Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives felt like the world’s most fucked up travelogue. In it, the author describes his trips through the cobalt and copper rich region of the Congo and the “artisanal” miners who dig, by hand, much of the cobalt that powers the modern world. These miners are paid ~$1 per day to extract ore that ends up in the electronics and electric vehicles that the rest of the world relies on. The miners work in extremely dangerous conditions and many of the miners that the author meets have lost limbs or suffered permanent disabilities from collapsing tunnels and other hazards that come from digging heavy rocks out of the ground by hand. Many of the miners he meets are children, digging in the ground in toxic pits, breathing toxic fumes, living and dying invisibly while the folks above them in the supply chain earn millions or billions of dollars in profits.
In other words, it is not light reading, and the author’s description of the conditions that exist in the Congo are heart-wrenching, but not surprising. The people of the Congo have been brutally exploited almost constantly since King Leopold decided the entire country was his to exploit. Their leaders since independence haven’t been much better.
Unfortunately, despite the power of the story, the book itself wasn’t as strong as I hoped it would be. Facts were repeated, the stories of the author’s travels through the violent bureaucracy were sometimes hard to follow, and the prose often took away from the power of the stories the author was relaying. It is a necessary story to tell, and the author’s dangerous work to shine a light on the exploitation of the Congo is important. It could have been more.