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  • Bill Prast

Unintended Consequences

William G Prast is the author of a collection of short stories, available on Amazon. Here he shares with us a piece of science fantasy, from the not-too-distant future.


Here is a glimpse of the news from the not-too-distant future.


In keeping with their traditional role of being avant-garde global style setters, all the leading fine jewellery makers have quickly changed their display cabinets to show how the rich and famous should adorn themselves. Precious metals are passé. And likely to remain so.


How this happened seems almost predictable, from a viewpoint of as recently as twenty years ago. But it wasn’t predicted at all. With hindsight, perhaps it could have been.


The story begins with the oceans. They’re big. They cover nearly three-quarters of the surface of the planet. And hold nearly all of the water in the world. It’s hard to ignore them.


And they weren’t overlooked. The oceans were conveniently at hand to became the global garbage dump. Every kind of waste was chucked into the sea. It was an easy way to dispose of unwanted stuff.


A lot of the junk became food for the fish and other denizens of the deep. Most of the rest was gradually biodegradable and slowly disappeared. But not all of it. Some things - notably plastics – didn’t decompose quickly, and were swept by those circular ocean currents known as gyres into massive accumulations. Huge floating islands of plastic grew as more and more garbage was thrown away by everyone.


This abuse of the seas finally came to an end with an international agreement hammered out to curb the indiscriminate use of plastics. The material became subject to strict recycling controls, and the floating islands of plastic were gathered up and removed for recycling.


This change of affairs was really good news for the forest products industry, as many consumers shifted to using more trees for paper packaging. But it brought unforeseen changes, some of them unwelcome, to other businesses.


The unexpected outcomes arose from the procedure to remove unwanted plastics from the seas. It was not a simple thing to do. Although bags, bottles and chunky pieces could be scooped by purpose-built sea-going barges, gathering the smallest fragments posed a challenging problem.


Decades of being tossed around the gyres had reduced most of the waste into microplastics, tens of trillions of very tiny scraps. Special treatment to harvest them was needed, as they are far too small for any straight-forward physical filtering. New, breakthrough technologies in chemical engineering were required to capture the elusive microplastics.


Necessity being the mother of invention, those new technologies did emerge. They work and they are cheap. However, as we now know, the application of these new processes requires the sea water to have any and all traces of metals removed along with the microplastics.


At first, this did not seem too important as the presence of trace amounts of metals in sea water was already well known. Scientists have long been aware that the seas contain extremely small amounts of many metals, including the likes of common elements such as copper and silver. Even miniscule traces of gold in sea water had been identified, in 1872 barely 200 years ago, by a British chemist Edward Sonstadt.


Despite the efforts of many scientists and alchemists over the years, none of these metals had ever been extracted from sea water at a profit. Their minute quantities, measured in parts per trillion, defeated all attempts to achieve commercial success.


Now, circumstances were fundamentally changed. Metals became secondary by-products in the task of cleaning the oceans, and metal prices fell as an unintended consequence. The biggest loser was gold. Once upon a time it was the classic storehouse of value to be called upon in the event of an economic crisis, and was a desirable medium of exchange. It was rare. But that is no longer the case. What happened?


It was simple arithmetic. Although the total quantity of gold in the oceans remains subject to debate, the amounts in the seas dwarf the output of conventional mines on land. A few parts per trillion when multiplied by the millions of cubic miles of ocean adds up to quite a bit.


To illustrate, fifty years ago, the annual newly-mined gold from all the mines was on the order of 3,500 metric tons. It may seem hard to believe, but back then a gram of gold was worth more than fifty dollars, which meant a ton was worth fifty million dollars and thus the amount in the world mined in a year was 3,500 times as much, valued at roughly 175 billion dollars. Seriously.


By way of comparison, although estimates vary, there may be 20 million tons of gold in the oceans, which is one hundred times more than the total of all of the gold estimated to have ever been produced in the history of man. Extraction from the sea at ten times the rate of land-based mining as recently as a generation ago could continue for centuries. We do that now, routinely.


Originally intended to remove microplastics, the technology to extract gold as a by-product of sea-water processing has meant a permanent fall in the price. Currently gold sells for five dollars per gram, that is to say one-tenth of its historic peak of fifty dollars. There is little prospect of a price recovery. The extraction technology is sold in inexpensive kits, affordable to any hobbyists who might like to bring some gold back home as a souvenir from a holiday trip to the seashore.


Needless to say the collapse in the price had sweeping manifestations for global financial markets, as well as for the mining companies and their host governments who had been banking on income derived from these mines. And the central banks of many countries held some bullion as a reserve.


But fortunately for some, a few dozen countries had little or no gold in their reserves. Some were low-income nations but others who were not hit by the price slump had seen gold as an unattractive option to holding other financial instruments. Unlike other choices such as treasury bills and bonds, bullion was a highly conservative hedge that paid no interest and was an expense to store.


Among those whose central banks held no physical gold was the Canadian government. This was true for many years even though the country had numerous gold mines and was once a leading producer of the metal. Norway, a very high per capita income country, was another one. It had divested its central bank holdings of gold long ago.


Aside from the temporary turmoil to the financial world and to the mining industry, there were numerous other consequences of the demise of gold as an insurance policy. Fort Knox in the USA is now wide open to the public and is a popular tourist attraction. Inexpensive jewellery which used to be made of brass became 22 carat but couples still celebrate fifty years of marriage with a Golden Anniversary because that is its traditional name.


Unlucky companies which had been mining and refining from underground and open-cast mines were unable to remain cost-competitive as the full impact of this new technology took hold. The break-even price for their operations was far above the low market-clearing price that resulted from microplastics processing. Some were able to adapt by mining something else but many had to shut down.


It is interesting that the plunge in gold prices in response to a change in technology has parallels in the history of aluminium prices.


Nowadays aluminium is a familiar part of everyday life. It is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust. It is not scarce. However, it bonds easily and tightly to form minerals that require special treatment to obtain the pure metal. The raw material containing aluminium is basically dirt and easy enough to find but processing requires a good deal of electric energy. Most of the cost of producing the final product is in the processing. That is why once it has been produced, aluminium is a prime candidate for recycling.


The metal in its pure state was not isolated until 1825. For the next few decades, because of its rarity it became sought after for jewellery and as an exclusive indication of great wealth. Few people could even consider affording it. Which is entirely understandable, as in the 1850’s aluminium was twice as expensive as gold.


At the time, in an ostentatious display in response to his request, sets of formal cutlery for the French monarch Napoleon III were made from aluminium. Lesser members of his court had to make do with the unfashionable solid gold utensils.


Thanks to the efforts of some inventive metallurgists, commercial methods of extracting aluminium were established soon thereafter, the market price fell sharply and it remains low. It is a long journey from being the exclusive property of royalty to being a beer can. But it seems gold has experienced the same price trajectory.


What might we conclude from this saga? Maybe it is a reminder not to take things for granted. Life is full of surprises.




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