Mining is one of those topics that heightens emotions on all sides. When it appears in a conversation people either flee by segue or physical exit, or they launch in, guns blazing. You’re either for or against – there is no tolerance for a middle ground. Yet, when it’s not being talked about, most people tend to forget it’s even happening.
Recent events have moved mining a little bit closer to the forefront of people’s consciousness, especially anything associated with coal. In many environmental arenas, there’s a general notion that mining is bad; it can only wreck, contaminate, destroy and displace. But without it, we would not have the civilisation and lifestyles that we do today.
Can mining actually be conducted with environmental respect, or is all that mining company publicity about environmental responsibility just a waste of greenwashing?
I won’t answer that, but I do believe that, which a change of attitude, the intensity and ubiquity with which mining is undertaken across the globe can be scaled back dramatically…while still maintaining productivity. The mining industry has an unhealthy monopoly over human society (especially governments) and that will not change as long as we place such a high value on the products we mine.
I’m not just talking about gold, which we have extracted and valued for centuries, or coal and oil, which we have become addicted to over the last couple of hundred years. There are plenty of other minerals we drag from the Earth’s crust, not out of real necessity, but to make our lives more pleasant or convenient.
In doing so, we are causing death and enslavement to indigenous people in conflict-torn countries; toxic contamination of waterways, soil and air around mine sites; economic hardship; and the destruction of natural ecosystems, many of them previously undisturbed by human development.
That is not a Gratuitous Dramatic Statement.
Our need for oil, coal, copper, diamonds, tantalum, tungsten, cassiterite, coltan, bauxite and many other earth resources has caused the destruction of vast tracts of virgin boreal forest in northern Canada; the deaths of many miners and the psychological distortion of others; toxic contamination of local watersheds and entire ecosystems; serious health and disease problems in the local human communities; caused economic breakdown in towns, regions or entire states; and directly funded human rights atrocities and environmental devastation in many countries.
Is this necessary? Well, obviously, we think it is. We keep driving our cars, wanting extraneous technology, using excess electricity and demanding more convenience, more luxury and more THINGS.
Mining itself is not the problem – humans have ‘mined’, mostly with low-impact, since we started making stone tools. The problem, as usual, is the fact that we are now much more numerous across Earth, and we think we need many more things to survive. Hence, mines must get bigger and bigger so that supply meets demand.
So, as long as we maintain our ‘civilised’ lifestyle, mining will have to happen. And as long as our reliance on mined products intensifies (through government policies, population increases and successful marketing campaigns), mines will have to grow bigger and bigger, take over more land, cut down more trees and contaminate more environments. Much of this damage is irreversible, and there are places on Earth that will never return to their pre-mining state. But to truly reduce the extraction and supply of minerals, we can only reduce Demand.
© Manu Saunders 2012