Friday, July 10, 2015

White Faces In Blighted Places

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 52
Tom Zoellner, Come See the Mountain

The silver mines of Potosí, Bolivia, once extracted such rich reserves that they massively enriched the Spanish crown. Spaniards who would never actually visit the Americas ordered colonial administrators to enslave Indians by the thousands to extract silver for export. In Europe, Potosí became synonymous with boundless wealth; in Bolivia, it became a watchword for despair. And exploitation didn't end when Spain lost its colonies.

English professor Tom Zoellner visited Potosí, an extinct volcanic caldera, in 2014, and like any good academic, felt compelled to write about his experiences witnessing... something. He expected to find bleak-eyed laborers reduced to mechanical repetition, in the best Marxist tradition, but thanks to moonshine and coca leaves, the workers, still mostly Indians, demonstrated remarkably good spirits. He didn't come prepared, however, for the massive influx of Euro-American tourists.

Zoellner quotes Lennon and Foley, Scottish researchers who coined the term "dark tourism" to denote people who deliberately visit places where something awful has happened: murder scenes, war zones, Nazi sites. He also acknowledges the trend in "eco-tourism," visiting places of ecological significance, like tropical rain forests and majestic rivers. Zoellner combines these two ideas to describe people who deliberately visit places of man-made ecological blight: "dark eco-tourism."

This concept involves duelling impulses. Zoellner compares dark eco-tourism to religious pilgrimages, when fat first-world citizens travel to places where extreme poverty collides with mineral wealth, making people desperate enough to sell resources (like silver) cheaper than dirt. These pilgrims come with penitent self-flagellation in their hearts for their exploitative consumption. But they also reduce workers to mere spectacle, and their work to geek demonstrations for the rich.

Dark eco-tourism may take many forms. Cruise ships, Zoellner describes, have recently made Arctic runs to watch glaciers calve off icebergs that diminish the polar icecaps. Whenever hot, dry climate has produced unprecedented fires, especially in places like California and Australia, gawkers almost compulsively flock to witness the devastation, sometimes while fires still burn. Our planet's gradual collapse into thick, carbon-choked nihilism, has become a part-time sideshow display.

Yet it serves distinct purposes. Zoellner himself, visiting Potosí, feels sufficiently moved by the devastation he witnesses, to seek and interview workers who've spent more hours inside the mountain's labyrinthine, largely anarchic tunnels than in Bolivia's famed sunlight. Dark eco-tourism inspires Zoellner to give voice to these workers, trapped in IMF-designated abject poverty, and carry their story outward. But the money, gifts, and tchotchke industry keeps them trapped.

A street in Potosí, Bolivia, with a view of the mountain where the silver is mined.

Silver prices have fallen recently. Unlike gold, nobody hoards silver against predicted economic collapse, and the dwindling market in film-based cameras has whittled silver nitrate demand to near zero. This, however, in Zoellner's telling, creates a perverse incentive network: falling prices induce greater demand for workers to extract greater yields, hoping to cover shortfalls by quantity. Much like American farmers overproduce to subsidize overproduction, Potosí miners hasten their own impoverishment.

These problems are compounded by lack of oversight in mining operations. Unlike US mineral extraction, where single companies like Massey or Peabody control geographic and economic regions, overseen by government regulators, gangs of mine "cooperatives" crisscross Potosí with near-complete impunity. Large portions of the mountain are in imminent danger of collapse, probably atop men (and they are almost exclusively men) working deep within the meandering, poorly supported tunnels.

Meanwhile, the white tourists gawk. Offered the opportunity to swing a miner's pick or pull a mine cart, many briefly embrace the chance, before quickly returning the job back to its original worker. Some emerge from the experience swearing they'll never complain about white-collar jobs again. Others acquire greater respect for economic injustice, and swear to change their exploitative consumerist ways. Few, however, emerge changed enough to stop buying silver.

Zoellner mixes fact-based journalism with subtle, psychological storytelling to create a difficult dual portrait. The grotesque collision between the tourists who can walk away from this grim spectacle at will, and the workers who cannot, reflects the collision within our own lives: I could stop buying electronics made with coltan extracted from Zaire. I could stop driving my carbon-belching pickup and grow vegetables in my lawn. But you already know I won't.

This represents my second encounter with Deca (, a writers' cooperative, after McKenzie Funk's The Wreck of the Kulluk. Deca works to bring well-written nonfiction, longer than magazine articles but shorter than books, to readers in affordable digital format. This is a beneficial application of new technologies to socially desirable ends. They do good work, and deserve all the assistance the market can offer.

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