Reflections on 30 tons an ounce

While my dissertation project is not incredibly obscure, it usually only matters to a small number of people — most of whom live in Australia, Papua New Guinea, or Vancouver. So I’ve been really amazed to see the New York Times’s series “on the impact of gold mining”: that has been running recently — suddenly my area of expertise is literally news. How do I feel about the article, and how do I feel about the gold industry more generally?

I study the relationship between indigenous people in Papua New Guinea and the white senior management of a gold mine that they work with. As someone who had studied Melanesia for years before I lived there, and who lived in a local community, the biggest problem I had was fitting in with the white mining executives and not the local Papua New Guineans. Call it the narcissism of small difference. Culture shock and fieldwork with Papua New Guineans was easy in some sense, since no one really expected me to fit in when I first arrived. Mine management, on the other hand, were supposedly ‘from my culture.’ Learning to like and respect these men (they were almost entirely men) was one of the hardest parts of my fieldwork. They were mostly Australian and Canadian, and had the usual Commonwealth suspicion of Yankees. I was an artist and an intellectual, and over-educated to boot. While many of my informants in the mine had some form of tertiary education it tended towards the vocational, or the physical sciences. And they were MEN in a way that I was not — they talked about rugby and worked with their hands and had pictures of naked (or nearly naked) women on their walls, in there calendars, on their screen savers. And, of course, in the struggle between landowners and company, I was sympathetic to my indigenous hosts.

Of course, I can imagine how strange I must have appeared to them: hopelessly young, over-educated, exotically Jewish, under-nourished and unshaven. In fact of all of my fieldwork experiences, one of the things that I am most proud of is the fact that I established as close a rapport with them as I did. It was, for me, one of the classical lessons of anthropological relativism: no matter how savage and barbaric your natives — in this case, Canadian capitalists — may seem to you, you need to learn to understand them.

Reading the New York Times article I can just imagine the reaction of several of my informants. A lot of it is about how they are misunderstood, how naive people are who aren’t familiar with the industry, and so forth. A lot of it is exculpatory (or straight up self-congratulation) but they do have certain insights as well.

The power of the Times article comes from its title: Thirty tons an ounce. The massive amount of effort undertaken — and hardship inflicted — for a single ring’s worth of gold is tremendous. And yet for the post-fieldwork me it is also emblematic of the nature of the primary industry which supports first world lifestyles. As one mine executive once remarked to me “if it’s not grown, it’s mined.” When staring at an open cut or touring float mills its impossible to escape this fact. But the existence and extent of primary industry is occluded from the view of most Americans. Times readers may be disturbed by the process of gold mining, but what this should really cause them to do is rethink not just gold mining, but their lifestyle in general. Look up from your computer screen for a moment and look around the room — how much metal do you see? Imagine the copper wires and metal pipes and lines of nails that stretch around you for thousands of miles. Where did they come from?

It is commonplace these days for people who drive cars to lament the way they are destroying the environment. Very few people realize what the set of silverware in their kitchen cupboard makes then an accessory to. So while gold exemplified the willingness of people to literally uproot the planet it is only part of a much larger dynamic that most of my readers have been living with their entire lives: the constant presence physical objects that were manufactured.

I am aware of this not only because of the time I spent with miners. My experience working with the Ipili also focused around a certain metal fetish — although in the Ipili case it was steel. Like most people of highlands Papua New Guinea, the Ipili did not experience any form of refined metal until the early 1930s, and objects such as axes and machetes (often the only metal object that many people own) were not ubiquitous until the 1960s. Living in a place where old people can remember a life without metal at all and where most people still don’t have much of it is a sobering experience. A world without plumbing or paving or silverware or screws is very, very different indeed.

Of course there are problems — lots of them — with what the mining industry is doing to the people and places that it impacts. There are ways to mitigate this impact — the best being constant and unrelenting pressure on the industry by NGOs and local people which makes bad behavior too expensive for the industry to afford. But if I had my way, the thing that readers of the Times article on gold would learn from that piece is not that the industry is bad, but that they are living balanced atop a massive pyramid of labor and extraction of which gold is only the most obvious part.

As for me, I own a computer and nice knives and pots and pans. After two years of living in rural Papua New Guinea I am more than ready to have the earth pay the price for my current abode’s indoor plumbing and electrification. But I’ve never owned a car, don’t want to, and I have various other idiosyncratic personal commitments to simple living. I know my adopted family in Papua New Guinea wants the same standard of living that I have (except for the car part, which they can get behind), and I think they should have the opportunity to have it as well. I just hope that the readers of the Time’s new series realize, as I did, that they have something to come to grips with beyond just the problems of the gold industry.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

8 thoughts on “Reflections on 30 tons an ounce

  1. Rex … the relationships between mine owners and aboriginal workers is fascinating to me. There is a large gold mine near the Tahltan-speaking village where I do my fieldwork in northwestern British Columbia. An anthropologist who worked in the village in the 1970s argued that mining activities through the early parts of the 1900s provided little to native people, whether in terms of profits or jobs. I saw a marked shift from her observations by 2002 when I conducted my fieldwork. Many Tahltan people earn good wages working in all sorts of areas in mine operations. And the mine contributes directly to community projects with cash and in-kind contributions.

    There are tensions around resource development in nrothern BC, to be sure, but to what extent do you find that the political climate of the country in which the mine is located determines the tenor of the relationship between mine execs and (aboriginal) labourers? I sense that local politics play a profound role … to the extent that the policies regarding native people of individual mining companies, with mines throughout the world, must vary as widely as their international operations.

  2. In my experience mining executives do not stay at any one property for more than a couple of years, and I think there is a sort of diasporic ‘industry culture’ which has a certain set of buzzwords and ideas: ‘sustainable develoment’ for instance, ‘best practices’ and ‘stakeholder involvement’ etc. etc. International conferences ensure that the details of benefits packages for local people in one place get spread around and tried out in other mines as well. Of course, the idea of companies ‘being good neighbors’ with local populations goes back 150 years or so, so the idea of providing college scholarships to poor Indian kids is not exactly a new idea.

    Of course, how these general ideas are saturated with the particularity of any particular place where they’re located is another issue altogether. So yes, I think mines (like everything else) get localized. But they have higher-level connections to an international culture which often sets the terms within which management is willing to work.

  3. Thank you for this thought-ewoking post, Rex. I actually was not aware of all the metal around me.
    Wheres your interest in Melanesia rooted?

  4. Tad said, “Many Tahltan people earn good wages working in all sorts of areas in mine operations. And the mine contributes directly to community projects with cash and in-kind contributions.”

    Now I m asking myself, what kind of work did the Tahltan people do before the mining company came into their area and how has Tahltan living changed since then for example in regards of adoption of daily-life artefacts or in regards of the use of money as a means of payment in general.
    You re surely right in setting a questionmark behind terms of “the bad’n exploitive companies” and I agree “good & bad guy thinking” does not fit to anthro grounds, but ain’t affords like described above rather to be seen as a helping hand to assimilate to western civilization?

  5. In response to Orange, they didn’t have a choice, but political tactics ranging from protests at blockades to negotiation and partnership agreements suggest to me an active involvement in managing local lands and resources. Despite the fact there is no aboriginal treaty in the area, aboriginal people have a lot of clout and are listened to.

    Briefly to the question of wage work prior to mining … fur trading, big game guiding, various infrastructure construction projects like building a telegraph line to Alaska in the 1860s. But, wage earning opportunities have come along relatively recently in northwestern BC.

  6. Tad said, “They didn’t have a choice, but.”

    cool. After having posted my comment I quickly came to think I should have formulated it rather like DO they have a choice.

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