Pursuing a Silver Standard for Sustainability (2017-5)

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Jul 31, 2018
Meghan Wagner

Silver is an extracted natural resource and one of a handful of elements known since antiquity. Since approximately 3000 BC, silver has been mined, refined, and crafted into a variety of products spanning jewelry to lead-free solder. This history provides a wealth of information about the socio-environmental drivers surrounding silver extraction, as well as the costs of extraction, that provide a jumping-off point for explicitly considering biogeochemical cycles and anthropic perturbations to them. Implicitly, understanding elemental biogeochemical cycling is suggested to point the way toward more sustainable use of natural resources.

This case study offers a brief overview of silver from ancient times to the present, through the lens of silver products. Students will explore silver biogeochemical cycling using an Insight Maker model, and then reach beyond the provided model to evaluate socio-environmental perturbations to the natural cycle. The exercise concludes by challenging students to propose their own solutions for making silver consumption and use more sustainable.

This case study may be appropriate for courses involving the geosciences, especially economic geology; life cycle analysis; environmental history; waste management; and systems thinking and systems modelling. It is intended for an advanced undergraduate or graduate level course, but could potentially be used in a lower-level undergraduate course with appropriate modification of the learning activity.

Estimated time frame: 
A few class periods (i.e., less than 3 hours)
SES learning goals: 

1. Describe systems: components, flows, and feedbacks
2. Recognize role of scale across space and time
3. Develop data analysis and synthesis skills

Has this been tested in the class room: 
Does this case have an answer key: 
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