09 October 2010

Todos somos Chilenos

Your morning alarm is electrical, the pulses carried on copper wires. The coffee you make and the hot shower you take require copper wires and copper pipes. There is copper in the bronze hinges and drawer pulls in your closets and cabinets. There's copper in the brass buttons of your suit coat. You've got copper-clad pots to boil your eggs. Your computer and cell phone can't be made without copper. The electricity you pay two bits for two kilowatt-hours for is generated by huge, spinning bundles of copper wire. They work much like the windings in your car's alternator--more copper. You drive to work past homes and buildings whose veinous systems of copper wires and copper pipes keep them lit and habitable. The quarters you pump in the parking meter are disks of pure copper sandwiched between layers of a cupro-nickel alloy.

The United States consumes about two million metric tons of new copper in a year. A metric ton (aka tonne) is one thousand kilograms, or 2205 pounds. Two million of those is over 4.4 billion pounds. If there are 310 million Americans, that is 14 pounds of copper per person annually. If you live 80 years, that is 1120 pounds, or over half a ton (either kind!). The copper folks tell me a child born today will need 1500 pounds of copper to maintain our accustomed standard of living.

Chile is the world's largest copper producer, supplying about a third of the world's needs. The U.S. imports about a third of the copper it needs, and thus depends on Chilean output to augment domestic production and recycling. Copper is Chile's most important export, accounting for about 35% of the country's total. Copper mining and refining creates enormous environmental challenges for even the wealthiest countries, and the crisis in Chile has made the world aware of the hazards inherent in underground copper extraction. The dramatic news from Camp Hope that a rescue shaft has reached the thirty-three men trapped underground in the San Jose Mine has everyone optimistic that they will ultimately be rescued.

Everything we need for life is either grown or mined. Copper has been mined by human beings for millenia, it was one of the earliest metals our ancient forbearers utilized. Metalworking is one of the foundations of civilization, and its origins are somewhere in the mists of prehistory. Our modern way of life is even more dependent on the steady supply of copper and other metals. So we are all Chileans. Those men down there, they are our lifeline. They are literally our connection to the earth. Let us hope they all make it out safely, and that the next time they go down there, things will be better.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not that you didn't know this, of course, but you are a really fine writer. N.