Passengerfilms – a London-based ‘car crash of cinema and geography’ – invited Ian to suggest a film and panel discussants for a screening in February this year. He chose Sasha Friedlander’s documentary Where Heaven meets Hell in which audiences get to know four men who mine sulphur from inside a live volcano in Indonesia. A new followthethings.com page was published on the film and he recommended it again as part of the film programme for the Museum of Contemporary Commodities in Exeter. The screening is tonight. Is all sulphur mined in volcanoes? NO! Says London panellist Prof Gavin Bridge in this guest post. It is ‘mined’ in more surprising places…
Where Heaven Meets Hell conveys the aspirations, social relations and hard physical labour of a group of men who earn their living by prying chunks of sulphur free from the mouth of an Indonesian volcano. Viewers are drawn into a world of work one can scarcely imagine exists – a world of cloying smoke, hacking coughs, scarred muscles and bodyweight-loads hauled up over the volcano’s rim and down the mountain to be sold. The filmmaker, Sasha Friedlander, artfully works a trope familiar to other ‘revelatory’ commodity stories, exposing the social lives through which natural materials become objects of economic exchange.
But, big picture, the world acquires sulphur in ways very different to those depicted in the film. Extraordinarily little of the approximately 75 million tonnes of sulphur consumed each year is mined from the ground, and still less comes from the mouth of volcano. Today, over 98% of the world’s sulphur derives from air quality legislation that, since the 1960s, requires uncontrolled atmospheric emissions of sulphur dioxide be reduced. As a consequence, the vast majority of the sulphur we use is recovered from the sulphur-rich waste streams of oil and gas production or metal processing, rather than being mined for its own sake. The world’s biggest sources of sulphur, then, are not mines in the mountains but the smokestacks of petroleum refineries, natural gas processing plants, coking facilities and non-ferrous metal smelters. The largest sulphur producers in the US are ExxonMobil, Valero, ConocoPhillips, Motiva, Marathon and Chevron which recover sulphur from ‘sour’ crude oil and natural gas at their refinery complexes, primarily in Texas and Louisiana. Massive pyramids of sulphur are stockpiled alongside the bitumen upgraders of the Alberta tar sands, effectively stranded by their low value and distance from potential markets.
Sulphur – or, more biblically, brimstone – has a long social history as a resource. Reportedly used by the Romans as a fumigant for agricultural pest control, taken internally to aid digestion (the Victorian’s ‘brimstone and treacle’), and combined with saltpetre and charcoal as gunpowder, sulphur subsequently became an essential ingredient in many of the new materials that characterised the ‘second industrial revolution’ of the late 19th century. The development of vulcanisation techniques for rubber, whereby sulphur is combined with latex, produces a firmer and more durable material; and, in the form of sulphuric acid, sulphur proliferated through a wide range of industrial applications including bleaching, cellophane and detergent manufacture, battery technology, and the production of rayon from cellulose. Today, half of all sulphur is used in the manufacturer of fertilisers, so that the scale and pattern of contemporary sulphur mobilisation is closely bound to securing global food supply.
In Where Heaven Meets Hell hand-held digging tools and woven carrying baskets suggest a timeless process of hewing sulphur from the earth. But techniques for provisioning society with sulphur have shifted significantly over time. Until the early 20th century, most of the world’s sulphur came from Sicilian underground mines, hand-worked in appalling conditions. Development of a hot water mining technique (the Frasch Process) in the early 20th century removed some of the hard physical graft of extracting sulphur, and decisively shifted the centre of gravity of sulphur production to the United States: the world’s sulphur supply, drawn mainly from the salt domes of the Gulf Coast, subsequently boomed. Another historically significant mined source is iron pyrites: the UK’s Ministry of Munitions in WW1 (and again in WW2) sourced sulphur for the war effort from an iron pyrites mine at Cae Coch in Caernarvonshire. China, the world’s largest producer of sulphur, continues to source around half of its production from pyrite mines. However, worldwide these mined sources have been eclipsed by the growth of so-called ‘non-discretionary’ sources of sulphur associated with the implementation of air quality regulations and these now dominate global supply. By mandating the capture of potential sulphur emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and metal smelting, air quality legislation has created a very large source of sulphur that has rendered sulphur mining uneconomic in most contexts.
So great is our mobilisation of sulphur that it has become a convenient marker for differentiating space and time. Sulphuric acid is the world’s most abundantly produced chemical: its integral role in manufacturing has made production of this ‘king of chemicals’ a proxy for a nation’s level of development, a metric equivalent to GDP per capita or the number of doctors per thousand people. The scale of sulphur mobilisation since the industrial revolution is at least as great as all background sources, indicating humanity’s capacity as a geological agent and making sulphur – like carbon – a primary marker of the Anthropocene. The extractive activities depicted in Where Heaven Meets Hell look particularly strange when set against the abundant global flux of anthropogenic sulphur consequent to fossil fuel use and metal processing. The film inadvertently raises the question of why sulphur mining persists in Indonesia, but is largely silent on the political-ecological conditions that make mining sulphur a way of life in midst of a global sulphur glut.
Where Heaven Meets Hell gives us a glimpse of one extraordinary part of the anthropogenic sulphur cycle, where livelihoods are wrung from fumaroles in a volcano’s crater. Visually compelling and movingly told, it nonetheless reveals very little about how the world’s sulphur is currently sourced, the enormous global flux of sulphur consequent to hydrocarbon consumption, or how our relationship to sulphur has changed over time. These other sulphur stories are no less astonishing than the world revealed in the film.
There are many useful sources covering the production, trade and consumption of sulphur, reflecting the element’s historical significance and continuing importance to the global chemical and agricultural sectors. I found the following sources helpful in putting this short note together:
Aldersey-Williams, H. 2012. Periodic Tales: the curious lives of the elements, Penguin.
Harrisson, P. (no date). Global Sulphur Market Outlook. CRU Consultants. http://www.optimin.co.za/assets/documents/Sulphur-Market-Outlook.pdf
Ober, J. (no date). Materials flow of sulfur. US Geological Survey, Open File Report 02-298. Available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2002/of02-298/of02-298.pdf
The Sulphur Institute (no date). See http://www.sulphurinstitute.org
USGS (various years) Sulphur. Minerals Yearbook. Washington, DC: US Geological Survey. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/sulfur/
Gavin Bridge / University of Durham