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Mining and Man’s March Towards Extinction

Abraham Lincoln was a lifelong proponent of “improvements,” meaning the products of human labor focused on converting natural resources into useful goods for human consumption. As President, he was able to advance that worldview: the first transcontinental railroad was initiated during his Presidency, his Homestead Act gave free land to men who would use it, and his Morrill Act authorized use of funds from sales of public lands to build colleges in the several states.

Lincoln analogized the Earth to a mine with inexhaustible resources, and men as miners. Men’s economic purpose was to extract from the mine what they wanted and to fashion by their own labor the mined resources into goods to improve their lives. Lincoln gave little thought to disposal of the waste products of mining, farming and and manufacture.

The assumption that Nature’s bounty is, for all practicable purposes infinite, has survived in some quarters since Lincoln’s day, but waste, toxic and not, has become a major issue for most Americans. Today’s New York Times, page D6, details long-lasting effects of mining near Butte, Montana, which persist today. More than a century of mining for copper and other metals created a toxic lake within the 700-acre open pit mine, which itself closed in 1979. The 1780-foot deep Berkeley Pit is one of America’s largest Superfund sites, and nearly $2 billion has already been spent to clean it up.

The lake’s poisonous chemistry was recently underlined by the death of thousands of snow geese who landed on the lake and drank its water during their annual migration from Canada to the south. Efforts to keep the birds from the lake were not successful; the birds could not read the warning signs which keep humans away from the lake, and ignored the loud noises and other devices intended to shoo them away.

The world is in the process of acknowledging that there are prudent limits to man’s following the Biblical injunction to subdue the Earth and convert all its bounty to human use. Mark Fiege’s book, “The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States,” sketches the transition we are going through from Abraham Lincoln’s conception of the Earth as a limitless mine to modern recognition That Earth is a spaceship where “waste” should be intelligently handled as part of a closed system all life depends on. That transition needs to be speeded up, and quickly be part of the marching orders for everyone.


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