Is the dark side of mining unavoidable in a net-zero world?

On the wooded hill above the Stan Terg lead and zinc mine in Kosovo, there is an old concrete diving platform looming over what was once an open-air swimming pool. Before the break-up of Yugoslavia, people who worked at the mine would bring their families here to swim, sunbathe on the wide terrace with its view across the valley, and picnic among the trees. Now the pool is slowly disappearing into the forest, the view obscured by birch saplings.

I am with Peter*, an Albanian mine worker who used to come up here with his friends before the war began in 1998. Back then, Serbs and Albanians would use the pool and nearby tennis courts together, but there are no Serb mining families here now. Two decades on, the ruination in the landscape still seems unsettling – a reminder for Peter that something valuable has been lost. “I don’t know what the hell happened here,” he says.

As we walk along a winding path he points to a cluster of blue flowers, little starbursts of colour nestled in the dead bracken. “That’s a sign there are metals underneath,” he tells me. They are a quiet reminder of the ore-rich rock that continues to disrupt life in this uneasy corner of Kosovo.

Mines like Stan Terg seem to lurk in the public imagination as remote places that are dangerous, dirty, damaging, violent and destructive. They pollute streams, corrupt politicians, degrade communities and explode indigenous artefacts.

Or they are places where bad people go – those who exploit and extract at the expense of others, human and nonhuman, and are not concerned about the cost. We seem to prefer not to think about them unless we have to.

And yet, we can’t live our modern lives without mining. We may slowly be turning our backs on fossil fuels, but what about all the other geological resources with which our lives are entangled? The mined ore in our mobile phones – those palm-size assemblages of cobalt, lithium, copper, manganese and tungsten. The lead and zinc in our car batteries, the aluminium in our bicycles, the steel in our buildings, and the copper in the hidden networks of cabling that hold our worlds together.

The problem of mining is one for all of us. But what sort of problem is it?

Mining and me

My first encounter with mining came when I worked as a television news journalist for ITN in Moscow. It was 1993, and I was travelling with two colleagues across Russia doing some filming ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections. We had spent the day in a dilapidated helicopter tracking the Trans-Siberian Express as it wound its way through the birch forests below us. The day ended with an emergency landing in a snow field and a lift back to the town of Irkutsk in a truck.

That evening, we met a group of British men in a gloomy hotel bar. None of them spoke Russian or seemed to have travelled far from their beer glasses. It turned out they were mining engineers on their way to some remote operation further north, pulled to the heart of Siberia by whatever strange thing that mine promised them. Money? Promotion? Easy sex? Theirs wasn’t a world I wanted to be part of.

Little did I know. Two years later, overwhelmed after the war in Chechnya, undone by a conflict with a colleague and reeling from a failed relationship, I fell out of my journalistic life and landed in a small seaside town in Namibia with a baby daughter and a man I’d married but barely knew. He was a mining engineer who drove 60 kilometres inland each morning to the uranium mine that had operated there since 1976.

Suddenly everything about my life – where I lived, who I met, what I did, how I felt – was mediated by a vast, contentious, spiralled hole in an ancient desert that most people preferred not to think about. I was a white mining wife sucked into a strange world of bake sales, coffee mornings and housing officers who matched the quality of homes offered with the importance of our husbands’ jobs. We were not at the top of the pile.

On our first weekend, my husband’s throat was cut by three young men trying to break into the small, terraced house we had been allotted. He saved his own life by drawing on his training with the Royal Marines, holding his slashed neck together, keeping his pulse low and only collapsing when he made it into the back of the ambulance.

The police told us the men were from Angola, drawn to this area because of the uranium and the wealth it had created. You can’t live near a mine without being aware of the inequalities it encourages.

Since those early days in Namibia, we have moved from mine to mine around the world, making and remaking our lives in the US, South Africa, Australia, Canada, Mongolia, Serbia, then back to Canada again. With each move, I have thought more about the complexities, controversies and…

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