Since the beginning of recorded history, mankind has worshipped the metallic commodity known, colloquially, as “gold.” All other religions fade in comparison with the worship of gold. We create idols out of gold – most famously, the golden calf created by the Israelites who dissented with Moses following their exodus from Egypt, and who were severely chastised for their act of rebellion (see Exodus, Chapter 32). We construct elaborate mythologies based on gold – sometimes involving gold-mining extra-terrestrials, as seen in the creation myths of the Sumerians and Babylonians. We base entire economies and monetary standards on gold. We characterize our standards of excellence, metaphorically, as “gold standards” and we lavish our icons of extreme wealth with golden trappings.
When Columbus landed in the New World, it is said (anecdotally), that the first priority that obsessed him was to scour the land for gold. The Spanish conquistadors in South America were predominantly motivated by the hunt for Inca gold. The mass migration of more than 300,00 fortune-seekers to California in the mid-nineteenth century was instigated by the gold rush.
And yet, gold has no intrinsic value, per se, other than its bright, shiny color and its relative scarcity, and the fact that its value remains relatively stable over time. In the vein of an Einsteinian “thought experiment,” however, let us consider what might happen if the value of gold suddenly crashed.
The idea that the value of gold might, one day, suddenly collapse is not entirely fictional or fantastical. In relative proximity to the earth’s orbit, there are asteroids floating about in space containing more than enough gold and silver ore in them to permanently crash the value of precious metals on earth. Even as we speak, there are startup companies around the world that are making serious plans to explore deep space, beyond the orbit of the moon, and one of the primary ambitions and motivating factors of these space-faring enterprises, launched by Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and others, is to harness and mine these floating gold and silver mines.
But have we seriously considered what such an enterprise, were it successful, would do to human society on earth? What would the collapse in the value of gold mean to centuries, even millenia, of religion, mythology and iconography, all constructed around the value of gold?
Author and scientific visionary Peter Diamandis, in his seminal book Abundance: The Future is Better than you Think, relates, in the first chapter, the fascinating history of another element – the metal aluminum.
He recounts the story of the initial discovery of the remarkable element, described as “a new metal, very light, shiny, almost as bright as silver” (Diamandis, Peter H., and Steven Kotler. Abundance: the Future Is Better than You Think. Simon & Schuster, 2015., p.3). The metal was, apparently, extracted from clay, using a secret process, by an enterprising goldsmith, during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius (contemporary to the life of Jesus Christ).
However, the goldsmith was rewarded for his pains by being beheaded by the ruthless monarch. Diamandis notes:
This shiny new metal was aluminum, and that beheading marked its loss to the world for nearly two millennia. It next reappeared during the early 1800s but was still rare enough to be considered the most valuable metal in the world. Napoléon III himself threw a banquet for the King of Siam where the honored guests were given aluminum utensils, while the others had to make do with gold.(Ibid., p.3)
As recently as the early 19th century, therefore, aluminum was considered to be more precious, even, than gold! Diamandis continues:
While bauxite is 52 percent aluminum, separating out the pure metal ore was a complex and difficult task. … In 1854 Henri Sainte-Claire Deville created the first commercial process for extraction, driving down the price by 90 percent. Yet the metal was still costly and in short supply.
It was the creation of a new breakthrough technology known as electrolysis, discovered independently and almost simultaneously in 1886 by American chemist Charles Martin Hall and Frenchman Paul Héroult, that changed everything. The Hall-Héroult process, as it is now known, uses electricity to liberate aluminum from bauxite. Suddenly everyone on the planet had access to ridiculous amounts of cheap, light, pliable metal.(Ibid., pp.3-4)
For Diamandis, there is a generic lesson to be learned from the story of aluminum:
History’s littered with tales of once-rare resources made plentiful by innovation. The reason is pretty straightforward: scarcity is often contextual. … Technology is a resource-liberating mechanism. It can make the once scarce into the now abundant.(Ibid., p.4)
Aluminum products are now widely used as kitchen utensils, cooking foil, etc.
From the perspective of the thesis of this meditation, however, the story of aluminum represents a cautionary tale – the parable of a once-precious metal, regarded not so long ago as even more valuable than gold, but which is now “cheap, ubiquitous, and used with a throwaway mind-set” (Ibid., p.3) thanks to a series of technological innovations in the latter half of the nineteenth century!
Can we, nevertheless, even begin to fathom how disruptive it would be to human society if the value of gold suddenly crashed, as a result of technological developments, such as those described above? The difference between aluminum and gold is stark – while aluminum may once have been more valuable than gold, gold has had a deep iconic status in human culture for millennia – going back to the beginnings of recorded history, in fact – a status that aluminum simply never had. Thus, a collapse in the value of gold, or even silver, would not simply be hugely economically disruptive, it would be socially, culturally, and even religiously disruptive to a level that is currently beyond our ability to grasp! The truth is that, when all is said and done, let’s face it – the worship of gold is the real religious principle that underlies and drives human society, not so much the worship of any deity!