The Politics of Production: Mining in the Crosshairs

LaRae Long Global Citizen, Sustainability News, Articles by Hazel Henderson, Latest Headlines

4 OCTOBER 2020,
Mining the Earth

We humans, having populated every part of Earth’s surface and visited the Moon, now are perched atop the planet’s food chain. We are learning from this perilous position but hastening the extinction of all other species in our shared, life-supporting biosphere. The planet is now teaching us directly how our lifestyles are causing climate disasters: fires, floods, droughts, super-storms, rising seas and pandemics.

Finally, these warnings, along with the protests of our children, are driving needed changes worldwide. From the United Nations climate debates and global financial jitters to trade, technology, health, food, education and consumerism, humans are paying attention. Cultures, social norms, value-systems, habitual patterns, traditional institutions, academic frameworks, economic models and ethical standards are all re-examined for their survivability in our unknowable future in this Anthropocene Age.

Closer examination shows that most of our current economic models, based on money-denominated indicators, including GDP and all our macroeconomic levers guided by statistics on inflation, unemployment, deficits and debt are steering us over a precipice and must be replaced with broader, system measures based on the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). All our current forms of production still require digging in the Earth’s crust for oil, coal, metals, minerals and rare earth elements for our growing Information Age smartphones, digital devices, solar panels and internet-based lifestyles and entertainment. Surveys show that people are ahead of economists and politicians in our Beyond GDP global survey series with GlobeScan since 2007. In our 2020 poll, we still find an average 73% favor expanding GDP beyond money-based indicators to include scientific data on health, education and environment.

Few human activities are more destructive than mining the Earth for all these materials, yielding massive piles of rock tailings for the small percentage of these ores. A new politics of production concerns how our appetites for these materials can be re-shaped, reduced and reformed: re-using, re-manufacturing, recycling, upcycling into the new circular economies based on Nature’s principles.

From looking downward, as we humans have from our earliest history, mining tin and iron, we are at last, looking up and seeing our planet is powered by free photons from our mother star: the Sun. Most indigenous people knew this, and many worshipped the sun. They understood the planet’s first technological achievement: photosynthesis, pioneered by plants and plankton, which create and sustain our food supplies, sustenance and shelter.

This new questioning of how and why we still mine the Earth for our raw materials has led to new metrics, such as developed by efficiency economist John “Skip” Laitner measuring “exergy”: the overall performance of industrial societies (still only about 18% in the USA) while the rest of the energy input is wasted as heat and pollution as he documents in A Bridge to the Future: Rethinking Energy, the Economy and Governance, (forthcoming). Life-cycle analyses (LCAs) allow similar calculations to compare industrial processes and products. Global mining activities are compared anew against other methods, such as those which retrieve multi-metal nodules from areas on the ocean’s seabed, as planned by Vancouver based company, DeepGreen. These nodules composed of the ores manganese, copper, cobalt and molybdenum have been aggregated naturally from the seawater over millions of years. LCAs comparing retrieving these nodules from seabeds versus blasting ores out of rocks in mining operations, show an over 90% efficiency improvement. Environmentalists rightly question whether these methods disturb deep-sea life and ecosystems. Yet humans are entropy-creating creatures, with our enormous population and the CO2 emissions we all exhale.

All such global mining activities are re-evaluated by the criteria: necessity, or whether they are unnecessary, obsolete or simply frivolous. The LCA metrics indicate harsh judgment on much of today’s consumerism. Fashion, conspicuous consumption, planned obsolescence and vanity are no longer acceptable trends, whether in throwaway clothing or ostentatious jewelry. Why should we still allow any gem mining for any jewelry gems, whether for diamonds, rubies, sapphires or emeralds? Today, all these gems can be produced in labs, depending for their colors and properties on how long they are “cooked” and at what temperature. Mining for gold, silver and platinum for jewelry also seems unjustified, except that silver and platinum are also for industrial uses. Movies, including Blood Diamonds showed the horrors of diamond mining: their use in fueling conflicts; the deaths and injuries to miners paid lowest wages; the pollution of air, land, water in huge areas — all controlled by cartels maintaining exorbitant prices!

Today, these gem mines are obsolete and unnecessary — now that identical gems are created by human science. These can be indistinguishable from diamonds mined from the Earth and avoid polluting the planet and exploiting miners. The growing science created, diamond culturing sector is the biggest challenge yet to the mystique of mined diamonds and other gemstones. Remember when women proudly wore fur coats, some from endangered species? Or “trophy wives” of corporate executive, sporting trophy furs and diamonds? Today’s women are more environmentally conscious and likely to fear public scorn. Furry fabrics and tattered grungy jeans are now a form of anti- fashion. Today’s Millennials share deep concerns for the environment and human rights. They often avoid consumerism, old customs, as well as flashy weddings and costly engagement rings. Many are burdened with student debt and facing shrinking job opportunities and automation’s displacement by machines.

Disruptive technologies upending old markets are nothing new, as we see with Airbnb’s challenge to hotels and Uber’s to taxis. This creative destruction was described by Joseph Schumpeter as the core process of innovation in market economies. Ever-cheaper renewable energy and efficiency technologies are challenging fossil fuels and nuclear power. Massive over-investments in such “proven reserves” on oil and coal company balance sheets are becoming “stranded assets” or new liabilities. Mining industries are similarly shunned by many ethical investors and portfolio managers, including mining of diamonds and other gemstones from the Earth. This is why Ethical Markets in 2015 launched the first and still only global standard: the EthicMarkGems® certifying only gems NOT mined from Mother Earth. These are produced in hundreds of small artisan laboratories worldwide and today adding the new segment of the jewelry market. Please see our certification and global standards and sign our Pledge to never buy another mined gem at EthicMarkGems®. We showcase the creativity of today’s proliferation of necklaces, hairbands and earrings made from shells, seeds, feathers, colored stones picked up from beaches, as well as the new gemstones, such as helenite, made from the ashes of the eruption on Mount St. Helens in the USA.

Global activists’ concern over “conflict diamonds” dates back to the 1970s. The civil war in Angola was fought by rebel groups with diamonds valued at US $372 billion to finance war with the government. By 1998, the United Nations passed UN Security Council Resolutions 1173 and 1176 banning the purchase of blood diamonds from Angola. By 1999, the illegal diamond trade was estimated by the World Diamond Council to have been reduced to 3.6% of the world’s diamond production and the Council reported in 2004 trade fell to only 1%.

As we report on our website, despite these UN sanctions, illicit diamonds are still available from Ivory Coast, Liberia, the Congo, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. Global Witness first exposed these issues in A Rough Trade in 1998. The UN’s Fowler Report in 2000 led to another UN Security Council Resolution 1295. In response, the diamond-producing countries of southern Africa met in Kimberley, SA, to devise a plan to halt trade in blood diamonds and assure buyers of “conflict-free” gems. They later launched the Kimberley Certification with support from Canada, also a diamond producer.

By 2000, the World Diamond Congress adopted a resolution to block sales of conflict diamonds with a ban on trading on any of the World Federation of Diamond Bourses. In 2002, after years of negotiating with NGOs and governments, the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) was created. This resulted in large volumes of diamonds flowing into legal markets, for example some $125 million of diamonds were legally exported from Sierra Leone in 2006. Yet, non-compliance is still rampant, leading to systems for tracing diamonds’ origins such as by Materialytics. The USA is the largest consumer of diamonds and enacted the Clean Diamond Trade Act (CDTA) in 2003. Corporate responsibility analyst Frank Dixon, author of Global System Change (2016) assesses the EthicMarkGems® certification, Beyond Blood Stained Gems. Today, we activists are winning, since both Tiffany and DeBeers now also sell cultured gems, even though over-priced!

So the new question is: why mine diamonds or any gemstones at all? Mining firms defend their mines as “economic development”, yet there are far more, better development paths, real jobs and livelihoods in SDG-related, less-polluting market activities. Now these identical gemstones are available in many countries created by dozens of small producers as well as companies in North America and Europe, often for a fraction of the cost. Today’s Millennials’ deep concerns for the environment and human rights lead them to prefer and buy cultured gems for their loved ones. They shun consumerism, like the children’s global protest movement, the ethical investors joined students in divesting from fossilized assets and thousands of NGOs who campaign with us in the global Green Economy Coalition. We march for the various Green Deal plans in Europe and the USA, along with 146 other countries able to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030-2050. Time for all the members of the human family to grow up! It’s graduation time on planet Earth!

Hazel Henderson
Hazel Henderson, Author of “Mapping the Global Transition to the Solar Age” and other books in 800 libraries worldwide in over 20 languages, is CEO of Ethical Markets Media Certified B. Corporation, producer of “Transforming Finance” TV series and publishers of the Green Transition Scoreboard (www.ethicalmarkets.com).