Depleted bauxite mine, Gánt, Hungary
Mimi Sheller’s history of aluminum is one of the best books I read in 2015. Sheller splits her book into two parts. The first looks at the rise of aluminum, how it became synonymous with modernity and speed, and how we have embraced it in all parts of our lives. The second looks at the environmental and human cost of that modernity, with the massive energy use aluminum requires, the impact upon ecosystems and lives, and how protest groups are linking internationally to fight against this exploitation. While looking at the upside and then the downside of a product might not be an unknown way of structuring a book, Sheller adds in many layers of complexity, asking readers to consider their own complicity in this aluminum paradox, criticizing the too rapid spread of capital that has transformed the world in the quest for aluminum production, and wondering whether aluminum can be part of the solution for our energy and environmental crises, even as it played a large role in creating those crises.
Sheller explores how aluminum became a material not only useful for modernity, but synonymous with the entire idea of it. Innovative designers like Buckminster Fuller became apostles of aluminum, using it for his famous Dymaxion House (which you can see and tour at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn) and of course in his geodesic domes. Aluminum could become a sign of crass commercialism too (Sheller cites the fake tree in Charlie Brown’s Christmas), but even the hippies who criticized much of American material culture loved their geodesic domes. With its beauty, shine, and light weight, it because the material of modernism and speed in our minds.
People knew of aluminum’s qualities back to the Greeks and Romans, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that scientists began to understand how to process it in large quantities. The Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA), with the financier Andrew Mellon as its leading investor, became the dominant aluminum company in the U.S. and in fact one of the nation’s most powerful corporations. That’s because aluminum wasn’t just for zippy new consumer products. The military quickly saw its advantage and did much to increase our national dependence on it. Alcoa became the supplier for that aluminum, used in airplanes during World War II and rockets in the space age, among many other things. It was very expensive to produce, but the government found it so useful that it made enormous investments, especially in dams and military appropriations, to produce and use aluminum.
But all this beautiful design, lightweight materials, and speed has a very dark side. Although one of the world’s most common elements, it rarely exists in pure form and the energy needed to transform bauxite into usable aluminum is massive. As with every other product of industrial capitalism, there has been a worldwide rush by western companies to secure supplies and profit off of the resources of developing nations with little to no concern as to how it affected those people. Alcoa needed huge quantities of bauxite supplies to produce all this aluminum after World War II. Caribbean nations like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Guyana had that bauxite. So Alcoa went into the region and provided a lot of very low-paying and dangerous jobs that spawned labor organizing and radical political activity. Alcoa as well as the consuming companies like GE who wanted to keep aluminum prices low fought against these movements. But Alcoa also sought to take advantage of its investments by commissioning its own steamship to bring tourists into the nations and to its plants, floating advertisements for potential investors, replete with advertisements playing up the decidedly premodern people those investors would see (beautifully reproduced in the book). The sleek aluminum ship used its lightweight property to send tourists around the Caribbean in style, hopefully spurring financial investment in that very modernity. Meanwhile, the conditions in the bauxite mines remained terrible and Alcoa became a symbol of Yanqui imperialism.
There is also a major environmental impact for producing this aluminum. Sheller discusses one dam built in a remote corner of unspoiled Iceland strictly for aluminum that is equivalent to what half the electricity the nation was using before it was built. The Indian company Vendanta has worked with the government to push out indigenous peoples in order to mine bauxite, destroying some of the last relatively unspoiled land in India to do so. The social impact of the global bauxite rush is no better. Sheller talks not only of Vendanta’s exploitation of Indian indigenous peoples, but how it has fueled the Russian oligarchs and poverty and political violence in Guinea.
One can critique the last chapter where Sheller wonders about the present and future. Of course, these sorts of chapters are far more difficult to write than diagnosing problems or charting histories. Sheller argues that we must understand the history and cultural meanings of aluminum if we are to reduce our usage of it, use it more efficiently, and limit the enormous environmental impacts of making it in a climate change era. Hard to disagree with that. But a lot of her solutions really come down just to people deciding to use less aluminum in order that we value it more. This feels a bit half-smelted to me. I obviously agree that consumers need to be more aware of the conditions of production, that placing things in our sight makes us more likely to act to contain the damage. Knowing more about the exploitation of the global aluminum industry could make a difference in building the international coalitions necessary to help create a more equal world. But going from that to telling people to just use less may be morally correct and it may be environmentally correct but it’s also counter to human nature, barring the rejection of capitalism. In other words, if we are really going to use less aluminum, it’s going to take the same government leadership and mandate that created the market in the first place to reduce it. But Sheller doesn’t go so far as to demand government restrictions or really to articulate what role government should play in this transition at all.
It’s worth noting that this book is also quite lovely as a designed object, with thick glossy pages and color imagery throughout. It’s actually pretty heavy for a little book. MIT Press again does a nice job with book design.
But most importantly, Aluminum Dreams is a fascinating and thought-provoking commodity history pulling together different parts of the globe and asking tough questions of the reader. I strongly recommend it to anyone.