When in hole keep digging?
To mark the occasion of our World leaders converging on Rio de Janeiro this week, the BBC’s Science Editor, David Shukman, has visited the World’s largest iron ore mine, Carajas, in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil.
See: Forests and caves of iron: An Amazon dilemma (includes an iPlayer video of the yesterday’s news item).
I was very interested to see this for at least two reasons: (1) I first heard about Carajas while doing ‘A’ Level Geography at school in 1981-82; and (2) I spent over 2 years working at the Mt Whaleback iron ore mine in Western Australia in 1987-89 (the biggest in the World at the time).
I must say that the Vale (pronounced “Var-lay”) mine at Carajas does look incredibly impressive now and, whilst I do not doubt the mining company’s sincerity in wishing to be as green as possible, there is a much bigger issue at stake than site restoration. As Shukman discovered, Vale are working with local ecologists to survey the caves to determine what lives in them; and ensure that populations of species (including bats) can be moved prior to the destruction of their homes, but this too ignores a much bigger issue than enforced migration. The questions not addressed in Shukman’s piece are these: Would we cut down the entire rainforest if it was all underlain by iron ore; and what will we do when can find no more to dig up? The questions are partly rhetorical; but I believe they raise important issues…
Although the lifetime of the mine will be several decades, the fact that Vale have promised(!) to backfill the hole (with all the overburden taken out) and re-plant native trees (already being grown from seedlings) removes the first problem of long-term habitat destruction. But, how do we put a value on the Amazon rainforest; and will the ecosystem services it provides (sustaining a habitable planet) ever be recognised as being greater than the instrumental value of either its trees or what may lie beneath them (Brazil is rich in mineral resources)?
We will have to recycle metals when there are no more left in the Earth to dig up; so why not get used to the idea now – maximise recycling and minimise mining? The answer is of course twofold: People need gainful employment and our Politicians need economic growth. It is no wonder, then, that some environmentalists describe what humanity is doing as “raping and pillaging” the Earth; literally slashing and burning it in some cases… But, if everyone is going to be allowed to aspire to and attain the comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by inhabitants of the developed world then, I guess, we may have to accept that the exploitation of the Earth’s resources will only ever accelerate (until they run out at least). And by the time they run out, we must just hope that technology will have come to our rescue; that human ingenuity will have come up with alternatives for all those rare metals in our smartphone circuit boards (etc).
However, let’s get back to the here and now; and to a real problem we need to face: If iron ore mining is going to continue because of an insatiable demand for steel… and if coal must be used to manufacture that steel (must it?)… Is this not just yet another very good reason why coal should not be used in other processes where there are ready-made alternatives? On the subject of sustainable development (you may not have realised it but I am), when will we have enough cars, televisions, or supermarkets? To what should people in poor countries aspire – 2, 3, or 4 cars per household? How about televisions? How many supermarkets does a town of 100,000 people need? (Especially if the shops and their car parks just get bigger and bigger?) Will we ever have enough economic growth; how much would be too much? To many economists today the answer seems to be ‘No’. However, despite the fact that the 1987 Brundtland Report tried to deny it (as in “Growth has no set limits in terms of population or resource use beyond which lies ecological disaster” on page 45), you cannot argue with things like The Law of Conservation of Energy and The Second Law of Thermodynamics. Therefore, perpetual growth (of energy consumption) within a closed system (a finite planet with finite resources) is not sustainable indefinitely. Similarly, the quantitative growth in consumption of economic resources or food production is not sustainable indefinitely either.
Given all of the above, we need to face the harsh reality that sooner or later we must achieve qualitative development without quantitative growth. However, even then we will have a problem: Jeremy Bentham‘s hedonistic goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number” is unachievable because, unless we acknowledge that there must be limits to desirable growth, one person having more than they need will mean that someone else does not have enough… Must we allow growth to continue until we are all living like subsistence farmers? That will be no less than the ultimate Tragedy of the Commons outcome that Garrett Hardin warned about in 1968.
So then, what can be done to avoid this doomsday scenario? To be honest, I am not sure. Everyone aspires to better themselves; but this just ensures that resource depletion accelerates. If you have some clever answers, I would like to hear them.
However, in the interim, I will return to the specific problem posed earlier (regarding mining of coal and iron to produce steel)… Assuming that the link between burning fossil fuels and climate disruption is not in doubt (mainly because it isn’t), coal mining and/or turning it into steel is not a problem (not yet anyway); but using coal to generate electricity when we do not have to is simply insane. However, this is the real world, remember, not an ideal one. Therefore, coal-fired power stations are going to continue to operate in certain countries for decades to come. However, as I think I have said before, this is yet another reason why the rest of us should close them down as soon as possible.
We should stop talking about substitution; and start putting it into practice.