Mining companies are destroying our earth

The age of industry

Soils are the basis for the production of our food, and therefore one of the most precious goods of mankind. And yet the soils are being destroyed on a large scale: Almost a quarter of the land area used by humans is damaged by erosion today, valuable soils are constantly being overbuilt or damaged by the ingress of toxins.

Field in Upper Bavaria: The use of heavy machinery, artificial fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture can damage the soil by damaging the soil structure, breaking down organic matter and introducing toxins. Photo: Harald Bischoff, >> wikipedia commons, license: cc 3.0.

With the >> invention of agriculture began a development in the course of which the natural vegetation cover of the earth was gradually replaced by man-made plants in suitable locations - today around half of the earth's surface has been converted into arable or pasture land (the rest is the largest Part unsuitable for agriculture); a quarter of it is used intensively as arable land. We have thus also taken on responsibility for maintaining the soil that guarantees the fertility of the arable or pasture land. But overexploitation and / or incorrect management as well as human-made environmental changes endanger the soil to a great extent, and thus the security of our food supply.

From the very beginning of agriculture, humans have changed the chemistry of the soil: the harvested plants remove nutrients. For a long time the nutrients came back to the fields, but since the emergence of cities they have mostly found their way into sewers, rivers and seas - and were thus lost to agriculture. In the 19th century, with falling transport costs, fossil fertilizers (guano from Peru or Chile) could be introduced; With the discovery of processes for the technical production of phosphates and nitrogen (>> here), artificial fertilizers were increasingly used. And the >> Industrial Revolution meant that agriculture could also be mechanized.

With the Green Revolution, under the leadership of the World Bank, this type of agriculture was also brought to poor countries: With a sharp increase in the consumption of agrochemicals and greatly expanded irrigation and the breeding of varieties that were more productive under these conditions, the yield could be increased enormously ( more >> here). But mechanization of agriculture also meant heavy machinery, and heavy machinery meant soil compaction: less air and water in the soil harm the soil life. Artificial fertilizer instead of the cycle of nutrients and the use of pesticides led to the soil containing fewer and fewer organic components, and irrigation led to the salinisation of the soil in many dry areas (see >> below).

In addition to large-scale industrial agriculture, however, a billion people, especially in the tropics, live on a completely different type of agriculture: On small plots, often away from the best locations, they grow what they need to live. These self-sufficient people also suffer from soil erosion; for them, decreasing yields usually mean immediate hunger.

Blown away and washed away - erosion

Erosion, the removal of soil by wind and water, is a natural process, but it has been greatly accelerated by agriculture - today, humans are responsible for 60-80 percent of soil erosion, which is estimated at over 25 billion tons per year. Ultimately, where erosion is particularly severe, it can result in entire regions being lost to agriculture.

The main causes of erosion are the clearing of forests, agricultural practices that are not adapted to the climate and the use of unsuitable land for agriculture. Clear cuts in mountainous regions often lead to the now unprotected soil being removed during the next heavy rain. Unsuitable agricultural practices, such as the transfer of accustomed cultivation methods by European settlers to arid regions or to the Mediterranean and the tropics, often resulted in large soil losses. Dust storms occurred in the North American prairies, in the Kazakh steppe and, most recently, in China, which carried away enormous amounts of soil.

Dust bowl

In the 1930s, dust storms broke out in the North American prairies, which went down in history and literature: the development of the west by the railroad and the mechanization of agriculture made it possible to cultivate huge fields. Through a series of rainy years this went well at first, but when the dry years began in the 1930s, a series of dust storms began blowing the top soil off the fields: in May 1934, thousands of tons of soil reached Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington, in the winter of 1934/35 red snow fell in New England, in April 1935 "black blizzards" turned day into night. Parts of the Great Plains were downright blown and as Dust bowl ("Dust Bowl"). Some regions lost three quarters of the topsoil; many farmers lost their livelihoods and had to try their luck elsewhere: the state of Oklahoma, for example, was leaving 15 percent of the population at the time.

In the Mediterranean and the tropics, it was not only the wind but also the unusually heavy rainfall that washed away the soil. Colonialism often forced the local population to cultivate on soils in the mountains: here too, the soil was often soon lost due to erosion. Asia and Africa are particularly affected, where over half of the arable land used for agriculture is affected by erosion.

Erosion affects not only arable land, but also grazing land. The earth's total grazing land is up to 46 million square kilometers (estimates fluctuate because the boundary between grazing land and barren desert is often difficult to pinpoint), 10 million square kilometers of which the soil is so damaged by overgrazing that productivity is limited.

For the entire world, a report by the UN environmental program UNEP estimated as early as 1992 that 17 percent of the total vegetated area had been damaged by erosion since the Second World War; apply today 23 percent of the area as damaged.

The salinization of soils

In irrigated drylands, salinization is the main cause of soil degradation: the salts contained in the water do not evaporate with it, and - since they are not washed out again by regular rainfall in drylands - accumulate in the soil. The problem is as old as irrigation in arid lands (>> more); today around 15,000 square kilometers of land are rendered unusable by salinization every year; on a further 450,000 square kilometers, production is restricted by salt pollution. Iraq is worst affected: around 70 percent of the arable land here is affected by salinization.

Concreted in - the sealing of the floors

Example of the Ruhr area

That was before the >> Industrial Revolution Ruhr area an agricultural region; Only along the Westphalian Hellweg, which went back to a trade route between the Rhine and Elbe that existed in Germanic times, were there - about a day's journey apart - smaller cities such as Duisburg, Essen, Bochum, Dortmund, some of which belonged to the Hanseatic League. When industrialization began here (>> air pollution: example of the Ruhr area), mines were added, the growing population enlarged the Hellweg cities. In the second half of the 19th century, however, the demand for land virtually exploded, including the construction of the railway and the associated works, which began with the opening of the line from Duisburg to Hamm in 1846, as well as the construction of canals, roads, factory settlements and storage and waste areas for the mining companies (Heaps, piles of cinder) contributed. From 1820 to 1900 the proportion of built-up area rose from 3.6 to 11.6 percent (1330). This transformation was made easier because the Prussian Mining Act had provided for expropriations in favor of mines since 1865 and this possibility was expanded with the Prussian Expropriation Act in 1874.

With the transition to civil engineering, extensive subsidence was added. These prevented the rivers from flowing away due to the gradient, so that large-scale swamps and floodplains were created that could no longer be used for agriculture. The subsidence caused damage to buildings and traffic routes: the first cracks in houses were discovered in Essen in 1866, and in July 1868 132 houses had already been damaged. Even if compensation for damages was difficult - the injured parties had to prove which mine or with what proportion the individual mines were involved, which caused high expert costs - the mines bought large areas in order to avoid compensation costs (possible mining damage was considered in the expropriation law as " purchase-promoting moment "), which made the already not particularly systematic urban planning difficult (in Hamborn, for example, almost 60 percent of the urban area belonged to industrial companies in 1910). Even if the settlement association Ruhrkohlengebiet (SVR) was founded in 1920 to coordinate the planning and to keep the remaining green and open spaces free from development, nothing changed in the priority of industrial settlement recognized by the SVR, especially since the industry with the "law over." a simplified expropriation procedure "from 1922 onwards was also able to expropriate land to avert unemployment. The further growth (in 1927 21.2 percent of the area was already built on) led to a lack of nearby recreational areas, the existing ones were hopelessly overcrowded - in good weather, over 100,000 people are said to have visited the Hengsteysee near Essen on Sundays and public holidays .

After taking power, the Nazis tried to stop this development: on the one hand, they did not love big cities anyway, on the other hand, during the Great Depression in the Ruhr area there was over 30 percent unemployment and corresponding social unrest, which should be defused: there should be a scheduled relocation as "farmer settlers". With little success. Even if you wanted to, you usually didn't have the money for this after unemployment and short-time work. Instead, a "greater resistance to crises" should be achieved with part-time settlements for industrial workers and the development should also be loosened up with a view to a possible aerial warfare, which increased land consumption. Since in the Second World War >> air pollution made targeted bombing more difficult, in 1945 the entire Ruhr area lay in ruins. But in the Cold War Europe needed German coal, German iron, and German steel; the Ruhr area was quickly rebuilt as an industrial area, the use of space increased again significantly - in 1956 34.3 percent of the area was built on. Much of the remaining land was still owned by the mining companies. This was to become a problem from the 1960s, when the cities in the Ruhr area tried to establish new industries during the coal crisis. As a rule, it turned out to be easier to develop the last remaining free space than to negotiate the sale with the mining companies.

The consumption of space - which is usually associated with heavy soil pollution on industrial sites, see below - has not been perceived as a contribution to environmental destruction for a long time. Even if the Ruhr area and other industrial regions are extreme examples, in Germany as a whole over ten percent of the area is already sealed, i.e. built on with asphalt, concrete, industrial plants or houses - and around 120 hectares are added every day. In these areas, the soil functions are lost: water runoff and flooding are increased, seepage and the formation of new groundwater decrease, and agriculture is no longer possible. In other countries, the sealing of agricultural land is already an issue today (e.g. in China), although motorization is only just beginning there: In Germany, a car "costs" 0.2 hectares for roads and parking spaces; when the Chinese reach our level of motorization, it will mean sealing an area that is almost half the total rice-growing area.

If the population continues to grow and erosion and overbuilding remain the same, the arable land per capita will decrease from 0.33 hectares (1986) to 0.15 hectares in 2050.

Pollution from pollutants

Example of the Ruhr area

It was not known for a long time that heavy metals and other poisons could also be deposited with the overburden and coal heaps from mining and from there into the soil and into the groundwater. But that would not have prevented their deposition anyway: poisons such as that in coking plants during the extraction of tar and by-products such as the phenol, which was then used for city lighting, were pumped into heaps to seep away there, although its toxicity was already known ( 1340). But not only mining companies, cities and municipalities also deposited the waste (and the poisons it increasingly contained) in landfills, >> Waste disposal has long been seen primarily as a hygienic problem and part of city cleaning; For a long time, what the deposit looked like was left to the cities and municipalities themselves.

The smoke particles and gases >> released into the atmosphere did not stay there either: they sink over time or are washed out by rain - this is how they finally end up (sometimes converted into other substances) into >> water or the soil. Due to the subsidence of the mountains, many rivers in the Ruhr area could not flow away until the Emscher was regulated, so that they could not remove the pollutants they contained: in the event of floods or through withdrawal of water, some of the pollutants from the water ended up in the ground. When sewage treatment plants were built, the sewage sludge, some of which was highly contaminated, was also simply deposited - the consequences were the same. The first victims were the farmers on the Emscher, who sprinkled their meadows and fields with river water in winter and applied river mud for fertilization: the sward came off the meadows and fields, trees died and the cattle got diarrhea. Compensation was only possible by way of compensation (according to Prussian law, the Emscher was a private river, since it was not navigable [1345]), but the small farmers in particular did not have the necessary means and were mostly left empty-handed; Large landowners were often able to agree on compensation with the dischargers.

In contrast to air and water pollution, pollution was not an issue of environmental policy for a long time, as it was not visible. In addition, the contaminated land was usually privately owned, so the owner could do what he wanted with it. It was not until the environmental program of the federal government of 1971 that the protection of the soil was named as a task of environmental policy: among other things, wild rubbish dumps were to be shut down, rehabilitated and recultivated. In 1978, the Council of Experts for Environmental Issues then coined the term "Contaminated sites"for the dangers emanating from old dumps, landfills and wild deposits; he estimates that there were around 50,000 such areas in Germany. In the 1980s, people began to sense the dimensions of this problem: in Bielefeld-Brake, Dortmund- Dorstfeld and elsewhere had to evacuate parts of the city that were built on such contaminated sites. As a result, a systematic recording of old deposits and contaminated sites began, and by the year 2000, 360,000 suspected contaminated sites were recorded. Meanwhile, 14 years after the first environmental program , in 1985 the federal government presented a soil protection concept; in 1991 Baden-Württemberg was the first federal state to enact a state soil protection law, Saxony and Berlin followed suit etz, which essentially regulates the remediation of contaminated sites (the avoidance of new soil pollution remained essentially the task of the laws on air pollution control, the handling of chemicals and waste, and water protection).

The endangerment of the soil does not end there even in Germany. As a result of the >> industrialization of agriculture, fertilizers and pesticides are increasingly being introduced into the soil in a targeted manner. Exhaust gases from industrial plants and traffic still find their way into the soil in large quantities via the "air path". Poisons continue to get into the ground through accidents. Pollutants that get into the ground are often transported on there and then also endanger the groundwater. The most dangerous pollutants include heavy metals, chemicals and their breakdown products, as well as old military pollution. Nitrogen and sulfur oxides from combustion processes are converted into acids in the atmosphere, which acidify the soil as >> acid rain. In acidic soils, aluminum ions are released, which are harmful to most crops.

Heavy and other metals

Metals play a role above all in the vicinity of mines for the extraction of metals and plants for smelting. The release of large amounts of metals in a certain way turns the course of evolution on its head, during which living beings had to make do with fewer and fewer metals (>> here). On the one hand, the body needs metals, but as a result of adapting to low metal contents, it absorbs them so eagerly that concentrations that are harmful to health are often reached. Many heavy metals are also similar to other required metals. So will cadmium Bound to zinc-binding proteins and displaces zinc, which is required for the absorption of iron and calcium - as a result, it leads to anemia and disorders in the bone structure. The effects of heavy metals in soils first became apparent in densely populated Japan, where mining and smelting works often border directly on rice fields; and so water contaminated with heavy metals was often used to irrigate the fields. The heavy metal cadmium is absorbed by rice plants. As a result, the Itai-Itai disease on: Painful skeletal deformations (Itai-Itai means onomatopoeically "Ouch-ouch") and broken bones with low stress. In 1980, around 10 percent of Japanese rice fields were no longer suitable for growing food due to cadmium pollution.

Similar to how cadmium works leadwhich triggers enzyme disorders and especially damages the growing brain. In addition, since lead is stored in bones instead of calcium, it is easiest to get into the blood during pregnancy, when the body draws on calcium from the bones.

Elevated heavy metal levels were measured all over the world from the 1970s; harmful values ​​reached in some industrial areas and cities, which were “characterized” by particularly high levels of air pollution. With the introduction of laws on air pollution control and the ban on lead in gasoline, the increase decreased, but heavy metals remain in the ground for up to 3,000 years. Not only heavy metals are problematic, but also light metals such as lithium: In small doses it is used as a drug in psychiatry, a slightly higher dose is poisonous. The increasing use of lithium for batteries therefore requires careful recycling of used batteries if a new environmental problem is not to be created here.


From the middle of the 20th century, chemicals were produced in such large quantities that they played a significant role in the environment. The use of chemical pesticides in agriculture played an important role, while the deposition of dangerous chemicals in unsecured garbage dumps was another.

Chemical pesticides

In the middle of World War II, mankind began to purposefully release large quantities of dangerous chemicals into the environment. In 1939 the Swiss chemist Paul Hermann Müller discovered that DDT Killed insects; In 1942 it was acquired by J.R. Geigy AG launched. DDT was first used against the Colorado potato beetle (and as a delousing agent) and quickly became the most widely used insecticide. DDT is a Chlorinated hydrocarbon; a group of substances that degrade very slowly in the environment and easily dissolve in fat; for this reason it accumulates in adipose tissue. A second group of insecticides had been discovered earlier. Similar to the >> nuclear power, the preparations for war were the inspiration here: the German chemist Gerhard Schrader, who developed the nerve toxins tabun and sarin in the research laboratory of BAYER AG in Leverkusen, found out that they were Phosphoric acid ester with small changes as insecticides could be used; In 1944, Schrader's group developed the one that was sold as the "E 605" Parathion. Phosphoric acid esters are much more toxic than chlorinated hydrocarbons, but are broken down comparatively quickly in the environment. After the war, the Americans acquired Schrader's knowledge of phosphoric acid esters and began a "war on nature" (according to Tim Flannery): insects were sprayed with these insecticides from airplanes wherever they appeared. They did not even shy away from using it in cities: for example, the insecticide Aldrin was sprayed over Detroit in 1959 to eradicate a rose beetle. The World Health Organization also relied on insecticides - especially DDT - to eradicate malaria.

The American biologist showed the consequences of this massive use of poison in 1962 Rachel Carson in her book "Silent Spring"(Ger."The silent spring“): She pointed out the dangers of DDT in particular for the bird world, but above all for human health, since humans are at the end of the food chain of living beings. DDT accumulates in the fatty tissue of animals and eventually led to the eggshells in birds becoming thinner, causing them to break during incubation. In the United States, this brought the bald eagle (the heraldic bird of the United States) to the brink of extinction. Carson, who herself suffered from cancer, also described the cancer risks posed by pesticides. Since cancer risks were a much discussed topic at the time, the book was a huge success in the USA (in Germany, despite a preprint in ZEIT and the thalidomide scandal that had just become known, the book hardly sparked any discussion); many consider it to be the birth of the environmental movement.

According to Carson's book, the large-scale and high-dose use of DDT was soon over; but against fierce resistance from the chemical industry, it was not until 1972 that the use of DDT in agriculture was banned in the USA (and in Germany). Since the Stockholm Convention In May 2004, DDT was only approved worldwide for combating malaria; the main producers are India and China. Due to its longevity, DDT can still be found in all people today. The Stockholm Convention banned a further eight plant protection products because of similar consequences, or their use was restricted; Today, more short-lived, but more toxic substances are preferred that no longer accumulate in the soil.

Toxic waste and contaminated sites

In 1970 the USA produced 9 million tons of hazardous waste, in 2000 it was 400 million tons. Until the 1970s, this waste was hardly an issue there either, often it was simply mixed with household waste (in order to “dilute” it) and deposited on the then completely unsecured rubbish dumps. The rude awakening came later: 1978 came in Love Canal the first toxic waste scandal hit the headlines. Love Canal was a neighborhood in the city of Niagara Falls (at Niagara Falls) that was built on a site where a chemical company had disposed of 20,000 tons of waste. When complaints about stench, cancer and miscarriages increased, the waste was examined: Over 300 toxins were found in the mixture, Love Canal was declared a disaster area, households were relocated.

That opened a barrel: links between health problems and toxic waste were discovered in hundreds of communities. In the USA, around 50,000 old toxic waste dumps (“contaminated sites”) are known - and new, previously unknown deposits are still being discovered during construction work, for example. (In Germany, see above, there are even 360,000 suspected sites, not all of which actually have to turn out to be contaminated sites. Removal has been tackled, but due to the enormous costs, only a fraction of these contaminated sites has been rehabilitated so far.

Further pages on the industrial age:
>> Background: The industrial revolution
>> Raw materials
>> energy
>> Water use
>> Water pollution
>> Air pollution
>> Climate change
>> Endangerment of biological diversity

To >> Overview

© Jürgen Paeger 2006 - 2016


The migration from farmers to California is described by John Steinbeck in his book "Grapes of Wrath".

For a "war against nature" you don't necessarily need chemicals: In Maoist China, the population should hit pots and pans until birds fell dead from the sky to protect the grain harvest. This worked, but not only grain eaters, the insect eaters also fell dead from the sky, so that insects then fell upon the fields.