All the gold in the world is not that much gold

“In all of history, only 161,000 tons of gold have been mined”, National Geographic, Jan 2009 (52).

At $950 an ounce, that puts the total value of all the gold in the world at a little less than $5 trillion dollars.

So, how much space does this $5 trillion take up? “Barely enough to fill two Olympic pools.”

All the mined gold in the world would fill up two swimming pools.

That’s it. And what does gold add to our lives? Well, it is used in electronics, dentistry and industrial processes. In 2007 such functional-usage only accounted for 12% of the gold used that year. The dominating use was for jewelry; the distant second-place use was investments — exchang-traded funds, coins, medals and bars.

I would think that in the technological age, we would have abandoned our unnatural passion for one metal, “Humankind’s feverish attachment to gold shouldn’t have survived the modern world” (42). Our parents have not recovered from their parent’s attachment to gold, and we likewise share in their affections. Gold grips the world. Two swimming pools filled up with jewelry are worth more than the budgets of entire countries.

How do we get more gold? From workers toiling in the mines. In some places, whole families — including children laborers — eek out their living from digging for gold. In economically depressed regions, illegal digging leaves miners poisoned from the mercury left over from the processing. The illogical cost of gold is punctuated by the illogical use of life to obtain it.

As the years pass, the price of gold will go up and we will pass along our understanding of gold to our children. The next generation will inherit from us a passion for gold and meaninglessness (despite the meaning we assign). Human life is easily identified with trivialities. The worth of a body is easily reduced to its ability to obtain more pliable metal for the rest of us.

Gold may be the emblem for the human inability to rightly value goods and men. If not, then diamonds are that emblem. But gold has something over diamonds; it is considered an official standard for money systems. And for that, we have the great mathematician, Sir Isaac Newton, to thank.

Newton, who invented Calculus, was also the Master of the Royal Mint. As warden of the nation’s money supply, he switched the British monetary system to have gold as its baseline or standard. America followed this move nearly a hundred years later. Newton’s choice was logical since gold was valued in all countries. His move expanded trade and promoted a new period of economic growth that spanned the globe. And he did this simply enough by tapping into a kind of religious sentiment: the cross-cultural devotion to gold.

It was Newton who wrote The Principia. In that book he taught the world to attribute movement and motion to inherent properties embedded within the objects that move. Lightning falls, he argued, because of processes that can be measured and explained. A natural event is explained by the nature of the objects involved in the event. Change, movement and motion became subjects for a new philosophy of observation and recording, and no longer belonged to the realm of religious institutions, clerics and priests. Mass, weight and size — not Zeus — explain the natural order. That is, if a scientist could understand that an object is influenced by other objects and that inherent mass affects gravitational phenomena, then that would explain why an apple falls or why planets orbit. Newton was helping us to step away from medieval darkness and into scientific enlightenment. Science, not superstition, was the basis for a new kind of rational thought.

And that takes us back to gold. It was Newton who conducted the frontal attack on the religious mythologies of his time, and ironically, it was the same Newton who tapped into the irrational power of gold. In the preface to his Principia, he lays out plainly that the union between the gods and mankind cannot be a standard for interpreting events. But later, he capitalized on the irrational human devotion to gold. Gold was the stuff of the gods — the substance of shrines, statues and sacred spaces — and under Newton it was to become the standard for the economy.

In this way, Newton helped us to keep our god, he just moved it to a more rational temple. The ancients may have worshiped golden calves or deities that lived along the Nile, but the Enlightenement unshackled us from such backwater superstition. If we do have statues, we are at least smart enough to have the bronze bull of Wall Street and not some impotent golden calf.

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