They say we live in the information age, as if the space age, the plastics age, and the oil age are over. But ages don’t come and go; they accrete. It’s not like we stopped using rocks at the end of the stone age. In that sense, we still live in the metal age, for in 2009 we produced a record 400 pounds of steel for every person on Earth. Of course, ages are named by optimists, because the here and now must be exciting and trendy. Nobody’s figured out how to rebrand the industrial age to that effect. The maintenance age? The climate-change age? Forget it. Too gloomy. So refining the metal age to accurately reflect our modern predicament presents a paradox. Nevertheless: if you want to be honest and precise about it, we live in the information age and the space age and the plastics age and the oil age, and we also live in the metal age. At this point, though — the hell with branding — we should call it the rust age.
Everything has a lifetime: buildings and bridges, boats and bolts, dams, pipes, airplanes, submarines, cars, cans, knives, nails, computers. Witness any of the 3,000 active landfills in the U.S. The rule of life is death, and the rule of creation is destruction. Entropy is incontrovertible. To presume otherwise is naive, but to ignore it is normal. After all: life is good! We’re making progress! We landed a guy on the moon! The most durable object seems durable until the day it all of a sudden doesn’t, and then we throw it “away,” and thus avoid bearing witness to its long, slow decay. We hide the death of inanimate objects — half a trillion pounds worth every year, not all of that designed to be disposable — to sustain the illusion of their everlasting durability. We insist that metals aren’t mortal, never mind what geology and chemistry have to say. For metal is like a maiden: rare, unrivaled in beauty, and impossibly alluring; but also demanding of constant attention, best watched carefully, quick to age, and intrinsically unfaithful. We’re as optimistic as the age-namers.
Our language betrays this concealment: Consider that Chevrolet, which makes cars out of metal, which themselves are often recalled for corrosion defects, claims to be “like a rock.” Or that Prudential, yearning to make investments appear dependable and stable, employs an image not of a steel vault, but of a rock. Better to erode, than corrode. Superman — the man of steel – on the other hand, has a weakness. In our metaphors we recognize that metal is not the pinnacle of reliability, and in our fairy tales, which we forget, we make this even clearer to children. The most blatant deception is the most common. Out of practice, we admit that we’ve gotten a little rusty… as if it’s no big deal, as if we’ll be good as new once we polish up.
This is not the case. The three objects of focus here — cans, pipes, and the Navy’s boats — have gotten a little bit rusty, will never be the same, and force us to grapple with huge decisions. The struggle to keep the U.S. Navy’s 288 ships afloat, for example, is so grand and expensive that it could be considered a war by itself, a war that the most powerful country on Earth is losing. The plumbing system in New York City — the nation’s biggest, densest, richest city; The City — is crumbling before our eyes. And food and beverage cans — the invention Napoleon credited with moving an army, and so crucial to the development of this country — are coated with a potent endocrine disruptor, yet as cancer rates climb ever higher, this remains unlabeled and undisclosed, because, the industry argues, it’s the cheapest, easiest way to keep cans from rusting. These are stories about health, safety, security, the future. They’re also about money, for rust imposes no small cost — 3% of GDP, or $437 billion, more than the GDP of Sweden. That’s about $1500/person every year. Put that on your 1040 and mail it.
These three arenas — in land, water, and air — reveal battles against corrosion hidden and in plain sight, funded publicly and privately, and carried out accordingly. In each case, whether the turf is tiny or huge, old or new, familiar or foreign, the stakes are high. This, then, is a story of the life and death of metal, and three incredible efforts to stave off that inexorable death.