Thinking About the Unthinkable in Ukraine
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PERSONS engaged in mining feel themselves prodded from time to time to defend themselves against a common halftruth, namely, that their business is so risky as to appeal only to gamblers and that therefore it is not quite respectable. The retort (it becomes impatient if one is asked to repeat it too often) is that there are only two fundamental industries--first, that which obtains supplies from the vegetable and animal kingdoms, i.e., agriculture, hunting and fishing; second, that which obtains supplies from the crust of the earth, i.e., mining. The first began with the pursuit of food; the second with the pursuit of tools.
Mining is younger than the pursuit of food, for all animals must have food, and all except man are without tools; but it is older than agriculture and goes back to the time when man first began to look for something that would help him to fight, or to catch, other animals--the time when he became intelligent enough to be called a man. The industrial centers of the old stone age were places where flints could be mined; and it was done on a large scale before even the dog was domesticated, when the wild horse and the mammoth were chased for food by men on foot, when the front of the Scandinavian glacier flowed to the heart of England.
Jumping from the dawn of human industry to its latest stage, we find that mining in the last century has made the greatest strides in its history. The use of the metal copper will show this as well as anything. In the decade ending with 1820 the world production of copper was 96,000 tons; in the decade ending with 1920 it was 10,883,000 tons, or 112 times greater than it had been a hundred years before.[i] In the same century the population of the world has increased by two or perhaps two and one-half times; the use of copper has exceeded it some fifty times over; and it has gained in some such proportion over the pursuit of food. It has not gained so much over agriculture in general because, outside of food, that industry supplies enormous quantities of products which go into modern manufactures in the same manner and probably in the same increase as the metals--for example, timber, rubber and cotton. But, for all that, the growth of mining over agriculture has been very great.
It is doubtful if the thinking public realizes the fact that the growth of mining and the dependence of civilization on its products marks the greatest event and the greatest change in human life and human work that ever occurred.
Copper was one of the first metals, perhaps the very first, to be used for tools and so to help in the production of other things. Its use probably began about four thousand years ago. There was the age of copper and of bronze which, if anything, preceded in ancient civilized countries the general use of iron. Yet as much copper has been produced since 1909 as in the preceding four thousand years. We speak of the present time as the age of iron, but the use of copper is growing faster than that of iron. In 1850, one pound of copper was made to 125 pounds of iron; in 1910, one pound to 72; in 1924, one pound to about 50.
But for the past seven years American producers of copper, and presumably those of the rest of the world, have been complaining of hard times: people have not been buying copper as fast as they could produce it. I have not set out here to discuss the commercial side of copper mining, but the fact seems worth mentioning just to show how a commodity can be over-produced on a large scale, in face of a powerful demand, as easily as when the output was very much smaller. And it will serve our end, that of giving a fair survey of the place in the industry in the world, to follow this matter up to see how it came about.
Patently, the glut of copper was a result, or at least a sequence, of the war, for it came on with the armistice and has continued ever since--that is, seven years. The depression or confusion caused by it was at its worst in 1922, when nearly all the American mines were closed down. Since then, the output in this country has been raised four-fold, no important mines are closed--in fact, nearly all are running at speed--and yet the market is no longer over-supplied. It can still be easily supplied and there is nothing as yet to force buyers to bid up the price, but we may see that the cycle of over-production has about swung through. Copper all this time has been, still is, and may long continue to be, cheaper by any fair standard than it was before the war; it probably is cheaper than ever before in its history. This fact has come as a surprise to the copper miners. In 1922, I was making an appraisal of the mines of New Mexico for the authorities of the state, and in my report made some remarks along this line which it may be interesting to quote, since they were made in the depths of a depression which it was important to gauge: "The commercial situation of this metal is confused; it seems to have lost the balance with other products which in former times was fairly permanent and was accepted as normal; its producers are reaching out, in the effort to understand its future, to general speculations, historical and economic, which a few years ago they would have put down as irrelevant and visionary. A persistent demand equal to the supply was for many years a solid fact; there seemed to be no practical reason for inquiring into the causes; one answer was sufficient--copper was scarce. This situation lasted until the armistice; since then copper has been a drug on the market; hardly any other first-class commodity has been so easily over-produced. . . . How much of the increased use of copper, even before the war, say from 1900 to 1910, was due to smaller wars, preparations for war, the growth of naval armament and the construction of plants to build that armament? The enormous consumption during the war suggests that these uses may have been very considerable."
Thinking the matter over since that time, I am led to believe that here lies the cause of the over-stimulation of copper production. Production would have increased greatly anyway through the spread of electrical, and all other mechanical, appliances. It was mainly in these ways, of course, that copper was used for war preparations. But these preparations afforded a stimulus of which the American public was quite unconscious. It accepted all the uses to which copper was put as normal commercial uses; but the result of the war made some of them abnormal.
Commercial efforts are seldom if ever made in answer to a comprehensive survey of the world's needs. The primary cause is the sight of profits. During the whole time we are talking about, say for fifteen years before the war, it was a commonplace that copper mines were more gainful than any others. Promoters had a steady stream of kingly fortunes to point to in the ownership of mines like Calumet and Hecla, Rio Tinto (Spain), Copper Queen (Arizona), Anaconda (Montana) and many others. When other deposits that had long been more or less known were made available by new processes between 1900 and 1910, all the resources of modern mechanical science and of finance were freely spent to develop them to the utmost. The war furnished for a time a channel for the gush of copper that resulted.
I cannot get over the wonder of the phenomenon that the world now wants and can have a hundred times as much metal (for copper is only one among all the others) as it got a century ago. It shows the strength and depth of the new powers we have called into play. Perhaps still more striking is the fact that mankind, even today, employs or knows how to employ only a small part of these forces; that the gulf between those who do so employ them and those who do not is widening; and that it is doubtful whether any but the most favored races ever will employ them. The great revolution in life has been worked out by one stock or group of people only, the people of northern and western Europe, including Italy, and their offshoots which now spread to America and other parts of the world. Other peoples, like the Japanese and Chinese, have been clever enough to wish to learn to do likewise and no doubt will go far in the long run, but it is fair to say that as yet they have contributed little to the methods, and their success has been chiefly by imitation or under guidance. As for the masses in some of the white nations, like the mujiks and the self-landed proletariat of Russia, they continue to show themselves thoroughly without insight into the true revolution that has been brought about in the western nations, and in their hands power-using industries have gone to rack and ruin: their "revolution" has been a going backward. Thinking to make themselves rich by taking away the wealth of others, they have stopped the production of goods; they have made the rich poor and themselves poorer. After six years of this the Bolshevik Government announced with satisfaction that the production of metals had reached five percent of what it was before the war! For every twenty pounds of copper that Russia made in 1913, she was getting one! In other words, they have gone back at one stroke to the habits of a hundred or a thousand years ago. I believe that the masses of most other nations would do the same. To my mind this is the great fact in world politics today, so much greater than any other that the jealousies between nations like France and Germany seem childish by comparison, and will steadily seem more so.
One might ramble on with these reflections for some time, but it will perhaps be better to set down some specific details regarding the place of copper in the world of today. The principal factors to be considered, I should say, are: first, the growth of methods which make copper cheap; second, the ownership of mines; third, the ultimate supply.
1. One hundred years ago Chile was one of the chief copper producers of the world. After passing through a decline which brought it to a place of insignificance, it has in late years again became a great producer. By glancing briefly at how they formerly got copper and how they get it now, we shall see how the art has gone forward and why miners are richer than they used to be.
About 1835, Charles Darwin, then on his voyage in the Beagle, made various notes on the copper mines of Chile. We may quote from him:
"It is now well known that the Chilian method of mining is the cheapest. . . . A few improvements have been introduced in some of the simple machinery; but even to the present day, water is removed from some mines by men carrying it up the shaft in leathern bags! The laboring men work very hard. They have little time allowed for their meals, and during summer and winter they begin when it is light, and leave off at dark. They are paid one pound sterling a month, and their food is given them; this, for breakfast, consists of sixteen figs and two small loaves of bread; for dinner, boiled beans; for supper, broken roasted wheat grain. They scarcely ever taste meat; as, with twelve pounds per annum, they have to clothe themselves, and support their families. The miners who work in the mine itself have twenty-five shillings per month, and are allowed a little charqui. But these men come down from their bleak habitations only once in every fortnight or three weeks."
Again, on May 4, 1835, he proceeds, with regard to some mines near a place called Los Hornas, south of Coquimbo: "Captain Head has described the wonderful load which the apires, truly beasts of burden, carry up from the deepest mines. I confess I thought the account exaggerated: so that I was glad to take an opportunity of weighing one of the loads, which I picked out at hazard. It required considerable exertion on my part, when standing directly over it, to lift it from the ground. The load was considered under weight when found to be 197 pounds. The apire had carried this up eighty perpendicular yards--part of the way by a steep passage, but the greater part up notched poles, placed in a zigzag line up the shaft. According to a general regulation the apire is not allowed to halt for breath except the mine is six hundred feet deep. The average load is considered as rather more than 200 pounds and I have been assured that one of 300 pounds (twenty-two stone and a half) by way of a trial has been brought up from the deepest mine! At this time the apires were bringing up the usual load twelve times in a day; that is, 2,400 pounds from eighty yards deep; and they were employed in the intervals in breaking and picking ore. Their bodies are not very muscular; they rarely eat meat once a week, and never oftener, and then only the hard dry charqui. Although with the knowledge that the labor was voluntary, it was nevertheless quite revolting to see the state in which they reached the mouth of the mine."
This is enough to show what it was like to gain copper by hand labor. But it was only the beginning of the process. Once out of the mine, copper was packed by mules or burros to the seaport, thence carried some 9,000 miles by sailing ship to Wales, there to be smelted, refined and sent to market by boat or by wagon. How much copper was gotten by each man, then, when we divide it by the number of overseers, miners, water carriers, apires, arrierros (mule drivers), stevedores, sailors, smeltermen, refiners, wagoners, etc., etc., etc., when the utmost that one man could merely carry out of the mine was a little over a ton a day, and that by exertion that passed for a wonder? My observation of industry leads me to make a remark which may be taken as cruel: those apires were well paid with their pound a month and their morsels of dried charqui. That method of getting copper would not give them even half as much today; even if they broke their poor backs carrying their heavy loads, if they had only eight figs for breakfast instead of sixteen, they would still fail to make copper cheaply enough; they would be victims not of hard work or oppression, but of the stupidity of trying to match their food against the power of coal, oil, or water, their muscles against engines of steel and brass, their skill against the training of armies like those of Standard Oil.
Remember the apire with his 2,400 pounds a day. I have seen an engine hoisting, by itself, 20,000 tons a day, or 40,000,000 pounds--its attendant wandering about a great room looking at instruments or out of the window. This copper ore came from a depth of 600 feet, in the deserts of North America, where in the time of Darwin copper was mined even more crudely and scantily than in Chile. In the same mines you would find, instead of peons with leather water bags, a little electric pump not much bigger than a bushel basket, with no one to watch it, turned on like a light in your bathroom, pumping a thousand times more water than any army of peons could bail out, and from far greater depths.
It is by such changes that copper has been made cheap and plentiful. During the last twenty years, particularly, the mining of it has been industrialized: it is no longer very much a question of the finding of new and rich veins, but of the manufacture of very large low-grade masses of copper-bearing rock. Many such are known to contain from 50 to as high as 700 million tons, running from 20 pounds to about 45 pounds to the ton in the crude state. And it is not only the application of capital and organization that has brought these great supplies into the market; some improvements in the art of treating the ores have since 1910 made almost every deposit about 25 percent richer than it was before. The greatest of these is the new process of oil flotation--a very simple thing, nothing more than churning up the ground ore in water with a little oil; the particles of ore float to the surface in the froth and are swept off, while the worthless, though lighter, rock sinks to the bottom. By means of this a mine like Utah Copper obtains now some 16 or 17 pounds of copper from an ore that only contains 20 pounds in its crude state, while formerly it got only the same 16 or 17 pounds from rock running more than 30 pounds. It is safe to say that there are many times more of the 20-pound rock than of the 30-pound rock (to say nothing of the 40-pound rock which twenty years ago was thought to be about the lowest that would pay) and it can be dug out more freely and easily, thus more cheaply. This, be it remembered, is only an example to show what has happened in nearly all the copper mines of the world. With about the same capital and equipment they can either turn out say 25 percent more copper or they can get the same amount from leaner, more plentiful and cheaper ores: they can make copper cheaper.
2. The great source of copper is a strip bordering the Pacific Ocean. There are two active districts in Chile, one in Central Peru, three in Mexico, fourteen in the United States, two in British Columbia, two in Alaska, and two in Japan, to mention only the important ones; and of these the farthest from salt water is only 600 miles, and nearly all are within 200 miles. These mines produce nearly three-quarters of the world's supply today. We might almost call copper mining an ocean shore industry.
Next in present importance, as well as in importance for the future, is the Katanga field in south-central Africa. Next is the Lake Superior field in central North America. Then follow scattering producers like Rio Tinto in Spain, Mansfeld in Germany, and several mines in the Ural region of Russia.
Of the copper mines of the western hemisphere all but one (Bolea in Lower California, rather insignificant, owned by the French) are owned and managed by American citizens and equipped by American machinery. The product of these mines is two-thirds of the world's total. The African fields are controlled by English and Belgians, the English influence preponderating. England also owns the Spanish mines and thinks she owns those of Russia, although the Soviets have taken them over. The Japanese own their mines, and the Germans theirs. But British or Americans control or own the vast majority of the copper mines of the world, mostly in their own territories, but a good fraction on foreign soil. Canada and the United States alone produce at least half of the world's copper, but this share may get a little smaller as South America and Africa (chiefly the latter) raise their output.
I cannot see any political problem in the production of copper. The share of the Anglo-Saxons in it is quite in line with their share in other metals and industrial products; that is, they control, or make, nearly or quite as much of the iron, lead, gold, cotton, timber, shipping, railroads, factories, etc., as they do of copper. Perhaps this fact is not generally known.
3. The supply of copper is not likely to come to any sudden end. True, if we carry forward the curve of increase as it has progressed in the last century we arrive at an output of about 170,000,000 tons for the year 2025, an amount which it would surely tax the earth's crust to yield. But the very greatness of the figure hints that it is fanciful. If all the peoples of the world should want as much copper as do the white races the demand would rise to perhaps double what it now is, say to 3,000,000 tons a year. We may imagine, without too much rashness, that it may reach that; but I would not bet on it.
A fair guide to what is to be expected in copper production is found in the case of iron and coal, which seem to have passed the peak of increase. Perhaps copper already has also. For two generations the outputs of both coal and iron doubled each decade, but they do so no longer. The peak of shipments from Lake Superior--66,000,000 tons--was reached in 1916. Judging by earlier rates of growth, the shipments this year would have been over 100,000,000 tons, but they will not pass 50,000,000. There has been, indeed, some increase in the making of steel, but a small one; and it seems that old metal, scrap, is displacing a lot of iron ore. The same thing may be seen in the output of coal. The wants of each person in the United States for power and machinery have been about satisfied; and hereafter any increase in demand for coal and iron will be only in step with the growth of population, in other words it will be arithmetical, not any longer an increase of numbers multiplied by an increase per head. It is most likely that the same thing will happen with copper. That metal is used freely, a little more per person each year, because it is cheap. It is the cheapest metal on the list. In 1912 a pound of copper would buy 23 pounds of pig iron, now it will buy 11; then, it would buy 3½ pounds of lead, now it will buy 1¾. What is true of other metals is just as true of wheat, cotton, lumber and transportation. But in general copper is used in just proportion with other metals in the making and spread of power-using devices, and the need for it will not grow faster than the need for others. Thus I think the great upward swing in the curve of copper output is a thing of the past; that it either has already followed, or soon will follow, the course of coal and iron; that the upward swing of demand will neither continue nor be resumed; in short, that from now on the increase of demand will be, by comparison with the past, extremely slow.
It therefore is not too short-sighted to measure the future supply of copper by the amount needed yearly now. There is apparently enough "in sight," that is, fully developed or reasonably assured, to last some 35 years, as follows:
Two great mines in Chile have a billion tons containing over 2¼ percent copper, and should, after allowing for losses, yield in time 20,000,000 tons of refined copper. A group of similar mines (porphyries) in the United States can be counted on for 10,000,000 tons more; making a reserve of 30,000,000 tons from this type of ore alone, in America alone. Other kinds of mines, including those of Butte, Lake Superior, Jerome, Bisbee, and Cerro de Pasco, have not so much "blocked out" but they have yielded more in the past than the "porphyries" and may do so in the future; but counting only on what seems reasonably assured it is easy to reckon up 10,000,000 or 12,000,000 tons additional. Thus we get, say, 42,000,000 tons of refined copper in sight or assured in this hemisphere alone, from ore now commercial, of the same kind and grade now being worked.
The eastern hemisphere, twice as large as the western, does not seem to be so rich in copper in proportion to its area; but in the long run the shortcoming may in large measure be made up in Africa and Siberia. The "Societé Miniére du Haut Katanga," a Belgo-British concern, has 4,500,000 tons of metallic copper "in sight," of what in other districts would be held to be very high grade ore, 6 to 20 percent copper. This showing makes it seem likely that Katanga is really the greatest copper field ever opened. Where there is so much high grade ore there is certain to be very much more low grade in the same mines, and, if I am not mistaken, only a few of the copper outcrops have been worked upon; so that altogether it seems modest to put this field down for 10,000,000 tons of sure copper. Then there are the well-known mines of Spain, Germany, Russia, and Japan, with some in Australia. Let us put down their total reserves at 3,000,000 tons; making 13,000,000 for the eastern hemisphere.
We thus come to a supply of some 55,000,000 tons for the world, enough for 36 years at the present rate. If that were all the copper to be had from the crust of the earth, one might well fear a shortage in another generation; but that is not the case. As a matter of practice, the reserves are very large; copper miners do not wish to see them added to; it is too patently easy to fill the market. Present explorations carry only a dim idea of the amount of copper to be had ultimately, for several reasons which I shall touch on briefly.
In the first place, there are still large areas in all parts of the world that may contain new copper mines. I have heard of good showings in Siberia; in Africa further finds may be taken for granted; in America there are places where good ore bodies may be covered up by younger rocks and may sometime be found.
Secondly, as the total supply of metal increases the amount of scrap increases and the need of new metal from ore becomes less. This fact is seen vividly now in the iron trade; scrap is mentioned much oftener in iron quotations than it used to be. Copper may follow the same course. It is less destructible than iron, more valuable and better cared for. The time may come when the back yards of industry will be all cluttered up with old copper and the need of mining fresh metal may fall off greatly.
Thirdly, no copper district in the world, so far as I know, has been worked out. It may have been shut down because it could no longer hold its own with other mines, but it can still produce copper. The great porphyry mines which have more than half of the reserve copper of the world "in sight," run, as said above, from 1 to 3 percent in copper. Below 1 percent (twenty pounds per ton) they are not commercial, they will not pay. But what of the amount of copper actually there? That is another matter altogether. It is known that vast amounts of leaner ores are to be found, have actually been found, in every field in the world. The total is unknown because nobody, as yet, wishes to measure such stuff; but just to give some inkling of the amount of copper that may be had from such sources, when the world wants it badly enough, I made a rude estimate that a single district in Arizona might furnish (from ores yielding 5 to 10 pounds copper per ton) something like 30 times as much as it has yet given up from commercial ores--indeed, about as much as the total out-put of the world to date. In Lake Superior a single vein, the Allonez Conglomerate, has never been commercial, but it is 50 miles long and in very large part will doubtless yield 5 to 10 pounds copper per ton--very likely twice as much as the entire past yield of that region. And it is only one of many such veins. It is not unlikely that beds of copper ore such as may one day be payable extend clear under the basin of Lake Superior, for it is said that the very beds that are worked on Keweenaw Point may be seen on Isle Royale sixty miles away, and they have been tried for mining.
Thus, in my judgment, when the world is willing to pay a little more for copper, enough to persuade the miners to work ores running 15, 10 or 5 pounds per ton, instead of 20 pounds, it will be able to get all the copper it wants for as long a time as is worth thinking about.
[i] See Arthur Notman, Engineering and Mining Journal-Press, June 30, 1923.