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Should we dig gold?

kghJohn Milsom* wonders why we bother wasting so much effort finding the stuff.

Mining companies, and mining geologists by association, do not get a good press. Often there is hypocrisy involved. Many of the most articulate critics benefit hugely from what the industry produces, and ignore the fact that some of the less articulate may rely on those products for sheer survival. Moreover, as industry spokespeople never tire of pointing out, even the largest companies are constrained as to where they can put their mines. They must be in the places where the minerals exist.

And yet, and yet ….  there are minerals and minerals.  And there is gold.


There can be few industries where so much effort is expended for so little product. Ore grades are typically measured in parts per million (grams per tonne). To get at these miniscule traces, forests are stripped, vast pits are blasted into the ground beneath and enormous vehicles transport broken rocks to gigantic crushers where they are pounded into dust. The gold is then extracted by processes that may involve poisons such as mercury or cyanide. The worthless muddy remainders end up in sterile tailing dams where they must be confined for centuries, or for ever, because of what they originally contained or what has been added during processing. This is not an industry for the faint-hearted. The life of a gold miner is a tough one, and only the toughest survive. It is all very macho.

Which contrasts dramatically with the fate of the end products. Jewellers in Singapore cheerfully claim that half of the gold produced each year ends up around the necks, arms and ankles of the womenfolk of Asia. They are, of course, exaggerating. In 2016 world gold demand was 4337 tonnes; jewellery accounted for only 47% of that total, and not all of it was worn in Asia (or by women). An exaggeration, then; but not a monstrous one.


What of the rest? The next largest use is as a store of wealth. In 2016 gold bars, coin and stocks held by Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs) and central banks took 45% of production. Very little of this sees the light of day for more than a few moments. Finely-dispersed gold taken from some very large holes in the ground is then hidden away in pure form in other, much smaller, ones. It hardly seems a sensible use of resources.

Gold is amazing. It is fantastically ductile and malleable, and a very, very good conductor of electricity. Those properties account for its ‘useful’ uses, mainly in electronics. It would be hard to find alternatives for many of these, but dedicated gold mines may not be needed. In 2015 a single copper mine, the Grasberg (which, like many copper mines, is also a gold producer) provided the equivalent of a tenth of the global ‘industrial’ demand. The case for creating mines for gold and gold alone can be made only in terms of ‘cultural’ rather than essential uses. Can we afford this on a shrinking planet, or do our cultures need to change?

* Dr John Milsom writes from Gladestry, Herefordshire.  E: