The dark side of Cobalt, the digital age’s miracle metal

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The dark side of Cobalt, the digital age’s miracle metal

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Crew of the Waldman Silver Mine, Cobalt.The world is searching for cobalt. A small town in northern Ontario reminds us of its dark past, writes Charli

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Crew of the Waldman Silver Mine, Cobalt.

The world is searching for cobalt. A small town in northern Ontario reminds us of its dark past, writes Charlie Angus.

By Charlie AngusExcerpt from Cobalt

Sun., Jan. 30, 20225 min. read

Charlie Angus looks at lessons from an early 20th-century mining rush. An excerpt from the new book by the New Democrat MP for Timmins—James Bay, “Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower.”

The world is searching for cobalt, the miracle ingredient of the digital age. The metal’s capacity to store energy and stabilize conductors has made possible the proliferation of rechargeable batteries, smartphones and laptops. More crucially, in the face of catastrophic climate change, cobalt offers the hope of a clean-energy future.

But cobalt has a much darker side. The relentless drive to feed the cobalt needs of Silicon Valley has led to appalling levels of degradation, child abuse and environmental damage in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the world’s number one cobalt producer. The situation is so dire that human rights campaigners have denounced cobalt as the blood mineral of the 21st century.

Tesla, Google and Apple would love to cut their ties with the abuses in the DRC, but cobalt is an extremely elusive metal, and the struggle to secure cobalt supplies is taking place within the context of a much broader geopolitical struggle with China. This is why the search for an alternative source of a metal that was named after demons has drawn investors back to a little town in northern Ontario.

A place called Cobalt.

There is a powerful synchronicity in this renewed interest in Cobalt, Ont. This is not just some old mining town looking for one more chance to flourish. The events that took place at Cobalt more than a century ago set Canada on its path to becoming the world’s pre-eminent resource extraction superpower.

The implications of the Cobalt mining boom (1903 to 1921) were enormous. The sudden flush of silver money from the mines of Cobalt hit sleepy Edwardian Canada like a high-octane jolt — strong enough to change the trajectory of development in both Ontario and Canada. The wealth of these mines was so unprecedented that in 1916 the British government pleaded with Canadian authorities to avoid a miners’ strike at Cobalt because of the impact it would have had on the war effort.

Cobalt elevated a new financial elite, who quickly learned that the real riches of the northern mines were not to be found by digging with a pick and shovel but by mastering the financial alchemy of hustling mining plays and manipulating the stock market.

And thus began the quick ascendancy of Toronto from provincial backwater to economic powerhouse. At one time, Toronto was the butt of a joke among American financiers: “Toronto? Ah yes, that’s where you switch the trains to get to Cobalt.” Thanks to lessons learned at Cobalt, Toronto transformed itself into the global centre for the financing of resource extraction projects.

Today nearly three-quarters of the world’s mining companies are registered in Canada. The maple leaf flies over international zones of resource exploitation ranging from former states of the Soviet Union through to the Amazon and to the metal deposits of Africa, where horrific human rights abuses are accepted as part of the cost of doing business.

Canada’s global mining industry was built with a particular tool box of skills that were developed in Cobalt — financial, regulatory and industrial. Little wonder that Cobalt has been called the “cradle of Canadian mining.”

Across northern Canada, there are mining communities that were born out of the money generated in this cradle. Like Cobalt, they thrive or die depending on the wealth beneath their streets and the price of metals on the international markets. Cobalt was all about the money, and when all was said and done not a dime remained.

The famous Silver Sidewalk, an exceptionally rich and smooth vein, is now just a fenced-off hole. Long gone is the local stock exchange that presaged and helped launch the Toronto and Vancouver financial exchanges. What remains are blasted-out canyons and arsenide green beaches — the detritus of a great war against the earth.

In Canada, it is taken as a given that such boom-bust disparity is part of the social contract of northern existence. It seems self-evident that the immense resources of the northern hinterland exist to benefit the needs of the urban heartland — or the shareholders of multinational corporations.

Such a world view is only possible because we have allowed ourselves to accept the winner’s version of what happened at Cobalt. In reality, Cobalt was a battleground for multiple visions of how the wealth of the earth could be used and who should be its beneficiaries. Issues that dominate the discourse today — resource exploitation versus environmental concerns and Indigenous rights, multicultural accommodation versus xenophobic suspicion, the power of the one per cent in the face of class resistance — were battled out in the shabby streets of Cobalt.

These important social and political struggles have been largely forgotten. The focus has long been on the distinct economic model based on resource exploitation for private gain that has defined Canada’s relationship to the environment ever since.

Today this economic model is pushing the Canadian industry into some of the world’s most far-flung frontiers and affecting Indigenous people all over the planet. The social conflict that existed in the early days of Cobalt has been magnified a thousandfold in jurisdictions where the rule of law is compromised, and incursions into Indigenous territories heighten conflict.

In the 21st century, Canada’s relationship to its resource extraction sector is coming under increasing scrutiny as we contemplate a world of melting ice and burning forests.

So what can the story of Cobalt teach us in an age of pandemic, impending climate catastrophe, racial division and class strife? It may be that the shape-shifting metal will prove to be the miracle ingredient that leads us to a more sustainable way of life. Or it may be that we need to find a less rapacious balance between environment, social justice, human rights and the world’s depleting resources.

The story of Cobalt is about the looting of one of the great treasure boxes of the earth. But it is also a story of people who believed it was possible to create an alternate future with this immense natural wealth

If ever there was a time to imagine an alternate future, it is now.

Excerpted from Cobalt: Cradle of the Demon Metals, Birth of a Mining Superpower by Charlie Angus ©2022 Charlie Angus. Published by House of Anansi Press www.houseofanansi.com

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