Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 020: LOSING OUR MARBLE?

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. 800 years before Christ, the Greeks started to create marble sculptures of unparalleled beauty. This alluring and easy to carve white stone has held a mythical place in our hearts ever since. In this week's episode, I travel to Italy to meet marble quarry workers in Carrara. I talk with marble carvers in Pietro Santa and with an environmental campaigner who's trying to protect the marble rich Apuan Alps from destruction at the hands of industrial scale marble mining. I went into this adventure with a very romantic view of what I'd find. I was in for a big surprise. I stopped in San Francisco at Faux Marble, which supplies stone to most of the western United States folks. Faux Marble has rows of large slabs of stone and sits on the last remaining industrial patch of San Francisco. Charley Mclaughlin founded the company back in the 1980’s and remains the CEO today. I started by asking Charley how given that every new and old hotel office, lobby, bathroom and gym seems to be covered with marble, whether there can possibly be enough marble for this trend to continue. 

 

CHARLEY MCLAUGHLIN: The reality is, Jared, there is no issue of supply whatsoever. The classic marbles are never going anywhere. The Italian Carraras are timeless and the quarries are absolutely, they are sustainable. We have thousands of years supply without even putting a dent because the reserves are so rich, and the Italians run a very tight ship in terms of safety, environmental controls and what not. We have relationships with the best Italian companies in Italy. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, I remember when I first went out to the quarries in Carrara, they were still drilling holes and then putting dried peas in and then filling the holes with water and the peas would expand and the marble block would crack off. 

 

CHARLEY MCLAUGHLIN: Things don't change. Back in the days of the wooden wedges and the water, the wedge expanse, and that's still happening, but they are using a newer generation of diamond wires. The basics of the industry have not changed in millennia. Just getting is a little more efficient, more environmentally sensitive and not blasting the sides of mountains like they used to back in the old days there. Italy is blessed with white marble. Oh my God, it's unlimited. It seems that way. I don't think there's any worry in generations and generations to come, but what you'll see is white marble is just, it's timeless. You'll see it all around there. China's eating up everything they can produce. India, of course, North America. The classic white marbles which are coming out of Carrara, there's really nothing else on the earth that I've seen. There is other white marbles coming out of Vietnam and other places, but it's not quite the same. The Italian whites - the structure, the composition, the beauty.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Has the price increased to the consumer? 

 

CHARLEY MCLAUGHLIN: What's going up is these exotic - they call calacattas and beautiful, rich, veiny. Those prices are gone up. It's just unbelievable. They are maybe a thousand dollars per square meter for three quarter-inch thick. Demand keeps going up. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What do you look for in a good quarry? 

 

CHARLEY MCLAUGHLIN: Well, it takes years of relationship building, knowing where the people are, the suppliers with integrity. You heard the story about Michelangelo and his famous story about finding the David? 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: No.

 

CHARLEY MCLAUGHLIN: It’s a true story. He got up one morning. He had been looking for the perfect block for years and he looked, looked, looked, couldn't find it. Then one day, he’s walking out of Florence down the hill and he looks in this vacant building site and sees this overgrown yard with this giant block of marble. They had some workers come. They cleared a way and he found the perfect block of marble that he’d been walking by every day for years and that's how the David was made. And then they asked him, well, how'd you create such a beautiful, amazing thing? He says, I just carved away everything that wasn't David. Natural stone is not going away. Believe me. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: My mom Helene has been sculpting marble since the mid-1970’s. So, I grew up with a community of people who appreciate and understand marble. My mom is still creating amazing sculptures in Italy today. I fly from San Francisco to Piza and then drive up the Italian coast to Cararra for a family visit. To better understand the marble industry, my son Markus and I plan to visit the Carrara Marble Museum. We drive up into the Apuan Alps along narrow roads with hairpin turns. We enter an unlit hand chiseled tunnel. At the far end is a man getting out of a jeep who flags us down. 

 

LUCIANO: Luciano is my name. I live here in Versilia. Versilia is little village. 300 people, 200 work here. Here, I am the chief. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Luciano offered to show us around the quarry and we gladly accept. 

 

LUCIANO: The working top now is finished. Stopped. Now, every year continued 10 meter in vertical and 100 horizontal. 10, 100, 10, 100. This system is repeated every year. Three years and this quarry is finished.  Stop. Bye, bye, marble.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How long has it been a quarry? 

LUCIANO: 2000 year old.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And only three more years to go? 

 

LUCIANO: Yes, three years is finished. One piece is good for Dubai. Six pieces for toothpaste, for the pharmaceutical industry. For medicine and toothpaste. The problem is this- fracture, fracture, fracture -no good for quarry. The heart of the quarry is this jacuzzi, bathroom, Dubai. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What happens in three years? 

 

LUCIANO: Three years, this quarry is finished. Stop. In the future, this quarry surrounds a location for Bocelli. Andrea Bocelli likes here. This quarry is lucky for this material. This quarry is lucky for the echo. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What will happen to the people working here? 

 

LUCIANO: In the future, when this quarry is finished, the last mountain next is this.          

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Luciano points to the last remaining green hillside on the other side of his quarry, which contains some of the last good quality Carrara marble on the planet. 

 

LUCIANO: After the marble bye bye – 50 years – the marble is finished. 50 years.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: That’s not very long.

 

LUCIANO: 50 years. The future, no big chain, no diamond chain, the future is the laser. The laser is the future.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: We've had marble for 2000 years in this quarry and now in 50 years, there'll be no marble left?      

 

LUCIANO: The marble was formatted into the sea, millions and millions of years ago and now it’s finished. The first with the Romans 2000 years ago and now bye bye.  Repeat 50 years, the marble is finished. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I was totally shocked by Luciano's candid analysis of the future of Italian marble. His quarry that has been in operation for 2000 years will end in 2021, and 50 years after that, he predicts there'll be no more Italian white marble at all. What’s more, Luciano opened our eyes to the fact that the majority of his marble is sold to Dubai for jacuzzis and to the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector as calcium carbonate powder that goes into products like toothpaste. Next, I meet up with Eros Tetti, who runs the Italian environmental group to save the Apuan Alps. I start by asking Eros to tell us a little bit about the Apuan Mountains. 

 

EROS TETTI: So, the Apuan Alps are a little chain of mountains in North Tuscany, and they are famous in all the world for the beautiful white marble. White marble has been used from the most famous sculptors in the world like Michelangelo, and these are really, really beautiful mountains because they are like tectonic windows and in this side of the world is come out an inner side of the earth and then it’s made all from marble. They're like, they're coming out the sea and they're pointing at the sky. You know, it's like they're trying to grab the sky and they are made of white marble. So, this makes them unique because when you walk on them in the sun, you see the sun reflecting on the stones, you can even arrive to see Florence when you are on the top of the mountains. And you see, you can see far away. They are called “the garden of Europe” because a is one of the places with ice, and biodiversity in the Mediterranean because from one side you see the continual flora and fauna. You can see all this kind of trees and grass and flowers, typical of the northern side of Europe. And on the other side you can see all the Mediterranean flora and fauna. We say they are like it’s the point where the two are hugging each other. From this place, you can see both of them kissing each other on this beautiful white marbles.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Eros, maybe tell us a little bit about the history of marble quarries in this area. 

 

EROS TETTI: There have been mining since probably before Christ for this beautiful material that has been used to build a wonderful city like Florence and Rome. And in the last few decades, everything has changed. Marble is made 100 percent of carbonate calcium.  Now the factories are demanding a lot of these material for many, many kinds of use, like toothpaste and many other products. In the last decades, started to accelerate the excavation a lot. These businesses become bigger and bigger and mafiosa arrived. The old material is in the hands of few industrial people, few businessmen, and these people do not take care of our mountains, do not care of our community, they just exploit the mountains, and exploit the community. The marble economy stopped any other kind of development. And it’s become like a monocultural, a monocultural techonomy. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us about the speed with which they're excavating the marble.

 

EROS TETTI: I should say 1960’s for example, 14,000 people were working at the quarries. 14,000. Now they are less than 600 or 700. Nowadays, they extract in one day, the same amount of material before was in the 1960’s took four months. So, in one day, the same amount of four months before. So, the speed has really accelerated in a crazy way. It is more than 5 million tons of marble extracted every year from our mountains. Of this five million tons, eighty percent is a dusted into powder to make carbonate calcium. The other 20 percent is used to sand for art and all the rest for building, for stairs and other things. So we suppose only one percent is going for art. So, in the 1960’s was less than 1 million tons, probably even less, and nowadays is 5 million tons per year. That is absolute craziness. Everybody knows what's going on and everybody knows is it cannot carry on like this. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Was there a moment that - like what convinced you to become an activist? 

EROS TETTI: I started this battle 10 years ago and it came from a big, big moment of meditation about what was happening to my mountains. Actually, many people consider the Apuan Alps the biggest European environmental disaster and probably it's true, because an entire chain of mountains is under attack. And we have to realize that this is a long chain, like 50 kilometers and in 50 kilometers, as we are more than one 800 quarries, some active, some inactive, but all the way across this little chain of mountains that is really under attack. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, when, when you see them, there's a lot of greenery and then suddenly it's just carved. The whole mountain is removed. I mean, in the United States as in West Virginia and Kentucky, it's called mountain top removal. They take the whole top of the mountain off coal. 

 

EROS TETTI: Even the industrialists lost the control because many big, big interests around the world that arrived, like the Bin Laden family that is arrived and takes 50 percent of the Carrara marble. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Okay. Just to be clear, this is the same Bin Laden family as Osama Bin Laden. 

EROS TETTI: Exactly. It's the same family. They own one of the biggest companies, for building company, around the world and they are so interested in the white marble of Carrara, of course for big buildings in Saudi Arabia and around the world. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And have you met with the Bin Laden family? 

EROS TETTI: No, of course not. They just own it and they just buy the marble. I suppose none of them has ever come here, just contract with some local industrialists. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean that you're, you're battling a big Saudi Arabian family, you’re battling the Mafia, you're battling local politicians, it's a tough fight. 

 

EROS TETTI: Yeah. It's a tough fight, but it's even tough what they are doing, and all the world is watching at the moment. The only choice we have is to fight for our place, for our mountains, and keep believing that there will come a better time for this area.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And no one seems to notice they came and bought some of these marble quarries?

 

EROS TETTI: Yes. And we are under a sort of colonialism, an attack to our mountains. They don’t just take away our materials, they exploit, they leave us poor. They destroy our water springs, they pollute the air, and they leave us without nothing. These mountains are places of death. Not places for live. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, tell us a little bit about the pollution of the stream. 

 

EROS TETTI: The powder of marble is not only a pure powder marble that makes a biological pollution, but there is petroleum, they are heavy metals that pollute everything. So, we have to filter our water. When they are excavating the marble, they just chop the streams so the water doesn't go inside the mountains anymore. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So how many people are still employed in the marble quarries?

 

EROS TETTI: Nowadays? Not many people are working on the quarries. We suppose less than 600 people working around the quarries. We know the Apuan Alps, so less than a little factory actually. The marble around in this area is not being worked anymore and is brought to China, to India, to other cheap places and they send the marble and the marble comes back scooped. They don't work here with the marble anymore. The line between corruption, between politics, between mafia, between industrialists. There’s always a big travel in this area and in Italy because all the businesses are connected sometimes with mafia in a certain way or with corrupted politicians or whatsoever. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And have you ever felt in danger? 

 

EROS TETTI: Yeah. And the last years, we felt in danger many times especially in 2015 we started the big battle to make a landscape plan to protect all the areas around Tuscany. And we found some strange people we didn't know, and they just come to me and say, Oh, be careful, they're not playing, they're not messing. They just put a marble cross outside. Like, be careful because otherwise we make you, we make you big problems. They tried before to close our mouth, but we carry on. It's not easy because the mafia is always working in many, many ways, you know, to leave you isolated. We realized that the best way was to carry on and go forward and speak with the press, speak with the people, and even our group on Facebook today is nearly 12,000 people.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Eros, what's your organization’s vision for more sustainable future in the Apuan Alps? 

 

EROS TETTI: We propose a different future for our mountains. We propose a different economy based on tourism, on the agriculture and all the

ancient activities were made on our mountains. The use of marble, marble was only used only for arts and crafts, you know, not used for industrial products. We want development, we want a different development.  Our mountains, they don't grow back. They just, if you cut them, they don't grow back. We lose our landscape. The Apuan Alps is called the place where the memories disappear. This is not only a problem of a beauty, is not only a problem of the managed landscape, but it's a deeper problem of the psychology of our communities that they don't recognize their landscape day by day. We are losing our identity, our cultures, our politicians are leading our landscape, our territory, our people, our towns, our villages, our cities, and we are against this kind of direction. We want another direction for our people. We are exhausting our mountains, all the veins, the marble veins and the industrialists, they are like fighting each other to have the last veins of marbles to sell everywhere. The optimistic forecast, they say they are 50 years left, but there are probably less than that. And when the marble will be finished, our territory will be left in a terrible condition because the mountains will be useless, and we cannot at that point promote any other kind of economy. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So how you're trying to bring about this change? 

 

EROS TETTI: Well, we are asking really loud to all our politicians, even to the industrial people to sit down at the table and to think a different future for this place. To stop to be greedy, stop to be selfish and give back to the community something because it is our right to have a different future on our landscape. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And what can Podship Earth listeners do to help you? 

 

EROS TETTI: The people around the world to be careful what they are buying actually, and what kind of impact they are having on the environment. And another thing I would like to say to the American people is not to buy marble or probably many kinds of stones because we are keeping destructing material that is not renewable and cannot be replaced in the place where it's taken. Especially in the kind of a landscape like the Apuan Alps, we need a different approach to the environmental stuff because environmental stuff is not talked about something far away from us, but it's about the place where we live in. And we are part of it. We cannot divide us from our environment.  Another thing I am asking is to come and visit because it is one of the most wonderful places around Italy on the Mediterranean and it's so romantic, so beautiful, and I would be pleased to introduce you to this area. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Holy Crap. This is turning into a James Bond movie. We now have both the Bin Laden family and the mafia combining the Chinese and Dubai buyers fighting over what may be the last blocks of Carrara marble. And 80 percent of this marble is being turned into dust for toothpaste, 19 percent is getting manufactured into to sinks and jacuzzis, and only one percent is being transformed into beautiful sculptures. Next, I travel 10 miles to the south to go to Pietro Santa where for hundreds of years, artists from Leonardo to Henry Moore to Noguchi to my mom have worked with artisans to bring marble to life. I visited with Valentina Fugher to ask her about what brought Michelangelo to Pietro Santa in the first place. 

 

VALENTINA FUGHER: Michelangelo grew up in the Medici family. One of the Medici family became Pope Leo 10th, and he was a good friend of Michelangelo. In 1513, was given to Florence Pope Leo the 10th wanted to use his own his own quarries, his Florence quarries, and this is why they forced Michelangelo to come and work here. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD:  So, the Pope, the reason they forced Michelangelo to come here is because the pope wanted him to work in the pope's quarries for all the pope’s stone?

 

VALENTINA FUGHER: Yes, so they didn't have to pay much more for Carrara marble. But, in fact Michelangelo came here in 1518, and stayed for three years. He was not able to work as a sculptor, neither as an artist, but he had to become an engineer. Now in 2018, we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Michelangelo in Versilia and we're trying to retrace what Michelangelo. As the city of Pietra Santa for example, we launched a competition for young artists to sculpt a marble. A sculpture in two copies, one with the traditional system and the other one, all the in the technological system software. But now we do have an ethical problem in Pietra Santa because they are very old and traditional artisans that blame technology or computer systems in the use of sculpting with marble. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And what will happen if the traditional way of sculpting marble is lost forever?

 

VALENTINA FUGHER: I don't know. It's going to be lost. We have the tools here, but the tradition is not well preserved.  It is not preserved enough,

because the gold in the hands of the artisan is disappearing. It's terrible. You have different specialties, you know, the artisans that used to make only the dresses, the others other the eyes or the nose or the face or the hair or the wonderful arms. You see the difference between the sculptures that were made at the beginning of the 20th century and the ones that are made now. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I was speaking to a quarry owner yesterday who was saying that even for some of the statues, the Carrera marble shipped to China. The Chinese artisans and machines work and then they sell them as made in Italy. 

 

VALENTINA FUGHER: Yeah, for sure. Like Prosciutto di Parma, you know, is the same. In China, they founded a city called Prosciutto di Parma so they can sell Prosciutto di Parma from China. So, they're going to probably call a city Pietra Santa in China, they're going to do the same. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Within 50 years, there may be no longer statuary quality marble left in Cararra.  What would that mean for a town like Pietra Santa? 

 

VALENTINA FUGHER: Well, it's terrible to say, I don't know. If you don't have the prime material then, I don't know, that would really affect the future. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Next, I traveled to Studio Sam to meet with Leonardo Berotti who is one of the finest marble carvers and artisans in the world. I ask him what it feels like to work with marble every day. 

 

LEONARDO BEROTTI: It's a strange feeling because you see in this area, marble for us is quite a common thing. So, everything here is made in marble. My father was a stone carver, and so for me, coming into marble is something natural, but we don't realize how precious it is, how precious our mountains are, how they are unique. So sometimes we were spoiling our place. Sometimes when you work, you cut away part of stones and you're really, you feel like you're spoiling something precious. So, in one way it's beautiful work, in another way, you feel like there is something wrong in that, it’s a mix of feelings.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Leonardo, are you worried that the marble carving skills that have been passed down from generation to generation are dying out? 

 

LEONARDO BEROTTI: I think that the best period for the stone carving techniques was the end of the 19th century and we already lost a lot of those techniques. So, I think I will never come in my life to that level. Maybe I can reach other levels. I mean, we’ve got new technologies. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: When you're going to look for a big block of marble, is it harder and harder to find good blocks of marble? Have all the good blocks been taken? 

 

LEONARDO BEROTTI: Yes. Okay, that’s another big question. Consider that when we go and buy a block of marble, the quarrymen normally say the stone carvers are coming, because normally we are, in English, you would say are a pain in the ass because we want that kind of block, not only that part of the block and we just want them to turn the entire wall of the mountain and we want just a single part. So, it’s a little bit complicated for them to work with us. The production adds more extra value to the stone, and that should be something to take care of in this area where we sell tons of blocks to everyone for a cheap price, but from us, they want a higher price. So, if they sell 200 to a Chinese that come here and buy 100 blocks, we want just a single part of the block and we paid $1,000 instead of $100. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, who else is competing for the marble? 

 

LEONARDO BEROTTI: There is a big competition between Arabian and Chinese that arrives in and buy everything. Good blocks come and go, but the real trouble is how we use it. What’s the use that we make out of that, but we see every year tons and tons of marble going away from Italy and entire parts of mountains that are disappearing. Mountain tops that are cut down for nothing, almost nothing. We should want to use the marble in a different way, but it's a bigger question of the few families that control the excavation of marble and a lot of politics system that are quite dark.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Thank you so much to Charley Mclaughlin, Luciano, Eros Tetti, Valentina Fugher, and Leonardo Berotti for shedding light on the impacts and intrigue behind the ancient marble business. Advances and extraction technologies have led to a race to the bottom in which nonrenewable resources like marble, titanium, iron, coal, gold and oil are viewed as inexhaustible. Our belief that these materials will never run out masks a much darker truth, one of corruption and significant long-term environmental consequences that you can witness in nearly every mining and drilling operation on the planet. When Charley from Faux Marble said that he thought that the marble in Cararra would never run out, it's because that's what everyone in Italy wants you to think. Selling marble is big business and exposing this like Eros Tetti has done - the links to the Bin Laden family, the Mafia, and the fact that there's not much marble left- is threatening some very powerful interest. It takes a lot of courage to protect the planet and I especially want to thank Eros. Hopefully, architects and designers will think twice before purchasing marble owned by the Bin Laden family. The beautiful marble mountains of the Apuan Alps are being destroyed to make items as trivial as toothpaste and jacuzzis, and that is totally unacceptable, as is the fact that local artists are being driven out of business by forgers in China. The Italian government should establish an export bound on all of the highest quality marble which should be reserved exclusively for artists. This year we're celebrating the 500th anniversary of the unveiling of the David by Michelangelo. We need to make sure that there is marble in place 500 years from now so that a future artist can carve a new figure out of this beautiful white Carrara stone. Next week, we go to London to work out what the hell is going on with Brexit. Is that happening and if it is, how does it impact the environmental laws on the books in Britain? We talk to Stanley Johnson, author, reality TV star and father of the British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, about what is at stake in the current Brexit negotiations. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey from the entire Podship Earth crew - sound engineer Rob spate, producing Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have an absolutely fabulous week and don't lose your marbles.