A Palliative Approach to the End of the World

What if we accept that we’ll never solve climate change?

E.E. Demore
Human Parts
Published in
9 min readApr 25, 2019

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Illustration: Holly Stapleton

Slag

I grew up on the lip of a crater. Sudbury is a mining city, but it is at the same time a place of rugged beauty. It is a place where the Canadian shield reveals itself, protruding to the surface like a leviathan’s rocky spine, cold and prehistoric.

Ten million years ago, one of the largest meteors ever to strike Earth made contact here. It thrust veins of underground ore to the surface, and only very recently — in the last 150 years — have humans tapped these veins. Their rich deposits of nickel and copper have helped feed global demand in times of peace and of war.

The towns that established themselves on the crater’s periphery were not so much places to live as shelters for miners who needed to access the ore. Settlers gave these towns jagged, alien names: Falconbridge, Coniston. The names sound as if they were cut from diamond drills. Levack. Skead.

I grew up in one of these towns. It’s where I learned to name the world and to begin to find my place within it. My high school sat on one end of the crater and my house sat on the opposite end. The commute involved an hour-long trip across the valley, skirting along a stretch of black hills where, for decades, rail cars would tip the byproduct of smelting: a river of molten rock known as slag.

When rail cars poured the slag at night, the hills glowed a phosphorescent orange. Crowds would gather in anticipation as for a fireworks display. For some reason, it took years for me to realize that slag is effectively garbage. Mining executives prefer the term “tailings.”

‘Nickel Tailings #34–35 — Sudbury, Ontario 1996.’ Photos: E. Burtynsky

Tailings are the dirty secret of the mining industry. They are the back end, the bathroom, the stuff we don’t want to see. We hide our waste to forget it exists.

Notably, Sudbury has made little attempt to hide its slag hills. In fact, quite the opposite: Slag has become a symbol of the area, a source of local pride. There’s even a music festival named after it. A postcard from Sudbury will…

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