As the price of gold continues its steady climb—at $271 before 9/11, it's now above $835—National Geographic provides a sobering look at the human and environmental costs of finding it and digging it up. With the world's biggest deposits long gone and new discoveries rare, "it's an invitation to destruction," writes Brook Larmer. "But there is no shortage of miners, big and small, who are willing to accept."
The human cost is greatest on the 10 to 15 million small-scale miners who toil in places such as Peru, Mongolia, and Brazil for slave-like wages under deadly work conditions. These miners, about 30% of whom are women and children, produce about a quarter of the world's gold. The greatest environmental damage comes from large-scale operations that leave "gashes in the Earth so massive they can be seen from space." Taken together, "gold's human and environmental toll has never been so steep," writes Larmer.