Unless you live completely off-grid and never venture out of your fortress of solitude, having a go at the mining industry is like chewing on a steak while decrying the beef industry, or eating chocolate while criticising chocolatiers.
Mining may not be perfect, and there may be viable alternatives starting to piece themselves together, but there’s more than one lens through which to view the industry. Rather than holding rigidly to these lenses (which are inescapably coloured by our own isolated experiences) and classifying aspects as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it’s worth simply considering how the industry has shaped our world, and what the future holds.
The conveniences we never would’ve known
Before we delve into the intricacies, let’s start with an easy to digest (but by no means comprehensive) list of the fundamental things we’d have to live without if we didn’t have mining:
- Saws, drills and most (if not all) of the hand tools in your workshop;
- The door handles you turn and the hinges they swing on;
- The electrical conduit that brings power to your house;
- The pipes that bring water to your taps and gas to your stove;
- The stove itself, your refrigerator and other appliances;
- Cutlery, knives and cookware;
- Trains and trams;
- Rails for trains and trams;
- Cars, buses, ships and airplanes;
- Building structures and scaffolding;
- Running shoes;
- The device you’re using to read this right now, the power that gives it charge and the internet it’s connected to.
Food, education, entertainment and communication
While we can certainly grow food without mining, our current practices, which have been adopted in order to make it possible to feed our rapidly growing population, involve fertilizers (like potash) made from mined resources. The metal products you use to chop, cook and eat your food, the gas you use to cook it, and the plastics you store it in: all end products of mining. Glass is made from limestone and silica, materials extracted through mining.
Movies and theatre productions would all be impossible without stages and sets, lighting, sound production, musical instruments and recording devices. Even the makeup worn by the stars contains ingredients derived from mining. The servers, hardware, cabling, microchips and circuitry that make up the internet are all constructed from mined materials. So too are the components of your phone and computer.
Even if you’re kicking it old school and writing your communiqué with with a simple graphite pencil, that graphite came from a mine. And that’s not even taking into account all the mined materials contributing to the factory that produces the pencils, the trucks that distribute them and the shops that sell them.
Then, of course, there’s the electricity that powers everything. According to NSW Mining, 84% of the state’s power is derived from coal fired power stations.
Mining’s less obvious contribution
With the huge range of products and services listed above, we’ve still only scratched the surface of what mining offers. Beyond the tangible and immediately obvious, mining also provides a massive amount of employment and then an equal share of cashed up employees ready to share their income with other sectors in our economy.
“The money spent by our miners—and businesses that supply our mines—flows through the state economy. And the royalties returned to the Government help provide essential services and infrastructure that we all rely on—like trains, bridges, and roads—and help our nurses, teachers and police do their jobs.”NSW Mining
Renewable energy systems
The generally offered alternatives to mining—hydroelectric, solar, nuclear, wind and the like—all rely heavily and ironically on mining. Wind turbines need extractive industries to source the steel, aluminium and fibreglass used to construct them. The sun catching panels of solar arrays are built with silicon and aluminium. And the circuits and microchips that form part of all of these technologies are built with mined metals (like gold and neodymium).
What does this all mean?
Basically, have a look at anything around you and apply the following simple rubric:
“If it wasn’t grown, it was mined.”Daniel M. Franks in ‘Mountain Movers: Mining, Sustainability and the Agents of Change’
And even the grown stuff is treated with fertilisers which are mined from the earth, gets to us through vehicles built and powered by mined resources, and encounters all manner of mined products on its journey to our backs and our bellies.
What it comes down to is this: unless you’ve eschewed all modern conveniences in favour of a cave or tree-house where you make your own clothes and use rudimentary rock and stick tools to survive, you really aren’t in a position to non-hypocritically trash-talk the mining industry.
Of course there are positive changes that can be made. No industry is perfect. And we should absolutely be looking at all possible avenues to create a healthy planet for the toddlers of today who will be the adults of the future. But uninformed criticism isn’t a solid foundation from which to start.
The future of mining
It’s hard to say what will happen with mining. Talk to our Liberal Party MPs and they’ll likely have a lump of coal in their pocket ready to pull out and lecture you on ‘mining as the inescapable future of our nation’. Ask an astrophysicist and they’ll tell you we have endless resources left to mine: they’re just all out in space. Ask a ClimateWorks scientist and they’ll tell you Australia needs to have mostly moved on from mining by 2050.
ClimateWorks is a non-profit organisation which has teamed up with some of Australia’s leading universities to bring data on climate change to the government, the public and the private sector. Their driving argument is that Australia needs to be ‘decarbonised’ by 2050 and mining (or the lack thereof) plays a big part in their proposed plan.
If the astro-mining projects are a success, we could well see all mineral mining operations move off earth. Meanwhile, on the power-front, natural gas would be used as a transitional fuel to help us leapfrog from mining to more sustainable energy sources. ClimateWorks is pushing for NSW Mining’s statistics to be flipped by the year 2050; for 84% of our electricity to be supplied by renewables rather than coal.
There’s more than one path we could tread here, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. With the advent of 3D printing technology, it is becoming possible for us to produce components without the need of mined minerals. And, while a lot of change and innovation would be needed to successfully shift the mining paradigm to whatever is chosen for its future, the array of technologies needed to help us transition to a less mining-dominant economy either exist already or are under development.