Open-pit mine, Hibbing Taconite mine
Blaine Brownell Open-pit mine, Hibbing Taconite mine

Early one morning in September, a group of artists, landscape architects, geographers, and architects, among others, boarded a charter bus in Minneapolis bound for the Hibbing Taconite mine, a part of the Mesabi Iron Range. Discovered in 1866, this 100-mile-long geological seam stretches across northern Minnesota from Grand Rapids to Babbitt and now comprises a string of open pit mines that contributed sufficiently large quantities of iron ore to boost U.S. economic growth for much of the 20th century. “Put simply, America is America because steel, the most important man-made element in all forms of manufacturing and construction, was relatively easy to produce with the abnormally rich and abundant iron ore of northern Minnesota,” wrote Aaron Brown in a Daily Yonder article, “Mesabi Range: Land of the Sleeping Giant.”

The visitors to the mine were participants in the World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities tour, symposium, and exhibition hosted by the University of Minnesota. Founded in 2011, World of Matter is a global art and media platform that analyzes significant material flows—such as the extraction of iron ore in Minnesota—and examines the resulting socio-environmental consequences. The interdisciplinary group shares a concern about the increasing commodification of nature in what speaker Emily Scott, an architecture professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, refers to as “the great acceleration” of contemporary material extraction and distribution. The tour and subsequent discussions provided a rare opportunity to consider the long-term effects of large-scale material harvesting as a palpable phenomenon with fundamental implications for the built environment.

The mine provided a fitting introduction to the tenuous nature of many raw materials today. The Mesabi Iron Range was once home to rich hematite formations—composed of more than 60 percent high-grade iron ore, ideal for direct delivery to blast furnaces for the manufacture of iron and steel—that were located near the Earth's surface. By the mid-20th century, however, most of the accessible hematite had been removed, and mining operators have since focused on harvesting taconite, a silica-rich rock that is only 25- to 30-percent iron ore and once considered waste. In the 1950s, Hibbing Taconite mine part-owner Cleveland-Cliffs developed a process to concentrate the iron ore content of taconite and thus raise the iron content before use. The taconite is grinded to extract the iron, which is then separated from impurities using magnets, rolled into 12-millimeter-diameter balls with a clay binder, and then heated to create the desired hematite pellets from the magnetite-based iron particles.

Our guide at Hibbing Taconite reported that the mine might be near its end-of-life in about six years due to limited existing resources. (In a follow-up correspondence, Cleveland-Cliffs’ director of corporate communication, Patricia Persico, said that “mining at Hibbing is conducted on multiple mineral leases” with different expirations dates, and that these leases are “routinely renegotiated and renewed.” The Hibbing partners, which include a subsidiary of ArcelorMittal and a subsidiary of U.S. Steel Corp., are “working on various options to extend the life of the mine,” she added.)

The Bakken Formation and Williston Basin petroleum wells in the Upper Midwest
Tara Chesley-Preston, U.S. Geological Survey The Bakken Formation and Williston Basin petroleum wells in the Upper Midwest

The increasingly futile nature of nonrenewable material harvesting was a common theme throughout the event. In his lecture for the World of Matter symposium, geographer Bruce Braun offered a critical analysis of the hydraulic-fracturing, or fracking, efforts at the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. Braun’s talk, “Tight Oil,” shared the breakneck speed and production pressure of the fields’ mining operations, which have taken full advantage of recent horizontal drilling advances to extract petroleum from geological formations of low-permeability.

Oil industry advocates have heralded Bakken oil as a new engine of the U.S. economy, reducing our reliance on foreign fossil fuels. However, this form of petroleum is different from traditionally drilled oil deposits in that production falls exponentially as soon as a well is tapped. This precipitous decline encourages the construction of new wells as the only means of sustaining output—what Braun calls a “drilling treadmill.”

“The decline in Bakken oil production that started in January 2015 is probably not reversible,” declared petroleum geologist Art Berman in Forbes. “It's the beginning of the end for the Bakken Shale play.”

This rapid decline of mineral resources—and the desperation to extract them—has taken a costly human toll, both societal and individually, affecting people’s psychology. For example, Braun outlined the pressures on fracking laborers in North Dakota to privilege monetary gain over safety such as the coupling of perverse economic incentives: $40 per day for a safety bonus, and $150 per day for a performance or speed bonus.

The oil workers can do the math.

“The Bakken is the most dangerous oil field to work in the U.S.,” said Justin Williams, the attorney for the parents of an oil worker who died in a well explosion in 2011, in a Reveal News article, published by the Center for Investigative Reporting. “The energy producers never pay for their mistakes.”

Other negative social repercussions related to raw material harvesting and distribution include intrusions on indigenous lands, such as in the Dakota Access pipeline’s traversal of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, and the sex trafficking of Native American women. A formal submission to the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues cited “the connection between extreme extraction and sexual violence against Native women in the Bakken oil fields of western North Dakota and eastern Montana, and the Tar Sands region of Alberta, Canada, where vast man camps of temporary labor have become lawless hubs of violence and human trafficking.” The World of Matter tour included a visit to a shelter for battered Native American women and their children in Duluth, Minn., run by the American Indian Community Housing Organization, where we learned about its efforts to combat sex trafficking and abuse in the Upper Midwest region.

Dakota Access Pipeline protest at the Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball, N.D.
Tony Webster Dakota Access Pipeline protest at the Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball, N.D.
Construction of the Dakota Access pipeline
Lars Plougmann Construction of the Dakota Access pipeline

Among the World of Matter audience, an obvious question arose pertaining to the lack of mainstream awareness about the many adverse issues surrounding nonrenewable resources: Would a deeper knowledge about the realities of steel and petroleum processing encourage our society to make different material choices?

Another question concerns potential solutions. Braun argued that “politics aimed at the abolition of fossil fuels might starve oil industry of precarious labor, one of its critical resources.” In the lecture “Geosocial Formations,” geographer Kathryn Yusoff advocated for an “infrastructure of disobedience.” Yet what would such an infrastructure look like? Though World of Matter participants articulated the many challenges of contemporary resource practices with keen insights, they fell relatively short on answers. Two speakers, landscape architect Brian Davis and urban designer Filipe Correa, briefly shared their thoughts about design’s role in transforming industrialized landscapes, but for the most part, participants focused on the exposure and analysis of existing problems.

Rooftop discussion, World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities
Blaine Brownell Rooftop discussion, World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities
World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities exhibition
Blaine Brownell World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities exhibition
World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities exhibition
Blaine Brownell World of Matter: Mobilizing Materialities exhibition

World of Matter’s primary mission is to generate awareness about socio-environmental challenges. But perhaps it could also generate design proposals. The impressive, multidisciplinary brain power of the collective is certainly capable of offering informed guidelines regarding responsible material extraction, and might—with more design collaborators—become a creative think tank for future resource management.

The will to share the World of Matter platform more broadly also exists. As T.J. Demos, art historian and director of the center for creative ecologies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, noted pointedly: “We need to expand our audience beyond art galleries to a broader public.”

Nov. 28, 2017 update: Cleveland-Cliffs requested that we clarify that there is no link between the company and human trafficking.