The Age of Aluminum

The Age of Aluminum by Mimi Sheller, visiting associate professor

Mimi Sheller, a visiting associate professor in the sociology and anthropology department, came to Swarthmore in 2005 from Lancaster University in England, where she co-founded and remains a senior research fellow in the Centre for Mobilities Research. She is co-editor of the journal Mobilities and the author of Democracy After Slavery (2000), Consuming the Caribbean (2003), and Citizenship from Below, forthcoming from Duke University Press. Write to her at mshelle1@swarthmore.edu.

grew up in an aluminum-sided suburban house. I carried a colorful aluminum lunchbox to school, with a sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil. Like everyone I know, I drink from aluminum cans, travel in cars, planes, and bikes full of aluminum parts, and cook in aluminum pots and pans. This versatile, ubiquitous material is all around us, all the time, but seems almost invisible because it has become, literally, part of the furniture (even the kitchen sink). The surprising story of this mercurial metallic fabric of everyday life - in our homes, skyscrapers, cars, airplanes, utensils, fasteners, cosmetics, space ships, and bombs - encapsulates the making of global modernity, the creation of multinational corporations, the rise of the U.S. as a world power, the modernization of warfare, and the invention of suburbia, science-fiction futurism, and the American Dream.

Aluminum is produced from an ore called bauxite, one of the major exports of three Caribbean countries - Suriname, Guyana, and Jamaica. As a sociologist of the Caribbean, my concerns over the environmental impacts of bauxite mining led me earlier this year to the glacier-encrusted volcanoes of Iceland - a striking island of black lava flows, sparkling ice-caps, and lush green summer pastures full of shaggy horses. In Reykjavik, I attended the conference Saving Iceland: Global Perspectives on Heavy Industry and Large Dams, and observed the direct action protests organized by the group Saving Iceland. With support from a Swarthmore Faculty research grant, I have now begun work on a new book called The Age of Aluminum, which will examine the untold epic story of this magical metal, how it transformed the 20th century, and continues to shape the world today.


 At the controversial Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Project, bulldozers scrape black earth off the bedrock and push it into the Jokulsa a Dal River below. 

In my work and in my courses like "Food, Bodies, and Power" and "Producing and Consuming the Caribbean," I try to think about the ways in which our way of life is connected to people's lives in poorer parts of the world and how our material goods depend on other people's labor and struggles for freedom. The story of aluminum also turns out to be a global story about Third World development and national sovereignty, the unleashing and reining in of corporate power, the pollution of the earth, and the battle to save it. From the steaming tropics of Guinea, Guyana, and Orissa to the frozen highlands of Iceland and hot deserts of Australia, the industry stands accused of polluting air, displacing indigenous communities, flooding wilderness areas, and leaving toxic lakes of red bauxite mud. What price are we paying for the smelting of shining silvery aluminum from the earth's russet rich ores? What price do we pay for the taken-for-granted conveniences of modern life?

My journey to Iceland was the beginning of a quest to understand pressing global questions concerning the ethics of patents, monopolies, and cartels; the power of big business; and the regulation of transnational corporations. I learned that one of the most compelling conflicts between economic development and wilderness preservation is presently taking place in the remote sub-arctic highlands of Iceland, considered one of the most unspoiled places in the developed world.


 Direct actions during the 2007 "Summer of Protest" included protest camps (above), invasions of corporate offices to hang protest banners, "rave against the machine" street parades, and human blockades of the roads leading to smelters. 

In 2004, the American corporation Alcoa broke ground on one of the world's largest aluminum smelters just outside of the tiny former fishing village of Reydarfjördur (pop. 650) in Iceland's remote East Fjords regions. Built by Bechtel for $1.25 billion dollars, it is a colossal industrial plant plunked down in an area with a total population of only 5,522 people, in a country of only 300,000 people spread over 39,800 square miles.

Aluminum has been dubbed "solidified electricity" because smelting demands so much power. The Icelandic government undertook construction of a $3 billion hydroelectric power plant in a remote upland region where two of the country's most awesome rivers flow north from Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajokull. While largely uninhabitable by humans, this stunning region is the home of wild reindeer, nesting pink-footed geese, gyrfalcons, snowy owls and ptarmigan.

The controversial Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Project involved the rerouting of a glacial river through 45 miles of tunnels and a series of nine dams, the largest of which has already flooded a dramatic canyon and pristine highland wilderness area with a 22-square mile reservoir. A further 32 miles of overland transmission lines have been built to carry electricity to the mile-long Alcoa smelter, built on the edge of a beautiful fjord.

When I saw the natural beauty of Iceland, it was hard to believe that anyone would think of spoiling it. On the other hand, as I spoke to local people, I saw that the government is trying to create jobs and build a new basis for the economy, which has suffered from the imposition of fishing quotas.


 Activists Attilah Springer (left) and  Lerato Maria Maregele (center).  

The inspiring speakers at the conference included Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnasun, filmmaker and environmentalist Omar Ragnarssen, Trinidadian journalist and activist Attilah Springer, South African activist Lerato Maria Maregele, and Cirineu da Rocha, a Brazilian activist in the Movement of Dam-affected People. The event kicked off the 2007 "Summer of Protest," which followed previous actions in 2005 and 2006 to try to stop Kárahnjúkar and other planned industrial projects. Direct actions this summer included protest camps, invasions of corporate offices to hang protest banners, "rave against the machine" street parades, and human blockades of the roads leading to smelters. I was a bit out of place amongst the young but seasoned activists, many covered in tattoos, nose-rings, and baggy black and khaki clothing, but they freely shared their vegan meals and their passion. Many of the actions have carnivalesque elements, with costumes, parades, and music, but the intent is always very serious.

"This Smelter Ting is All 'o Us Bizness"

With dreadlocks running down her back and a winning smile, Attilah Springer is a striking spokesperson for the Rights Action Group in Trinidad. She told the Saving Iceland Conference the story of the small settlement of Union Village in southwestern Trinidad, which awoke one day in 2005 to the rumbling sound of heavy machinery. Seldom seen animals from the surrounding forest started running through yards and streets - fleeing some unseen danger behind the trees. Out of nowhere, dozens of bulldozers had begun leveling the forest, encroaching from every direction. It was the time of year when all of the forest animals were carrying young. As the machines indiscriminately uprooted everything in their path, just one band of monkeys was left in the middle, clinging to their trees with babies and pregnant bellies. Finally the workers started clubbing the defenseless animals to death. The terrified monkeys fled helter-skelter into people's yards and houses, trying to find shelter anywhere. The people of Union Village were in shock. Even grown men had tears in their eyes. Attilah's voice broke and her audience, too, had tears in their eyes - especially me, then five months pregnant!

In contrast to Iceland, Trinidad is a 1,864 sq. mile island with 550 people per square mile, one of the world's highest population densities. I spent time there a few years ago, birdwatching on the Caroni swamp, hiking through the beautiful rainforests of Tobago, marveling at a multitude of hummingbirds, and enjoying the spicy food. But here, too, is a country struggling to improve its economic prospects. The 800 acres cleared near Union Village were part of the government's "Vision 2020" plan for Trinidad and Tobago to reach developed status by 2020, including the building of three aluminum smelters in South Western Trinidad, plus other gas-based and chemical industries.


 Unusual basalt formations in Iceland's Bay of a Thousand Isles. 

At Trinidad's 2006 Carnival, five bands had anti-smelter calypsos like "Helter Smelter," children put on school plays about industrial pollution with names like "Smelly," and people paraded effigies of Alcoa. Under growing pressure, the Prime Minister finally announced in 2006 that the plans for the Alcoa smelter were cancelled. For Springer, this struggle became an example to the country of how people can stop powerful corporations in their path - "we don't always have to give way" - and an inspiration to people around the world facing similar debacles.

Today, the aluminum industry is in the midst of a massive global restructuring with a flurry of mergers and acquisitions. With metals prices soaring on the commodity exchanges and predictions of growing demand, especially in China and India, corporate giants are vying to control existing bauxite mines and cheaper power sources across the globe. The latest twists in the plot make aluminum central to new technologies ranging from automobile design and wind turbines to fantastical dreams of an endless energy supply in an aluminum-hydrogen economy.

This year I conducted research in the Alcoa company archives in Pittsburgh and next summer I will tour the bauxite mines of Jamaica. My interests in Caribbean sustainability have led me into a much bigger but little-known global story, and I am excited about writing a book that will publicize it to many more people.