The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession

By Peter L. Bernstein | Go to book overview

1
Get Gold at All
Hazards

If gold were more plentiful on earth—say, as abundant as salt—it would be far less valuable and interesting, despite its unique physical attributes and beauty. Yet gold has been discovered on every continent on earth. That sounds like a contradiction, but it is not. Although gold deposits are widespread, in one form or another, no one area has yielded its gold easily. Finding and producing gold demands immense effort relative to the amount of glittering yellow metal that makes its appearance at the end of the process.

For example, in order to extract South Africa’s annual output of around five hundred tons of gold, some seventy million tons of earth must be raised and milled—an amount greater than all the material in the pyramid of Cheops.1 The South African mines are the worst, but we are all familiar with the tales of the Forty-Niners panning day after day in the waters of California and ending up with nothing but a few driblets of gold. As Will Rogers put it after returning from a visit to the Klondike, “There is a big difference between prospecting for gold and prospecting for spinach.”2

This radically distorted ratio of effort to output appears to have done little to discourage people from pursuing the worldwide search for gold—perhaps the most telling evidence of how highly prized, vital,

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