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Centre for International Environmental Studies

Synthetic Lives: The Futures of Mining

Funding Organisation: European Research Council (ERC)
Timeline: 2021-2026
Budget: 1.5 million EUR


The global extractive industry is undergoing three critical transformations: first, the advent of synthetic or lab-grown minerals, impacting the global mining industry and the extraction of resources from nature; second, the creation of fully automated mining operations, seeking to render human work redundant or accessory to that of bots, drones, and other autonomous machines; third, the introduction of digital mining and disintermediation traceability technologies modeled after the blockchain digital ledger,
in alternative to paper-based forms of certification. Taken together, these innovations would seem to anticipate a future of mining that replaces nature with synthetic substances, human labor with intelligent machines, and intermediaries with unmediated accountability. This project responds to these changing conditions with a novel conceptualization of the emergent relationship entangling synthetic and natural objects, humans and machines, material and digital spaces: Synthetic Lives. It asks: What is the role of humans and non-human nature in increasingly synthetic, automated, and digital mining economies?

To be sure, the global supply chain of natural resources has been dramatically disrupted with the growing prevalence of lab-grown synthetic minerals, the steady rollout of autonomous machines culminating in fully automated mines, and mounting pressure for ethical and responsible sourcing of natural resources. Coupled with lowering costs of synthetic gemstone production, significant developments in energy-efficient autonomous learning systems, and new forms of political and financial accountability, the Global South’s extractive industry is profoundly changing. After the 2011 commodity boom peak, these transformations would augur a sustainable alternative to the toll of ‘conflict-laden’ resources and enhance the potential for responsible sourcing by mitigating the risks associated with mining and enabling end-to-end traceability in mineral supply chains. And yet, the expansion of the extractive frontier into new spatial and technological domains may also set off new forms of exclusion, particularly in resource-rich countries of the Global South. While the potential impact of artificial intelligence and digitalization in science, finance, manufacturing, transportation, or the energy sectors have been well documented, less attention has been paid to the effects of these technological developments in the extractive industries (for partial exceptions, see Cosbey et al 2016; WEF 2017). 

Synthetic Lives: Mining Futures