Much like the taxonomy of living organisms, technological fixes can be broken down into categories. According to LeCain, there are three divisions of these fixes: transformational, relocational, and delaying (LeCain, pg. 138). In transformational techno-fixes, a toxic material is converted from its current state into one more manageable (140-142). A good example of this particular fix is Ducktown, Tennessee. In the late 19th century, the area near Ducktown was rich in copper deposits. Mining operations sprung up along the mountainsides, building smelters that produced copious amounts of noxious sulfur dioxide. To curb the air pollution, operators figured out that sulfur dioxide gases could be converted into a liquid state: sulfuric acid. Not only did this reduce sulfur dioxide emissions, but sulfuric acid also made a great fertilizer. As such, mining companies shipped their new source of revenue around the country for use in agriculture. Oddly enough, the initial transformational fix led to what LeCain calls a relocational techno-fix. As the name implies, it’s a technological problem that is dealt with by simply moving the problem elsewhere. In other words: “out of sight, out of mind”. This comes with issues of its own, especially pertaining to Tennessee’s sulfuric acid. Farmers used sizable amounts of fertilizer to try and permeate the soil. Whatever wasn’t taken up by the crops ran downstream into ponds and lake, allowing the naturally-occuring algae to grow out of control, thus choking out aquatic ecosystems. There are definite faults with both relocational and transformational fixes, but one could at least argue that there was an attempt to address the pollution. Delaying techno-fixes are another story, and there is no better example of such a fix than with the Anaconda Company (146-148). Like many copper mining operations, the company had trouble handling the output of arsenic from its smelters. To cope with this, Anaconda would convert the arsenic into dust, making it relatively easy to store. The method worked fine until the company ceased operations, leaving the dust to remain confined within its smelter (or so they thought). Delaying technological fixes could be considered a sort of “environmental procrastination”, putting aside the problem to be dealt with later. But as any college student knows, putting off a problem only serves to compound it. Without proper management, the harmful compounds began to escape the facility, contaminating the surrounding area. In the case of Mill Creek, residents were forced to evacuate because the arsenic levels were too high. The biggest takeaway from LeCain’s essay is what happens when one fails to see beyond the immediate fix. Without foresight and careful consideration, humanity is is asking for bigger issues down the line.
The question of whether or not we humans need to mine depends on what sort of life we want to lead. On a biological level, the answer is an obvious “no”. We were able to survive for many millennia using nothing but stones, and few isolated tribes are still carrying on just fine with the same tools as their ancient ancestors. But in Western society, mining has become as vital to us as breathing. As addressed in Justin Nobel’s article, “televisions, microwaves, smartphones, wind turbines, solar panels, hybrid cars, stealth bombers, and electrical wiring” are all dependent on copper to properly function (Nobel, 2018). A rather alarming thought is that a majority of humans, whether they be from a developed country or not, are so reliant on technology that we no longer know how to survive without it. Should it fail, the results would likely be catastrophic. Possible apocalypse aside, how many of us at the present moment would willingly give up our technology to in order to preserve the environment? In spite of my deep admiration of nature, I will admit that I’m too selfish to simply do away with my comfortable life. I don’t mind shutting off switches in rooms I’m not in, nor do I mind walking to my mailbox instead of driving. If I can save energy, I will. But to rid myself of technology entirely seems a little excessive. At the time of writing this, there is snow falling right outside my window.. Thanks to electrical heating, I’m saved not only from freezing to death, but time as well. Time that would’ve otherwise been used to collect firewood can now be diverted to philosophical thought, learning new skills to better humanity, and breeding a Pokemon with perfect IVs. Like any other animal, human beings want to be comfortable, even if said comfort is at the expense of the environment. Regarding LeCain’s paper, I never got the sense that he was advocating to cease any and all mining operations. As he writes, “The Ducktown and Anaconda case studies thus suggest that we should regard techno-fixes with some caution (LeCain, pg. 150).” In addition, LeCain acknowledges that avoiding the mining of ore in the early 1900s may not have been “a realistic option” (151). In light of all this, it would seem that we are no farther from our dependence on mining than our ancestors were. Thus the question remains: will we ever be?
LeCain, T. J. (n.d.). When Everybody Wins, Does the Environment Lose? The Environmental Techno-Fix in Twentieth Century American Mining. In The Technological Fix: How People Use Technology to Create and Solve Problems(pp. 137-153). New York, NY: Routledge.
Nobel, J. (2018, August). Postcards from the Edge. Retrieved October 13, 2018, from https://www.topic.com/postcards-from-the-edge