Home / General / Book Review: Mimi Sheller, Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity

Book Review: Mimi Sheller, Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity



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.

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  • Gregor Sansa

    I think the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant is absolutely worth it. Yes, the environmental damage is real. But “unspoiled” wilderness is also a place where building a dam will not displace local people. And the environmental damage of 600 megawatts of coal plants would be far, far worse than the big ugly footprint of the dam.

    (I’m not saying that if the dam hadn’t been built, it would have been replaced by a 690-megawatt coal plant. But most of that amount of energy would have been used elsewhere, so the global impact would probably include a few hundred megawatts more of coal being burned.)

    • Gregor Sansa

      Dams are bad if they displace people; such dams should be replaced with river-flow hydropower (that is, small dams with big pipes). They’re also bad if they drive keystone species like salmon towards extinction.

      But places like Kárahnjúkar or Hetch Hetchy? Yes, the damage is real; but so are the benefits. I think sustainable energy is worth real sacrifices.

      • Hetch Hetchy? Is that really the example you want to use here? An unnecessary dam built only because mining and agriculture owned other water rights and the government didn’t want to buy those off?

        • Gregor Sansa

          Is Hetch Hetchy a good example of a project designed to maximize benefits and minimize damage? No way; quite the opposite.

          Is it nonetheless an example of something where the benefits outweigh the costs? I’m not an expert, but I think it probably is.

          And yes, the above two facts make it a good example for making my point.

          • No, this is not a case where the benefits outweigh the costs. There was plenty of other water (at the time anyway) that could have supplied San Francisco. But it was owned by others and the government didn’t want to go in that direction.

            • Gregor Sansa

              I am considering Hetch Hetchy as a hydropower producer, not as a water reservoir. It was pricipally designed as the latter and it kinda sucks as the former. Something that didn’t kinda suck would be better. Something that did less damage would also be. But even the current sucky damaging thing is better than coal plants.

    • But is the damage worth building the thing just for aluminum production? Does Iceland really need that? I don’t think it’s worth it.

      • Zamfir

        Why do you say ‘just’ aluminium production? It’s always been the one product that allows Iceland to export its electricity potential. With climate change getting worse, Icelandic hydro and geothermal power are even more valuable – if they can only ship it out. Aluminium is condensed electricity.

        They’ve tried other forms of power-intensive production, but there are limits to what you can run with a population of 300,000 at a distance from other people. Too many expertises and minor supplies that have to be shipped in. Aluminium production seems to be the sweet spot.

        • My understanding, at least from Sheller’s book, is that the dam was built primarily for aluminum production, not for clean energy production. Calling aluminum “condensed electricity” seems a bit disingenuous to me. Anything produced by energy can be called “condensed energy” of one form or another. That doesn’t mean it is clean or a good idea.

          • Merkwürdigliebe

            Um… Electricity is electricity. It can be used for pretty much anything, once you have it.

            And “condensed energy” is precisely the idea. Iceland can produce carbon neutral electricity with ease – they only need to find a way to make it into something shippable. It could be something else besides aluminum but like Zamfir said, this hits the spot at the moment.

            • But if the dam was built specifically for aluminum, it’s not “electricity is electricity,” as if this is some neutral process. The question has to be if such an intensive form of energy use is the best value. Maybe it is, but we should be honest about the process, including whether flooding an unspoiled area is worth producing more aluminum.

              • Merkwürdigliebe

                And this is the point of our divergence – I don’t think this results in a higher total production of aluminum, given basic principles of commodity markets.

                It should result in a cleaner global production of approximately identical quantity – whether the ultimate limit is demand for aluminum or the supply of bauxite. So the trade-off is a chunk of Icelandic tundra and carbon neutrality vs. chunk of some other country and coal power. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

                • Gregor Sansa

                  It means fractionally more aluminum, but you’re basically right.

          • Zamfir

            Yeah, it’s dam solely to make aluminium. But the order of events is that people first realized has Iceland the potential for cheap (and relatively clean) electricity, then they started looking for ways to use it. They don’t want aluminium production in particular, they want anything that allows them to generate enormous amounts of power and sell the excess. They’ve been expanding aluminium production since the 1960s, pretty much all of it for export.

            There are some plans to build an underseas cable to the UK, allowing them to export electricity directly. Such cables are a relatively new development , and a cable to Iceland might well be a bridge too far at current costs. If the price of such cables falls, or the price bonus for green power goes up, Iceland might forego the aluminium go-between and start building plants directly to power Europe.

      • Merkwürdigliebe

        What? It’s a commodity; under current conditions the world demand will either be saturated through renewable sources e.g. in Iceland, or through coal-fired production in China and elsewhere. Which is preferable?

        And as for Iceland – their only other exports are fish, internet hosting (which again takes advantage of the cheap electricity and cool climate) and banking. And we all know where that last one went. With the abundance of renewable energy resources, it makes perfect sense for them to figure out a way to “export” their carbon-neutral electricity.

      • Chuchundra

        This is such an odd thing to say. Based on what metric?

        Is it your contention that the world would be better off without the Hall–Héroult process?

  • Karen24

    The book sounds fascinating, but not nearly as good as the Alamo Bowl last night.

    • I am too hung over after that to be in good nature when trolled.

      Especially since Arizona will probably beat Seattle today.

      • Karen24

        Sorry. I won’t mention it again.

        I have no particularly loyalty to either team in the Seattle/ AZ game, and have one close friend living in each city, so I’ll only follow the game through their Facebook posts. I hope you get to feeling better soon, too.

      • Karen24

        On a lighter note, my son got his letter of admission to the University of New Mexico yesterday! Thank you; were it not for your posts we would never have looked into UNM. Proximity to excellent chiles rellenos and skiing were significant factors, but still. Thanks!

  • B. Peasant

    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.

    I worked ten years at an aluminium smelter, and the official line of Norsk Hydro was, and probably still is, that our aluminium is Green. It’s more-or-less a good replacement for steel (which comes with problems itself, among them weight) and it’s easy to recycle. And our electricity too is hydroelectric.

    I should probably read the book, but what do we replace aluminium with?

  • Pseudonym

    The flip side of aluminum requiring so much power to refine is that it’s made it very profitable to recycle, which has also motivated and built a lot of the infrastructure necessary for recycling paper, plastic, and steel as well. Does the book go into that at all?

  • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

    Without aluminum, how could average American towns afford statues of Jimmy Carter?

  • pdxtyler

    I picked this up when you recommended it on Twitter and I’m really excited to read it. It’s timely to me because as of today officially ALCOA has shut down all of their smelters in the northwest, leaving them with two in the entire united states.

    I had close family work at one of the smelters and I’m not sure what’s going to happen to the workers. Hard to replace jobs like that.

  • Brett

    What they need to do is drive up the percentage of Aluminum recycled in the US and elsewhere as much as possible. It’s about 30% on average now, with the recycling rate on aluminum cans nearly at 70%. That’s not a substitute for humane working conditions, but it would drastically reduce the environmental impact of aluminum use.

  • mikeSchilling

    But does the book have a fantastic finish?

  • RobertL

    Aluminium has provided jobs for three generations of my wife’s family. Her father was employed, and her brother and nephew are still employed, by the Queensland Alumina refinery in Gladstone.

    If you want to stir up my FIL, just confuse the roles of the alumina refinery and nearby aluminium smelter. He’ll set you straight. In detail. For hour after hour…

  • j_kay

    aluminum alloys were in the air since wwI

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