‘Boom, Bust, Boom’: Copper, the metal we can’t do without
Bill Carter’s “Boom, Bust, Boom” is an idiosyncratic but compelling examination of the mining if copper, which is vital to modern communications, but at a daunting environmental cost.
Special to The Seattle Times
“Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal That Runs the World”
by Bill Carter
Scribner, 274 pp., $26
A few years ago, Bill Carter’s garden tried to kill him.
Carter, a journalist and documentarian who was living in Bisbee, Ariz., discovered only after he became seriously ill that the vegetable patch he’d been getting his daily salads from was heavily contaminated with arsenic and lead, residues from Bisbee’s past as a copper-mining camp.
After recovering, and after learning that mining giant Freeport-McMoRan was considering reopening its Bisbee copper mine, Carter began to research copper, the mining industry and what its return might mean for his town. The question that haunted him: Could he safely raise his kids in a town with an active mining site?
It’s a question that resonates loudly here in the Northwest. From Idaho’s Silver Valley to Butte’s Berkeley Pit to the asbestos-riddled town of Libby, Mont., mining has been both boon and curse — creating vast wealth for a few and a decent life for many, but too often scarring the land, uprooting lives and poisoning the air, water and soil in the process.
Carter’s book is subtitled “A Story About Copper,” and that indefinite article is no accident. This is not a comprehensive history of the red metal. Rather, it’s a very personal account of Carter’s attempts to learn about copper mining, which is both the book’s strength and weakness.
Copper has been a part of human life since ancient times. Today, we rely on it not only to bring us our electricity, cable TV shows and Facebook updates, but for such pillars of eco-modern life as mobile phones and electric cars.
From Alaska to Mexico to Chile, Carter shows how even the best-run copper mines end up fouling the earth and poisoning the people who work in or live near them. Copper mining, he writes, “by its very nature is a destructive force. By harnessing our resources in this manner, we enter an unspoken contract to ruin our aquifers, add to the problem of global warming, and be responsible for the massive displacement of billions of tons of earth.”
Carter is such a passionate but informed tour guide that I wish he had widened his purview, rather than tethering it to his personal dilemma. Anyone glancingly familiar with the history of either the Northwest or copper will wonder at Montana’s near-absence from “Boom, Bust, Boom”; at the very least, Carter ought to have checked out the enormity that is the Berkeley Pit.
With more systematic research, Carter might have written the copper equivalent of “Cadillac Desert,” Marc Reisner’s tour de force about Western water policy. But that’s not what he was after. Instead, he wrote an idiosyncratic yet compelling account of one man’s attempts to reconcile the world’s need for copper (which he laments but never really disputes) with the unsavory and dangerous ways it goes about getting it.
His conclusion, after he’s made the decision about whether or not to leave Bisbee, will rankle both mining enthusiasts and many environmentalists: “Although mining is imperative and critical to our way of life, not every mine is necessary, especially if located dangerously close to a vital natural resource.”
Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.