries is leaving indelible scars on our fragile planet

For decades, David Maisel has been photographing places where humans are changing the environment so dramatically that the impact can be seen from the sky. For his latest project, Desolation Desert, the San Francisco-based visual artist spent two weeks in and around South America’s Atacama desert, where humankind’s insatiable demand for copper, lithium and rare-earth metals to fuel the consumer electronics and electric vehicle industries is reshaping the landscape of a fragile ecosystem.

The Atacama, in northern Chile, is one of the driest and least populated places on Earth, but the metals industry is changing the terrain, with access roads creeping across pristine salt flats and the water-intensive extraction process leaving the ground pocked and scarred. Maisel – who still shoots on film – chartered a plane and spent a fortnight in the field documenting some of the biggest copper and lithium mining sites in the region. The work isn’t intended to single out a particular industry, Maisel says – in fact, we are all complicit: these resources enable almost every facet of our lives, from technology to transportation. “These new photographs show how the supposedly remote Atacama desert is becoming part of a planetary fabric of urbanisation, and at what cost,” he says. 

The Salar de Atacama salt flats (pictured above) contain more than a quarter of the world’s lithium supplies. At this lithium-extraction field north of the town of San Pedro de Atacama, one of the largest of its type in the world, brine rich in lithium is pumped from underneath the salt flats into huge, jewel-like pools, where it is left to evaporate in stages in the way that salt has been mined for millennia. The end result is a silvery powder – lithium carbonate – which can be processed and manufactured into batteries. The extraction process consumes huge amounts of water in a region that gets less than an inch of rainfall a year. “It might appear to be this weirdly beautiful place, but the damage that’s being wrought there is significant,” Maisel says.

Maisel spent months planning and securing permission to fly over the mining operations. Much of the airspace is controlled by the Chilean military, so the photographer and his team of two pilots would sometimes have to rejig their itineraries to make room for last-minute military exercises. Despite the meticulous planning, there was still room for serendipity. “I knew about this mine and was interested in photographing it, but I didn’t anticipate that they would actually be doing this blasting there,” Maisel says. This picture is one of a series showing extraction work at the Centinela copper mine, one of the largest in Chile – the machines and vehicles visible in the pit give a sense of the overall scale. 

Chuquicamata, near the city of Calama, is the largest open pit copper mine in the world. It has been in operation since 1882, but production ramped up in the early 20th century when the extraction machinery was modernised. Today the pit is over 4km long, 3km wide and 850 metres deep – the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, would fit inside comfortably. The site is 2,900 metres above sea level – so high that Maisel had to wear an oxygen mask while taking photos from the plane. It was an appropriate location for him to end his trip: the Guggenheim Fellowship funded Maisel’s work, and the mine is where the family originally made their fortune.

Because of the altitude, Maisel had to hire a much larger aircraft than he usually uses for his projects, ending up with a former medical rescue plane that had enough room inside for a stretcher between him and the pilots. When on the ground, the team returned to their base in the coastal city of Antofagasta. The photographer says he could see the industrial port from the window of his accommodation – and watch the next step of the journey for the extracted lithium. “Right outside my window along the ocean were these tankers getting filled up with all this material that’s being mined – all these tankers going to China,” he says. “It’s part of a global economy, and it comes back from China in the form of batteries.”

Scientists are scrambling to find a replacement for lithium batteries, which are rapidly rising in price as increasing numbers of people switch to electric cars. But alternatives based on sulphur or carbon are some decades away, and billions of dollars are still being invested into new lithium battery factories and extraction plants. As prices go up, lithium extraction projects closer to home could become economically feasible, says Brian Menell, CEO of TechMet, a company focused on securing metals required by the technology industry. There is potential for brine-based extraction in Alsace, France, and hard-rock mining in Cornwall; one day images like this, from a plant in Salar del Carmen, could become a familiar sight in Europe too.

This region of the world has been exploited for its natural resources for centuries – from silver and gold in the early days of the Spanish empire, sodium nitrate (used for explosives) in the 1910s and 1920s, and copper and lithium today. At Los Dones, about 130km north of Antofagasta, Maisel observed the end result of that history: a huge field of abandoned sites where miners have excavated the ground and come up empty-handed. “We’re laying this fabric of development over these remote, formerly ‘pure’ landscapes that are environmentally sensitive, and the rate is increasing so ferociously,” he says. “What does that mean for us, when every area has become a site of development or resource extraction?”

You can’t assess the full environmental impact of mining just by looking at the hole left in the ground. These pictures show the area around the Centinela copper mine, and the huge “tailings ponds” that surround the site. After the copper is separated from rock, the unwanted materials remain in the form of this slurry, collected in pools hemmed in by dams that Maisel describes as “vast beyond comprehension”. Tailings, as they’re known in the industry, can contain toxic metals such as arsenic and mercury. In January 2019, a tailings dam at an iron-ore mine in Brazil collapsed, killing at least 248 people. As of June 2019, the tailings facilities at the mine pictured here held 154 million cubic metres of tailings.


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