A few years ago when the Cash 4 Gold advertisements started appearing, I was mildly amused by what was an obvious (to me) ripoff of people in giving them vastly lower returns than the value of the gold they sent in. I figured that the ripoff artists would be exposed and the fad would end. But that’s not what happened, as I started to see local jewelers advertise against the scams with their own offers of more money for the precious metals of their customers. At this point I became more concerned.
I became even more concerned when I saw, not too far away from where I live, a company that offers customers cash for metals like copper and other non-precious metals. It appears as if there is quite a large market in melting down old metals and re-using them again for other purposes. Apparently we are running out of metals to mine, so that we must cannibalize our existing stock of metals for re-use. Such a phenomenon means that we are, at least for now, nearing the end of our tether when it comes to certain materials, meaning that the high prices for metals are not only a factor of people trying to game the market but reflect an underlying demand for such materials, and this is a matter of grave concern.
Why? In 2006 I visited Turkey, and on that trip went to various ruins of Greco-Roman cities like Ephesus and Pergamum and Aphrodesias. Over and over again I saw statues and walls that had crumbled in earthquakes, and being educated in civil (structural) engineering, I wondered if the Romans had been aware of the dangers of building with unreinforced masonry (concrete and brick) in earthquake-prone regions like Western Anatolia. After all, our building codes in the United States forbid the building of masonry structures without a minimum amount of reinforcing steel, in order to preserve structures and life in the case of earthquake. And yet here was city after city where unreinforced masonry walls and structures had fallen in earthquakes into ruin. Didn’t the Romans know any better?
As it turns out, they did. The structures I saw were not unreinforced because the Romans were incompetent engineers (quite the contrary). Their walls, buildings, and even statues had all been reinforced with metals (like lead). But there was no metal in the structures that had survived, and so the question became, what happened to all of the metals, and who would go through the effort of trying to melt lead out of a city wall or out of a statue? As it happens, the answer was that during the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires mining had been tapped out in the areas of Western Civilization, at least for a few centuries, and so in order to make new metal objects, the metal had to be cannibalized from existing sources.
And so the people of the time melted the lead out of their walls, statues, and buildings so that they could make more pipes and plates and goblets, all goods that they needed. Did they realize what they were doing with their shortsidedness? Did they feel they had no choice except for make their structures and cities unsafe so they could survive here and now? Did they sacrifice tomorrow for today, cross their fingers, and hope that the earthquake wouldn’t come? Whatever they thought, or however they rationalized their actions, they weakened their infrastructure, and the earthquakes came, and their cities were flattened, to be rebuilt with inferior materials, a sign of a declining culture and a lesser state of civilization.
Perhaps now it is clear why I have such concern about our own active policy to seek the re-use of materials because of our lack of supplies. If we cannot easily find the metals we need to construct buildings, machinery, or computer equipment, are we going to endanger our own (already dangerously weak) infrastructure to find such materials? Are we going to jeopardize our future so that we can survive another day with the material culture that we have become accustomed to, only to leave ourselves vulnerable to the destruction of our civilization as we know it by disasters that we and our infrastructure will not be resilient enough to overcome? This is my concern.
Someday, will people look at the ruins of our cities and wonder, as I did in looking at the once-great Greco-Roman cities of Asia Minor, if we knew any better? Will people wonder why we weren’t competent enough to plan for disasters like earthquakes by reinforcing our own structures? Or will they seek to discover the truth that we cannibalized ourselves before we fell under the force of events we could no longer withstand? Worst of all, do we have any better options, or is “eating our seed corn” in a metaphorical sense the best option we have left?