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Exploring money as metaphor with artist William Drew

The Value of a Metaphor

By Writer and Artist William Drew

Since both the topic of “money” and the topic of “the environment” are similarly vast, it comes as little surprise that the points where the two connect are too numerous to even begin to list here.

As a writer and an artist, I’m often trying to create something like an image or a relationship out of an abstract idea. Once I have that, I know I can begin to make something. In the case of a huge sprawling topic like Money and the Environment, there was a very obvious one. Was it too obvious? Maybe. But it was an image I kept on coming back to in different forms: mining. Mining is where the logic of money takes its toll on the environment in the most direct way.

Part of what makes it an interesting metaphor is that it’s not really a metaphor, or not only a metaphor. For the majority of money’s history, the value of currency has been linked with the value of a physical asset. Mostly one of two: silver and gold. An international silver standard emerged in the 16th century when the Spanish Empire “discovered” huge deposits of silver in Potosí in modern day Bolivia (then New Spain) and began to mine these. The shift from a silver standard to a gold one started in the 18th century when Isaac Newton (then Master of the Royal Mint) set the exchange rate of silver to gold too low forcing the country to switch to the gold standard, with other countries following suit. Supplies of this precious metal increased in the 19th century thanks to the gold rushes in Brazil, Australia and the United States of America. The international gold (or gold bullion) standard continued on and off into the late 20th century, and was finally abandoned by the US in 1976.

So you could mine gold or silver, which was the currency you were using: it was money. Even if the coin or note in your pocket is made from something else,  it is the note or coin that’s the metaphor. The paper money in your pocket is less “real” than what you’re extracting from the mine.

The very idea of a “gold rush” presupposes a level playing field. We’re all agreed on the value of gold and the currency we use is based on that level. So if I go to California and I’m able to extract gold from a mountain then that’s my gold, right? And since gold is money, I’ve “found” all this money and it’s mine. I’m rich. Good for me. Except that’s not always how these things have worked.

Who owns the land? And who has the knowledge of the international markets? The means to trade a commodity? The two precious metals used as standards for international currencies are deeply rooted in colonialism and therefore in violence and theft, in addition to the depletion of the environment. The silver mines in Bolivia run by the colonial Spanish Empire; the gold mines in Brazil run by the colonial Portuguese Empire and, to introduce a new material, the diamond mines in southern Africa run by the colonial British Empire.

If a single colonial power has a disproportionate control over the supply of a particular commodity, then there’s the potential that they can control the value of that commodity. This has been true of gold and silver and it was taken even further by the British Empire in the case of diamonds.

To say that the British Empire did a particular thing in the 19th century implies a degree of centralisation and coordination that rarely applies. Having colonised much of southern Africa, the British government and the Crown gave more or less free reign to Cecil Rhodes to exploit the diamond mines in the area, often seizing land by force. He founded De Beers in 1888 and, from its creation, the company controlled between 80 and 85% of the world’s diamond supply making it a monopoly. Because they controlled supply, they were able to create a false scarcity. Diamonds were De Beers and De Beers were diamonds so the success of their advertising campaigns didn’t just affect their company but the perception of scarcity and therefore value we associate with diamonds.

Fast forward to the present day and the metaphor of mining seems inescapable from how we think about currency, even half a century since we abandoned the gold standard: look at cryptocurrencies. Bitcoins are “mined” using computer processing power at a huge scale. In the earliest days of bitcoin, the originators were able to mine coins using their own desktop computers. Now, there are huge bitcoin mining farms throughout the world, but most often in the parts of the world where energy is cheapest (variously Russia, Iceland, Kazakhstan and Texas) because of the huge amounts required to mine new coins. How do we assign value to cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin without a central bank to set value for us then? Easy: we imagine that it is scarce, that there can only ever be 21 million bitcoins. We all buy into this imaginary coin being finite like it’s an actual precious metal. We buy into the metaphor because the metaphor is too seductive to resist.

These were the connections that I drew between three time periods: 16th century Petosí, 19th century South Africa and modern day Texas. In each case, I wanted to create a brief scene that explored the way human beings might interact with concepts of value and the physicality of mining and of currency. My commission from FutureEverything and Mozilla, Mine, was created in the Twine, an engine for interactive fiction, but the unit of interaction is intentionally simple, particularly for the first two time periods. I wanted these two stories to be experienced more like turning the pages of a book and for the final one to feel more like typing code. I won’t say more about the piece. My hope is that it speaks for itself but I hope that this post has provided some enlightening background about the journey that I took towards its creation as I grappled with these ideas as a non-economist.

Explore Mine here!

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