When Bill Carter was living in Bisbee, Arizona, he decided to plant a garden to grow his own veggies. When he got ill from eating the fruits of his labor, Carter did a little investigating and found traces of arsenic in the soil. The arsenic was residue from a century of copper mining in the small Arizona town, and after that discovery Carter decided to learn as much as he could about the metal. What he found was staggering, including how pervasive the metal is in everyday life, how much we don't know about what goes on in the mining industry, and how dangerous the potential effects of it are on the environment and our health.
Carter talked with Jackalope Ranch about how one goes about researching such a monumentally large topic such as copper and its mining, what he was most surprised to learn about, and why Congress refuses to touch the issue.
Carter hasn't led what you would call a normal life. After college, events in his life led him to Bosnia, where he found himself in the middle of the Bosnian War. Desperate to help his friends that he had met along his journey, and the people of Bosnia, Carter enlisted the help of Bono and U2 by faking documents to make them believe he was part of Sarajevo media in order to get an interview with them. After he wrote his first book on his experience in Bosnia, Fools Rush In, and a subsequent film titled Miss Sarajevo, which was produced with Bono and Ned O'Hanlon from U2, he found himself fishing in Alaska.
It was in Alaska as a salmon fisher that he first came into contact with the mining industry and became involved with trying to stop the Pebble Mine [from being constructed] in Alaska, which Carter and other opponents believe will be disastrous for the Bristol Bay watershed and the fishing population. The experience with the mine had left Carter intrigued to further his knowledge of the industry, and when he came home to Bisbee and started gardening, finding arsenic in the soil that was from runoff due to a century of copper mining, Carter had a pretty good reason to start looking into the mining industry even further, particularly the copper industry, which turned into his latest book, Boom, Boom, Bust, which is now being released in paperback (originally published in 2012 in hardcover).
Carter will be at Changing Hands, on Thursday, May 29, at 7 p.m. Books are for sale at Changing Hands for $15.
Your books have all been issue-related. How do you choose which ones you want to do a book on -- because I'm sure there are a lot of issues and topics out there that you'd like to talk about. Yeah, yeah it's crazy, I know. I think that I have found myself, in terms of the books, these big projects that take years have been something that's been close to me in my life. I'm not going to do a book on something that's happening in Sudan, 'cause that would be hard with me and my kids and family. It's usually something that's happening near or around in some way that I can kind of get a pulse on. That tends to influence me in terms of writing about it. But the one thing I've noticed, it almost doesn't matter, there's always going to be an interesting, fascinating story out there, once you unpeel it a little bit. With copper I thought, 'Eh, I don't know,' but man, it was one of the most fascinating things I've ever done, for me, personally.
Well, I know you started gardening at your house in Bisbee, and you got sick, and found high levels of arsenic in the soil, but what about that compelled you to want to write about it and take on this huge research project regarding what would become copper? Well, at the time, I had just ended fishing in Alaska, so the [Pebble] mine was on my mind, to learn about it, get more involved in it -- I was already involved but I wanted to get more involved in it. So all the sudden I was thinking, man, I live in Arizona which is this the world-class copper belt, and I don't really know anything about it, and most people don't know anything about it. And that's ok, but it's kind of this big, huge thing that's around us in Southern Arizona that we don't necessarily look at directly. We kind of just go around it. And I thought well, maybe I can link the two, and research the thing and learn about the history, 'cause Arizona's or, especially, the whole West is littered with history in terms of copper and gold. So I just started looking more and more into it, and it just sort of grabbed my attention and started to realize, I live in a town where I have a very, very small, topical sense of its history. Why not check it out?
So given how important and integrated copper is in everything and how we operate, why do you think we're so uneducated when it comes to the industry as a whole? I don't know. Gold gets all the glamour. Gold's the bling; gold is the thing, and everybody wants to know what the price of gold is, but gold is really useless on an industrial level, [and for] everyday use for all of us around the world, it's really just an ornament. Whereas copper, it's the workhorse, along with things like aluminum and zinc, and we don't know anything about them. I think if you were to go back in time a 100 years, copper was king. It tended to be the base of so much of the wealthy families, what really ran the United States was copper. And, if you kind of look, it became industrial and it disappeared, unless you're regionally attached to it. It's like cars, we don't care about them in California or Arizona or Oregon, because we don't make them. But Detroit has more history with it. So I think copper went dark at some point. It's hidden. Gold is our rings and it's part of our ceremony, but copper is behind your walls, in your sink, hidden inside your computer, hidden inside your phone. You don't really see copper. You know there's obviously some things that people use copper for: cooking pots, or things like that. But it's really a hidden metal for most of us.
What were your first steps and how did you go about your research initially? Oh, it's a monster, a huge thing to look into. It's a little bit like looking into oil. Who are the biggest copper companies? Who are they, who owns them, what's their histories? And then you go from one of them to the next, and you can write a book on each one of them. And then you start to go, well, where does copper really come from, and you start to get into that. It's a huge, overwhelming amount of information. I spent probably a year just researching, reading, thinking about the connections between these things, what avenue am I gonna take to get a story out of this. So that's how I kind of started, and then I started to take trips, and that kind of leads to its own research in the interviews.
What was the biggest surprise or shock that you learned about/uncovered through your research? Well two things, one is I had no idea copper was so pervasive in our lives. It's basically the metal that makes the modern world run, in some ways. . . Copper really is the thing that makes us, high-technology-wise, able to run like we do. So that was really interesting to me. Who were the players in copper was fascinating to me, both historically and modern-day. The big companies, how they were started, how they were founded, like Anglo American, or Freeport [McMoRan], these companies that really run the show, who are they, which families run them. And it seems like [with] the Guggenheims, nobody really knows where the money for the Guggenheims came from, we all just know their art philanthropy in New York or Venice, but the Guggenheims were like the biggest players in the copper world until about 50 years ago.
Have you gotten anywhere with the politicians and bringing more awareness to this issue with them? No one will touch it -- the only person that will touch this thing is [Mark] Udall in Colorado -- which makes sense cause of his family history. The last time it came up in Congress was 2007, and it almost passed, but it didn't. It was gonna charge them royalties, and put it into a fund, that would address the superfund sites, and a few other things. But nobody in Congress will touch it, all politicians basically ignore it, they say it's too complicated, you can't get anything done right now, which, you know, we obviously see that's true.
So we see it on both sides of the aisle, a part of the problem of not being, honestly, responsible about how we go about mining. [With] this book, I'm not trying to say we shouldn't mine, as a matter of fact I think I say many, many times over and over, I don't want to change our world. Going backward is really not possible. You can't really do it. My point is, if the community wants a mine, that should count. If the community doesn't want a mine, that should count. But right now the process is set up so we don't count at all. And that's bothersome.
I'm just curious a little bit about your career history, because you were kind of all over the place. You were a fisherman, you went to Bosnia and made that movie, you write books, what's been your path exactly and how did you land on it? My path has been absolutely nothing that you'd actually want to teach anybody to do. I'm a big believer that when kids come to me in college and say, 'I want to be a writer, and I want to write a book,' the first thing I say is okay, I'm glad you have the ambition but the first thing you need to do is forget about it, and go live life. Whatever you have to tell me at 22, you don't really have anything to tell me, unless you're really unbelievably fascinating. Most people at 22 in this country haven't yet stretched out, or rubbed against life in a way that has created any sort of internal story line. So I always tell them, go do something, and for me, I grew up really poor, on a farm in Northern California, went to college and graduated, but all I really wanted to do, you know I thought about being an MA student, and I wanted to do international relations, but it was actually a ruse, cause all I wanted to do was travel the world, that's all I ever wanted to do. And I didn't really care how I did it, work on a yacht, I didn't really care, and that's what I did, for about two and a half years. I was a bartender in Australia, a spear fisherman, anything, I was all over the world just doing things. And I wasn't really thinking about a writer, or a photographer, or a filmmaker, or anything, I was just traveling the world, I was just doing it.
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All that other stuff just kind of fell into place later, this is kind of the first book. There were very dramatic things that happened in my life, that changed my life intrinsically, that led me to Bosnia. And that is the beginning of all of this. The things that led me to Bosnia were very intense, and had nothing to do with the war. That set me on a path where I found myself in the center of the war, and that was kind of crazy, and somehow that place kind of healed me in a very weird way, with all the people I met.
But there are a lot of stories, and people say 'oh you made a movie with Bono,' well, I didn't make a movie with Bono, I didn't know Bono before I met him, I mean I totally faked my way into that. That's part of the story, I forged documents, I did everything [I could] in Bosnia to get to U2 and interview them. Everything was faked. They thought I was editor of a TV station in Sarajevo, cause I wrote fake letters, cause I really wanted to get them to help this country. And when I met them they said how did you get in here, what are you doing? I told them, and they said 'great, love that.' So that's been my journey, going through the back door if you will, just kind of doing it my way.
Carter will be at Changing Hands, on Thursday, May 29th at 7 p.m. For more information, visit the Changing Hands website. For more information on Boom, Boom, Bust or Bill Carter, visit www.boombustboombook.com.