The real cost of gold

News & Politics

It's the top story on the front page of the New York Times today, capped off with a devastating triptych of images: molten gold poured into bars, enormous earth movers atop a blasted landscape, and the simple three-ounce gold ring.

For something so precious, and so coveted, few people seem to think about just how bad the choice is to buy your loved one, or yourself, a new gold ring.

The Times story covers the many bases of why gold is, and has always been, a deadly commodity. As the report opens,

There has always been an element of madness to gold's allure.
For thousands of years, something in the eternally lustrous metal has driven people to the outer edges of desire -- to have it and hoard it, to kill or conquer for it, to possess it like a lover.
In the early 1500's, King Ferdinand of Spain laid down the priorities as his conquistadors set out for the New World. "Get gold," he told them, "Humanely if possible, but at all costs, get gold."
There are the extensive environmental costs of mining for gold, which is precious not only for its looks, but for its (steadily increasing) scarcity. Gold is currently selling for more than it has in the last 17 years, according to the Times, even as the search for the mineral gets more frantic. The numbers are truly shocking: 90 tons of earth must be moved to find enough gold to make a single ring. As the WorldWatch Institute announced in 2003, there is roughly three tons of waste created for each gold wedding ring.

The waste is not just in disrupted ecosystems and "moved earth." We're talking about cyanide left over from the leaching process; open-pit mines filled with toxic sludge of all kinds; and air, soil and water pollution that remains for years after the mine has been stripped clean of anything commercially valuable. Compounding the damage is that most gold mines are found on poor, indigenous peoples' lands, and that the stated purpose for inviting the industry is to "bring investment" to the area, a trickle-down theory of capitalism espoused by the World Bank. The thinking goes that all those heavy machines will need roads, the workers will need schools for their kids, hospitals for ... healing them after they breathe toxic dust for days on end, and so forth.

The sad reality is that the only thing that trickles down is the toxic dust; the gold, and the money from selling it, flows uphill, and in doing so props up not only an unjust and destructive industry, but corrupt and repressive governments and companies that use King Ferdinand's order -- to get gold at all costs -- as a mission statement.

But not many brides and grooms are thinking about the global consequences of that shiny band when the wedding planner comes around. There are, however, many other, better options to buying a dirty new three-ton gold ring. The No Dirty Gold campaign is pushing jewelers and retailers to certify that their gold jewelery is "produced in ways that do not harm communities, workers, and the environment."

And there are a multitude of options for buying clean gold: recycled, antique and vintage jewelery are as responsible as they are beautiful and affordable. offers recycled wedding bands, and companies like Antique Jewelry Mall and The Way We Were offer gorgeous rings in everything from Victorian to Art Deco to Modern/Retro styles.

I know that shopping consciously barely registers in the American consumer's mind -- and the problems caused by gold stretch far beyond these shores (Asia and India are the source for 80 percent of global gold jewelry sales) -- but it is rare to find this perfect confluence of demand and supply. Just as the need to stop destroying the planet for our vanity is so great, the options to do so are readily available.

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