Looking Behind Abstractions

Very large and very small numbers are abstractions.  Frequently they are useful in illuminating some natural phenomena, however many people have a difficult time comprehending such numbers.  We don’t usually deal with these sorts of numbers in our everyday lives.  When a particular phenomenon is very large or very small, is taking place a vast distance from us, or there are a great many objects involved, scaling is often used to make it easier to think about them.  In my work, we are always seeking better tactics to represent phenomena in concrete ways, to make them accessible and understandable.   In these cases, a number may represent a measurable quantity.  We strive to connect people to the phenomenon under investigation as something they can experience, and how numbers are tools to help us know something about what is taking place.

There are a lot of numbers in the news lately having to do with the current COVID-19 pandemic.  And for many people, it is difficult to relate to what the person using the numbers is trying to convey.  There are so many different interpretations, and misinterpretations, it makes it difficult to trust what we hear and read.  The basic message is, for the most part, large numbers are bad.  But what do those numbers really mean?  We can hardly conceive of these numbers, let alone they are a result of people infected with something so small it will pass through tiny gaps in the fiber of our masks.  If we do what is recommended to protect ourselves, it is possible we won’t have a direct connection with anyone who ended up adding to the very large numbers.  Until we know someone who has the virus, the numbers are only abstractions, they are not concrete enough for us to relate to let alone grieve for the many who have lost their lives.

It brings up a distinction noted in a different context in a previous post.  Most often, numbers are used in transactions we engage in during our daily lives.  In this context we might have a better handle on the use of very small and very large numbers, particularly when they apply to financial transactions.  We seek out transactions bringing us and our families the greatest benefit, either now or at some specified time in the future.  The numbers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic are frequently used to turn the human toll into a series of transactions.  Perhaps not done intentionally, however it does remove us from having a sense of relationship with those who are suffering because of the pandemic.  In this case the use of large numbers may serve to erect barriers between us.  At times numbers are seemingly used to obscure or obfuscate, an effective strategy because of the difficult time many people have with the abstraction.

The current administration, and the former extractive industry lobbyists and executives who are in charge of the nations lands and parks, are apparently taking advantage of the distractions of the COVID-19 pandemic to push through a different kind of transactional agenda.  They see no economic benefit in clean air, water, or undeveloped swaths of land.  If anything, they have the view their protection gets in the way of economic activity.  An example of this is how, reversing a previous ruling, the EPA has signed off on development of the Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska.  Plans are for a massive open pit mine within the headwaters of rivers running into Bristol Bay, the richest sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

The large numbers involved in explaining the plans involved for the Pebble Mine are abstractions, and really only describe the transactional manner the mining industry and current administration see the beautiful and fragile landscape of southwestern Alaska.  They have no relationship with the land, or the animals and plants which live there.  Without going there to walk among the mountains and streams it is a challenge to make what might happen concrete, and not an abstraction of numbers.  The numbers tell us little of the phenomena associated with the impact of mining on the land, air and water.

Imagine if you took a standard aquarium, and removed the little colored pebbles at the bottom.  In their place, put crushed ore rocks from a mine such as the Pebble.  The ore in these rocks are sulfide minerals, with some sulfate and oxide minerals to go along with the host rocks.  The aquarium has a system circulating water and air, bubbling up through the rocks at the bottom.  The interaction of water and air with the ore minerals will soon change the characteristics of the water, turning it toxic, eventually killing the fish in the tank.  While you might think this is only an experiment, there is a real life example of this.  An open pit mine in Butte, Montana is in rocks similar to those in the Pebble prospect.  When they stopped major mining activities, they also turned off the pumps keeping groundwater from accumulating in the bottom of the pit.  Within a few years, the pit turned into a lake.  In several infamous incidents, flocks of geese attempted to land on the lake, and promptly died from the toxicity of the water.  The prolonged contact between water and the ore body had leached toxic compounds out of the rocks, creating a poisonous stew.  The Berkeley Pit is now one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, and they use noise making machines to discourage waterfowl from using the lake.

6.2.1981 Red Dog Creek, Deadlock Mtn.

Red Dog Creek in June 1981, Deadlock Mountain in the distance. The ore body of lead-zinc sulfides is exposed on the surface. The creek and rocks are stained red from minerals dissolved in the water. The water is toxic, and does not support fish.

This is the potential future for the Pebble Mine after the ore runs out, in a place far wetter with a shallower water table than in Butte, Montana.  Every mine has a finite life span of economic feasibility for extracting minerals.  Unlike a salmon fishery, which is a living, reproducing system, and would continue to provide jobs, income, and sustenance well into the future.

Grief is an emotion associated with loss, and with relationship.  We may grieve for a friend or family member who contracts the coronavirus, but not for the other 150,000 and counting people who have died in this country during the pandemic.  Their death is an abstraction.  Without having visited the Pebble prospect and developing a relationship with the land and its life, it remains an abstraction making it difficult for people to grieve the loss when the mine is developed.

About 600 miles northwest of the Pebble prospect is the Red Dog open pit mine.  A Canadian company owns and operates the mine, the ore is processed in British Columbia, and the metals sold to customers in Europe and Asia.  The mine is in Alaska.  The products and profits from the mine are not staying in the country where the mine is located.  A beautiful, remote place is gone forever to support other countries.  Once the ore runs out in another decade, they will leave behind a big hole in the ground, a pile of discarded rock, and an artificial lake filled with a toxic broth.  This is the future for virtually every open pit mine, including the Pebble Mine.  All the more reason to grieve for what once was there, and to fight and advocate for a new administration to again reverse the EPA’s ruling, denying development of the Pebble Mine.  Knowing a place removes it from the realm of abstraction making it possible to truly grieve.

Red Dog today…


The EPA says the Red Dog Mine is one of the worst industrially polluted sites in the country. Opened in 1989, the mine is the largest producer of zinc worldwide and is expected to stay open until 2031. Credit: Robert Cummings/Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

The way it was…

6.2.1981 Red Dog prospect

Red Dog prospect before the mine, June 1981. The gray rocks just above the helicopter and stretching to the left is the ore body on the surface.

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1 Response to Looking Behind Abstractions

  1. This is beautifully written, and brings the abstraction of the Pebble Mine to light as the threat that it is. I consider myself environmentally well-informed but didn’t know this project had gotten the green light to be fast-tracked. Clearly that strategy was intentional. Shining a lot on such secrecy is what makes opposition possible, and here’s hoping that events in the coming months will turn the tide on this one.


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