Introduction | Thomas Meaney | Granta


Thomas Meaney

We periodize most of human history according to the tools our ancestors mined from the earth: the Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age. Culture has been bound up since the beginning with extraction. Among the first materials hominids mined for were red ochre and other concentrated pigments. They responded to the welter of godlike forces around them – floods, storms, shooting stars – by searching the depths below for colors with which they could mark their skin and animal hides, and bring a semblance of order to the world. There is a reason ‘cosmetic’ shares a root with ‘cosmos’.

No one before modern times entered a mine except as a prisoner of war, a criminal or a slave, as Lewis Mumford once observed. Papyrus scraps from ancient Egypt detail the divisions of labor that mining demanded: those who prospected, those who tested rock, those who took charge of tools, those who supervised baskets, those who filled the baskets. Mining and quarrying shaped the governing forms of the ancient world, from empires to city-states. The democracy of fifth-century Athens, which allowed a sliver of its population to debate political questions, would not have been possible without the great Laurium silver mine outside the city, where prisoners and children worked to fill the coffers of the city’s benefactors.

Mining in the age of European colonial expansion was both an engine of institutionalized slavery and modern liberation. The silver and gold mines of the Americas under the Spanish court’s command became hubs of exploitation, fed with the labor of the indigenous empires they eradicated. The industrial revolution in Europe was, fundamentally, a turn from relying on the living environment (timber, draft horses) toward the dead (fossil fuels, iron ore), though two centuries later three billion people in the South still use biomass energy for their everyday cooking and heating. Extraction’s cycle of boom and bust – discovery, exploitation, exhaustion, new discovery – became the cursus of capital itself. But counter-movements flickered inside this development. The rise of modern democracy in England has been attributed, in part, to the rise of coal-mining, which allowed miners to organize and block production. Such opposition is harder to mount in the age of oil, when tankers glide through waters unobstructed by all but the most determined pirates.

It’s little surprise that extraction – literal digging in the earth – has been a great subject of fiction, from Zola’s Germinal – with its swinging Davy lamps and sweating girls at the coalface – to the most epic petro-novel of them all, Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo is in this sense mistitled: the protagonist of the novel is not an Italian strike-breaker, but the San Tomé silver mine. Modern American literature itself could be said to have been born underground and on the water. When Mark Twain went into the mining business with his brother Orion Clemens in Nevada in the 1860s, he didn’t find much of value, but he picked up a different kind of argot: the vernacular of the miners, whose language, along with the steamboat-speech of the Mississippi, he wanted to preserve on the page. It’s to Twain that we owe one of the most succinct definitions of a mine: a hole in the ground with a liar standing next to it. And what is Moby-Dick if not an ode to sperm-whale oil extraction?


In our own time, there is a vast appetite for the metals and materials required for the green transition: lithium and nickel for car batteries, cobalt and other metals for chips. Not since the 1970s have states on the global periphery been in a better position to extract concessions from the great powers, yet despite much talk almost nothing has come of it. The conditions on the ground – and mining corporations’ lattice of legal protections for their technology and know-how – have made the emergence of an OPEC for minerals and metals unlikely.

On both old and new extraction sites, fresh confrontations continue to break out across the globe. In 2022, Serbian environmental groups blocked the lithium mining concession of Rio Tinto in the Jadar Valley, where a highly in-demand mineral, ‘Jadarite’, has been discovered. In early 2023, a generation of German eco-activists were defeated in a bitter showdown with the company RWE, which has expanded an open-pit coal mine in the village of Lützerath in the Rhineland. Last October, a local political coalition in Panama stopped First Quantum Minerals from opening a copper mine just inland from the western coast, while António Costa, the prime minister of Portugal, resigned in the wake of allegations of corruption surrounding concessions for lithium mining in the country.

These emboldened protests against resource extraction arise in both the South and the North. As we enter a period of national onshoring, with the great powers all seeking to mine precious materials inside their own borders, under the banner of ‘national security’, the realities of extraction may once again become visible in the cores of the global economy. The chief paradox of the age is that even the movement to replace fossil fuels requires another round of mining. How to facilitate the extraction that is necessary without continuing on the path of endless accumulation? The current picture is not rosy. ‘We’re not really in an energy transition as it is popularly understood,’ Thea Riofrancos told Granta for this issue. ‘What we’re in is a period of major energy addition, in which both fossil fuels and renewable sources are growing at a rapid clip.’


In this issue, James Pogue reports from the Central African Republic, where mining rights have long been in the crosshairs of global politics. In a historical meditation on the fate of Imperial Russia, Bathsheba Demuth moves among the ghosts of extraction along the Yukon River, pursuing different leads behind a mysterious massacre in the village of Nulato in 1851. Laleh Khalili uncoils the history of energy in Israel, where, as Golda Meir once mused, the early Zionists had chosen to colonize one of the few spots in the Middle East without oil. Anjan Sundaram reports from Mexico, where the country’s cartels are in open conflict with local villages over the control of mining concessions. William Atkins writes from the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, where men (and one woman) dig for their own coal – and fuel their dignity – under a royal grant of rights that dates back hundreds of years. The perversion of idealism in crypto-mining is the subject of Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s essay, which critically examines the greenification of Bitcoin mining, which globally uses roughly as much energy as Ireland. Inaugurating a new series of psychoanalytic essays for the magazine, Nuar Alsadir explores the trapped passion on the other side of boredom.

Summarizing the fiction in this issue, as in all issues of Granta, is a foolhardy exercise. Nevertheless: Benjamin Kunkel’s ‘Prairie Dogs’ is a tale of a party gone wrong: a man coping with his environmental and social commitments momentarily succumbs to his own attraction to the apocalypse. Bruno Lacombe, the shadowy figure from Rachel Kushner’s forthcoming novel, Creation Lake, has renounced modern life in favor of the historical continuum he finds in a cave. In ‘Monkey Army’, Eka Kurniawan’s story of a degraded man guarding an extraction site in Java, the legend of the Ramayana gets reversed: the monkeys are not friends to humans, but wreak a reign of terror. Based on the life of the American ethnologist Richard Oglesby Marsh, Carlos Fonseca reflects in a multi-layered narrative on the arrival of scientific colonialism in Central America, and the abduction of a group of children, thought to belong to a lost tribe of Europeans. In Camilla Grudova’s ‘Nettle Tea’, patients at an esoteric clinic submit to a rigorous process of extraction, as they learn to expel their unreturned desires. Unreturned desire is one of the undertones of Christian Lorentzen’s story ‘The Accursed Mountains’, in which a literary journeyman in Albania deflects his feeling for a fellow traveler onto his dentist, who conducts a delicate extraction operation on his mouth.


Granta will return to the theme of desire in a summer issue devoted to stories of deception and delusion. A close-up of the great extraction powerhouse of our time – China – will follow in the autumn.


Image © Salvatore Vitale

Thomas Meaney

Thomas Meaney is the editor of Granta. He has reported for the New Yorker and Harper's magazine, and contributes regularly to the London Review of Books. In 2022, he received the Robert B. Silvers Prize for Journalism.

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