Monthly Archives: July 2010

Bioprospecting

I’ve been thinking about There Will Be Blood (based on Upton Sinclair’s Oil!) and its relationship to present day. In the movie, a ruthless oil prospector risks life and limb looking for mineral wealth – and in particular, oil. The complete lack of technology is staggering. For the first half of the move (set in ~1900) the main character is literally digging for oil with a shovel. And after a great deal of  labor and conniving, he becomes fantastically wealthy. It reminds me of Charles Steen, about whom I read in Uranium by Tom Zoellner.  Another ruthless bastard, he got rich in the Uranium mining boom in the 1950s.

Firstly, let me say that out of a million bastards with shovels, only a tiny percentage had the cunning and physical prowess to make it big. And only one of those actually stumbles on to a big enough claim to be rich. One in a million. In 100 years, there are maybe a dozen examples of rich men who started out with determination and a shovel.

Having said that, what’s out there for future prospectors? Not oil or uranium or any mineral. In places where such things are abundant and land is cheap, a major corporate interest will take it over from any tiny private party who might get in the way. Think I’m joking? “The oil giant Shell has agreed to pay $15.5m (£9.6m) in settlement of a legal action in which it was accused of having ­collaborated in the execution of the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other leaders of the Ogoni tribe.”

Maybe the future is in bioprospecting. Imagine exploring the antarctic seeking the rare octopus whose venom will lead to a better understanding of protein folding at cold temperatures – and from there to cold-adapted vaccines, storable antibodies, and cures for major diseases, etc. Maybe it’s happening now.

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