KathyHare.com 

A Journalist's Archive

Grow it or mine it
By Kathy Hare

Bumper sticker truth: “If you can’t grow it, then you have to mine it.”

We flip a switch, turn on a faucet, fill up the gas tank and go about our business, giving little thought to how these modern conveniences were created. Still, the bumper sticker message appears almost too simplistic to state. It should evoke a “Duh!” from all who read it. Indeed, whether its food, wood, pottery, glass, metal, or plastic derived from petroleum, everything starts out in the earth. Unfortunately, many of us are so far removed from the actual production of goods we’ve forgotten that reality.

But glance around for just a second and you’ll realize it’s true. In fact, human advancements are directly linked to mining. For a few million years mankind’s tool box contained objects formed from sticks, stones, and bone. We call the time period before people knew how to forge metals the “Stone Age.” Yes, these people crafted nice arrowheads, knives, grinders and scrapers. They even left behind some marvelous stone monuments, but overall life in the Stone Age was downright pitiful! Caves were impossible to heat, you had to walk everywhere, and no one knew why the moon changed shapes.

Then a mere 5500 years ago someone discovered how to shape metal into tools. For the next 2000 years “Bronze Age” people formed tin and copper into weapons, shields, and works of art. Finally around 1200 B.C. their knowledge of metallurgy allowed them to work iron. And “Iron Age” people benefited from metal hoes, plows, and numerous other new luxuries. Slowly but surely, scientific advances in mining and refining techniques improved, ushering in the “Industrial Age. Now, the “Information Technology Age” provides 24 hour access to data and friends, and earth’s products can be launched into space. But first you must mine the ingredients here.

However, as oil coats Gulf Coast beaches, as it kills wildlife and endangers a way of life for thousands of people, it’s clear our needs have inflicted a heavy toll on the environment. Spots in West Virginia, stripped of coal with no hope of reclamation, reveal the damage our insatiable appetite for electricity causes too. And residents in Fort Lupton had flames shooting out of their faucets after natural gas drilling caused contamination to their wells. Even watching a small mountain being devoured by the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mining Company is disheartening.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that people across the country are calling for bans on drilling and mining. Because of the inherent dangers of uranium, neither the Navajo nor residents around South Park want such a mine on their land. In February, the governor of Montana and the Canadian Prime Minister signed an agreement that “will halt ongoing exploration and prohibit future development of coal, oil and gas in the Flathead River Basin.” The area covers 9000 square miles straddling the border between Montana and British Columbia. And the on-again, off-again, posturing by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar concerning deep-sea oil drilling and other mining permits has caused both pro and anti-mining advocates to call for his resignation.

But we are still driving our cars and anxiously awaiting the next electronic toy. And who doesn’t like the glint and conductivity of gold?

With a world population of 6.8 billion, getting the resources we desire without destroying the planet is a problem that won’t go away. Yet, some Americans believe we would be better off letting other countries do the dirty work of oil and ore extraction for us. At first glance that sounds appealing, but such an action would have economic, political, and environmental consequences few of us would welcome.

The Colorado Mining Association reports “nearly 270,000 people work directly in mining in the U.S.” They extract 78 major commodities, thus creating millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs. So unless we want to become a nation of hamburger flippers, using wooden spatulas and cooking over a campfire, we need mining. And should you be concerned about the exploitation of miners, the average Colorado miner earned $98, 252 in pay and benefits last year.

A quick look at history reveals the consequences for countries who don’t mine their own resources. If you can remember President Carter’s political fiasco in Iran, you will also recall the long gas lines resulting from it. But Japan’s role in World War II is even more telling. Japan’s expansionist ideas were fueled by a lack of natural resources. They needed oil, coal and steel; they had a powerful military. China had the resources but a non-industrialized military. So Japan used a form of “Asian Manifest Destiny” to acquire the raw materials. But gathering resources in an occupied country is problematic, and Japan’s military might became limited by the number of barrels of oil on hand. Towards the end of the war, the military resorted to sending Kamikaze pilots on one-way missions to bomb U.S. ships, because Japan didn’t have enough aviation fuel for the return trips.

Today, China loves to produce inexpensive steel for us; tomorrow it could economically clobber us, should we make the wrong political move. Plus, the low cost of mining in China, India, and third-world nations is directly related to their lack of environmental laws. Step off the plane in Shanghai and you’ll notice it immediately. That burning sensation in the nose, that horrible taste in the mouth, is sulfur. It comes straight out of the most polluted coal burning facilities in the world. Therefore, more mining abroad can only result in a more polluted planet.

Truthfully, it’s almost impossible to mine a product and return the earth to pre-mining conditions. But having an educated workforce can help limit that environmental damage. In May, the Colorado School of Mines, the most respected mining university in the country, had 550 graduates. Too bad only 18 of those were Mining Engineering majors. We need more people who know how to design tunnels, shafts, declines and water diversions. Geology majors numbered 22. That number seems dismally low to me. Maybe that’s why developers continue to build homes over old mine shafts and on soils not suitable for homes – there’s just not enough geologists to scream “Stop!”

Eighty-eight students received Petroleum Engineering degrees. That sounds encouraging, but historically many of those graduates return home to Middle East countries where they will apply their “Mines” education. CSM also graduated lots of environmental scientists, along with civil, mechanical, and computer engineers. Their skills will be appreciated in the marketplace and well rewarded.

But perhaps no other university understands better than CSM that each and every job is made possible through mining. So I suspect the bumper sticker was purchased in CSM’s bookstore. It’s a basic truth we all must understand. “If you can’t grow it, you have to mine it.”That is unless you’d rather return to the Stone Age.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2010 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
All Rights Reserved