Crystal Mines at the End of the World

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You will have no trouble at all finding people who get excited about crystal quartz. From 1970s ecofeminist pagans to #witchesofinstagram, many people find it a desirable tool for that contemporary Venn diagram of alternative spirituality and ‘wellness’ practice. One common argument is that crystal quartz operates at a high vibration — that it helps you clear yourself and the spaces around you. I can forgive (and relate to) the fact that it’s difficult to verbalize spiritual experiences without resorting to extremely hokey language. (Also, we’ve got to talk about this ‘vibrational’ terminology and how it get super racist and many other -ists really quickly, but that’s for another time.)

Yet it’s starting to become better documented that the crystal industry is, well, murky (…instead of clear, like a crystal, get it?). A 2019 Guardian article documents the trajectory of crystal healing from the fringe to the high-end, noting that “[t]he model Miranda Kerr has said that she filters all her skincare products through rose quartz “to give the vibration of self-love” (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/sep/17/healing-crystals-wellness-mining-madagascar). There’s the vibration language again. Yet, “[d]espite that explosive growth, the way the crystal industry operates has largely avoided close scrutiny,” and it turns out that people in deep poverty and terrible working conditions in Madagascar are frequently mining the crystals we buy. It’s the same story as the garment industry, in that buyers can’t easily trace supply chains to detect exploitation and so they don’t do it all. It’s unregulated, so they don’t have to try. And as consumers, we’re unaware, although it’s arguable that we shouldn’t be surprised.

Recently I went to an upmarket new age shop, which is 100% a thing now in the U.S., and they sold those $60 water bottles that have a crystal quartz point inside to make your water more #blessed. No judgment on the folks running this store; everyone’s trying to make a living, and god knows that retail is difficult. This particular shop is in one of the fastest gentrifying cities in the country, in a new shopping center that used to be the heart of the city’s skid row. The setting lent itself to my unoriginal thesis that almost no one actually likes the supposed quality-of-life that gentrification brings: the streets are a bit cleaner but everything’s wildly expensive, and no one escapes without paying for parking. (Am I right, or am I right?)

Chances are you think the crystal water bottle is as absurd as I do, but let’s think more broadly. What does it mean to get good vibrations from a piece of rock pulled out of the earth by children engaged in “the worst forms of child labor” (International Labour Organization), who probably don’t have clean drinking water either? Isn’t it a bit obscene to claim our own healing through the suffering of others? In this framework, good vibes start to seem like a eugenicist concept in which for some of us to thrive, others must suffer. For some of us to get closer to god(s), others must be driven further into the earth. It’s unlikely that most folks are consciously thinking this way, but: what are the hidden cosmologies of our practices? What are the power relationships and injustices allowing us to feel cleared, balanced, or healed?

The existential poverty of modern life surrounds us, and, paired with ecological disaster, can feel apocalyptic. Most of us benefit from the stolen resources and suffering of others. Our clothes come from sweatshops. We eat food that is cheap because migrants are cheated out of fair wages, and yet it’s still too expensive for many of us. Simply based on what part of town we live in, some of us will either perpetuate segregation or displace longstanding communities of color. Even small pleasures, like a candle bought on Etsy embedded with inexpensive crystal shards, are so frequently unethical. And yet, until we can change these material realities, I want to see a world in which we say “no” to justifying these inequalities for any reason. It’s tempting to say, “It’s not so bad. At least they have jobs. At least I’m honoring these crystals and, by proxy, the people who dug them out of the ground.” It’s also tempting to say that we can change our individual behavior and thus opt out of the system.

I want to push “us” — anyone with a modicum of material privilege who cares about this Venn diagram — to resist this way of thinking. We can look these inequities in the eye, see them clearly, find them intolerable, and do everything we can in this lifetime to change them, even as life forces or nudges us to participate in them more than we want to. My argument is not about ‘voting with your dollar’, because our individual actions alone aren’t enough. Instead, I come to this urgent idea for anyone with inclinations towards the crystalline: we need a cosmology that looks critically at the stuff around us, even the stuff we hold dearest of all, and that values the lives of African crystal miners. Let’s be honest that this is about the systematic devaluation of Black lives. We need a cosmology that is not passive but pushes us to fight for structural change, think hard about how that happens, and learn how to work with people who are most directly impacted.

Pre-Christian animism is woven throughout our more formal belief systems, and is also emerging as a religious self-definition of choice for a lot of people who might have previously called themselves pagans. Animism gives life and meaning to every material thing, not just those we recognize to be alive; Marie Kondo’s Shinto-influenced magic of tidying up is an example from popular culture. Yet animism in capitalist societies risks fostering obsession with the powers of material things. We don’t need an animism that ascribes superhealing powers to wedges of crystal mined by little kids, that tells us to heal ourselves from the ills of capitalist exploitation with more of the same. We need an animism whose practitioners want to change material conditions more than fetishize material objects, to honor the sensual world by transforming it.

You might agree that humans, plants, animals, everything else we call the natural world, and various astral critters are linked in a web that has to be restructured if we are going to survive. Within this web are centuries of slavery and colonial exploitation that profoundly shape the world we live in today, and are ongoing. We are inextricable parts of that web, and there is no escape valve. What does it look like to build a solidarity cosmology? If you’ve made it this far, I want to hear from you!

Sharing mystical and sacred tools for justice-minded folks to renew their spirits. Writings about spirits, family, and geography. The whole world is alive.