Tim LeCain’s book is out on Rutgers University Press!
The Men and Giant Mines That Wired America and Scarred the Planet (Rutgers University Press, 2009)
Timothy J. LeCain
Mass Destruction is the fascinating story of Daniel Jackling, a Utah mining engineer who created the gigantic Bingham open-pit copper mine near Salt Lake City. One of the largest human-made artifacts on the planet, the Bingham Pit entailed literally “moving a mountain,” replacing it with a yawning chasm that is now three-quarters of a mile deep and two and a half miles wide (below).
Jackling blasted out more than five billion tons of low-grade ore with a new system of “mass destruction” mining that gave Americans the cheap and abundant copper needed to electrify the nation. Jackling’s open-pit mass destruction mining technology soon replaced constricted and deadly underground mines like those in Butte, Montana, that probed nearly a mile beneath the earth. Mass Destruction tells the story of the deep Butte mines as well, where miners survived only with the aid of advanced life-support technologies. When these machines failed them, as in the disastrous 1917 Speculator Fire, scores could perish.
Jackling’s immense pit and scores of imitators became the ultimate symbol of the modern faith that science and technology could overcome all natural limits. What emerged was a new culture of mass destruction that promised nearly infinite supplies not only of copper, but also of coal, timber, fish, and other natural resources. Mass destruction technology was thus the foundation of mass consumption and the celebrated modern “American Way of Life.” Yet, the costs were paid in immense dead zones of environmental and human devastation. Back in Butte, underground mining gave way to the Berkeley Pit. Abandoned in 1982, the pit is now flooded with acidic water impregnated with a toxic brew of poisonous heavy metals (above). Part of the largest Superfund site in the nation, the Berkeley Pit is a haunting reminder of the consequences of the still-growing American and global appetite for copper and other essential natural resources.
Mass Destruction offers a compelling look at a critical but largely overlooked chapter in the creation of the modern technological world. Mass destruction technology was environmentally devastating, yet it also wired America and much of the world. Where future supplies of copper to do the same for the billions of new consumers in India, Brazil, and China will come from remains a troubling question.
Advance praise for Mass Destruction:
“The colossal open-pit mines of the past century have left behind some of the largest artifacts on the face of the earth. Timothy LeCain’s engaging history of this mega-industrial enterprise is remarkable for its insight, clarity, and wisdom. Readers interested in the contours of our technological and environmental past—and the inextricable connections between the natural and artificial—will find Mass Destruction a treasure trove of reasoning and enlightenment.”
—Jeffrey K. Stine, Smithsonian Institution, author of America’s Forested Wetlands:
“This is an eloquent and searing portrait of the environmental cost of the coins in our pockets and wires in our walls. As Timothy LeCain argues in this hard-hitting book, the quest for efficiency that gave us mass production and mass consumption also brought us mass destruction of the environment.”
— Edmund Russell, University of Virginia, author of War and Nature