Miracle Metal

This volume on copper may be the most important book you'll read all year

Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, the Metal That Runs the World emerged from one of those "A ha!" moments, when you wake up one day and suddenly smell the coffee.

Bill Carter is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, photographer and journalist. Author of the extraordinary book Fools Rush In and producer of the heart-wrenching film Miss Sarajevo, he travels to some of the more hellish corners of the planet for his job. To stay grounded, he plants a garden in Bisbee, where he lives with his pregnant wife and small daughter.

The garden is a tiny miracle of life. He and his daughter nurture the baby green plants to adulthood. It is a teaching moment, a chance to show the kid that all food doesn't come from Safeway.

His wife, skeptical in the manner of pregnant women, won't touch the fresh produce. She doesn't trust the dirt. And his daughter doesn't like eating vegetables, just growing them. So Carter makes a salad and eats it. For two weeks, he scarfs down fistfuls of veggies, made all the better because they represent the honest work of his own two hands.

One evening, he gets a headache and nausea. It worsens the next day. Soon, as he bends over with severe cramps, the diarrhea comes. He vomits over and over for a week. He forgets the garden, worrying instead about not having health insurance.

Not long before, mining-giant Freeport-McMoRan had bought the assets of Phelps Dodge Corp., the one-time king of copper in Arizona, for $25 billion. The transaction included Bisbee's Copper Queen Mine, 2,700 miles of underground tunnels beneath Bisbee and much of the land north and south of town. As part of the deal, Freeport McMoRan agreed to test and reclaim all of the contaminated soil in Bisbee.

Months before, Carter had requested that his soil be tested—then promptly forgot about it. That is, until the results came in the mail while he recovered from his violent illness: The yard and its little garden patch were full of hazardous amounts of lead and arsenic. He had poisoned himself through healthy eating—eating local, as it were. Carter was aware that smelting had gone on just a quarter-mile from his house, bathing the entire town in toxic smoke for years—but the facility had shut down in 1908. Because he couldn't actually see the poisons, he had allowed himself to believe that they simply weren't there anymore.

There is talk of Freeport McMoRan reopening the mine. Such a move would dramatically alter Bisbee's ecological, cultural and geological landscape. Carter suddenly realizes there is much he doesn't know about his town, about copper mining and how mining impacts mining communities. More troubling, he worries about his young family, and whether the place they had chosen to put down roots might ultimately sicken or even kill them.

From all of this comes perhaps the most important book you will read this year—an intensely readable and fascinating biography of copper and the world it has created, for better and for worse.

Copper is a magical metal. It has an array of physical properties that make it incredibly useful and vital to human commerce and society. It is a key element in our various technologies.

Carter becomes a copper fanatic, an obsessive. He is our tour guide, walking us through history and around the world to bring us the story of this most important of metals. But he wraps the bigger tale around his own personal story and that of Arizona. Not a dull academic book, it is a personal journey through a copper-tinged landscape, with a narrative that shines like a new penny.

The smallest details are fascinating. Copper looms large in the history of Arizona, and it plays a key role in the world economy. It affects all of us daily. This metal is perhaps the one mineral responsible for what we call civilization. Yet looming behind all our shiny electronic baubles is environmental devastation on a massive scale. Rosemont will indeed destroy the Santa Ritas—but are you willing to give up your iPhone? Your plasma TV? Air conditioning?

Every day, we are faced with this dilemma: We love where we live, yet we kill the places we love in order to support the way we live.

Copper is the perfect metal. Bill Carter has told a perfect story. If you want to understand the big fuss about copper mining, read this book.

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