Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Earth first - w
e'll mine other planets later

by Ian Thomson
Ian Thomson

Shinglespit Consultants Inc.

This article was originally published online in Resource Global Network (June 2015): 

There is a slogan seen from time to time on T-shirts or the back of pick-up-trucks that reads: 'Earth first – we'll mine the other planets later'.  The words simultaneously reflect the limits of resources here on Earth, expectations that demand will exceed availability, and belief that technology will allow mankind to go into space to source resources in the future. The message can be read as optimistic, realistic or fatalistic, depending on your point of view. For many it remains close to the realm of fantasy, but as the articles in this edition of the magazine show, there are people who believe mining on the moon, planets and asteroids of our Solar System is not only physically possible, but financially feasible and eminently probable in the relatively near future.

For most of us, however, the image of mining on other worlds comes from science fiction, and is strongly influenced by what we have seen on TV and at the movies. At least four great shows come to mind: an episode of Star Trek, and the movies Outland, Moon and Avatar. The Star Trek episode titled 'The Devil in the Dark' is a highlight for any fan of the series. In this, Kirk and the crew face off with a deadly subterranean creature, the Horta, in the Pergium mines on planet Janus VI. As is typical of Star Trek, moral issues, in this case difference and empathy, play out in the encounter. Interestingly, Inco (now Vale), developed an underground survey and positioning system named HORTA for use in the nickel mines of Sudbury, Canada. It is not clear what relationship, if any, there might be between the Horta of Janus VI and the HORTA of Sudbury, Canada, Earth. The movie Outland featuring Sean Connery is essentially a western based in space. The story line concerns events around a titanium mine on Io, a moon of the planet Jupiter, with the same themes of honor, duty, right and revenge that play out in the 1952 classic film, High Noon. More recently, the 2009 movie Moon is a psychological drama telling of the strange events at a Helium 3 mine on our Moon. In it, a series of moral conflicts are introduced around some of the worst things that are perpetrated casually by men on one another. Ultimately, the question is whether or not it is appropriate to sacrifice an individual, a scapegoat, for the sake and comfort of the masses. By far the best known is James Cameron's Avatar, which revolves around the mining of Unobtanium on Pandora, the habitable moon of a giant gas planet in the constellation of Alpha Centuri. In this highly popular film, the indigenous population, a blue skinned people known as the Na'vi, battle with human and humanoids miners for the survival of their world. The film is unabashed in using leitmotifs of race and the environment to advance a powerful critique of militarism, capitalism and imperialism. It is understandable that many mining people remain uncomfortable with the way their industry was portrayed in the film.

If human relationships are necessarily convoluted in science fiction to create drama and tension, they are no less complicated in real life. The mining industry has been grappling with social issues for more than 20 years and continues to look for advice on how to best manage the interaction between its operations and neighboring populations. Over time we have seen the language and practice of the industry change from community relations, to sustainable development and corporate social responsibility. The latest concept to emerge, and be declared the new paradigm, is Shared Value. Shared value first came onto the scene in 2010 with publication in Harvard Business Review of the seminal paper, Creating Shared Value by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer. The writers present Shared Value as an advance on Corporate Social Responsibility by bringing the response to social issues closer to the core of business. To Porter and Kramer, the objective is to find ways to create a pool of resources that will benefit all stakeholders, including business and society. In this way, they seek to establish a closer link with shareholders by demonstrating real value. They suggest that Shared Value can be created in three ways: a) reconceiving products and markets and thus better serving disadvantaged communities and developing countries; b) redefining productivity in the supply chain, and; c) enabling local cluster development.
To date, debate around the concept of Shared Value has largely taken place among academics, and almost entirely within the business school fraternity. A serious critique emerged in a 2014 paper by Canadian Andrew Crane and colleagues, entitled Contesting the Value of the Shared Value Concept. In the paper, Crane and his co-authors challenge Shared Value in several ways including how it privileges the role of business, and the need to have a business case to address social challenges, at the expense of collaborative thinking. The latter being necessary to bring together business, government and civil society to address the real problems encountered on the ground.

Social specialists have not yet fully engaged this conversation, and would most likely side with Crane and his colleagues. They would first note that the present conceptualization of Shared Value has come from people steeped in business thinking. As an inevitable result, the value that is being shared is shaped in terms of economic wealth and developmental growth. Further, it rests on the assumption that the other parties involved, the communities at mine projects, share the same values as the company.
Whilst there are communities that share the same vision and values as business, many do not, particularly indigenous communities. It is worth looking at history for clarification. In examining the proposal for a pipeline through the Mackenzie Valley in Canada's far north, the Berger Commission revealed a classic collision of cultures with different visions and values. For the oil and gas companies the focus was on promoting development and material well-being measured by income and employment. For the First Nation native communities it was social well-being, self-determination and the centrality of traditional cultural values and social institutions. Clearly, the reality on the ground is often going to be more complicated than that portrayed in the model presented by Porter and Kramer.

Given the complexity of dealing with social issues here on Earth, it is easy to see why the idea of mining asteroids and planets is so enticing. Not only are these heavenly bodies often enriched in materials we want; there are no people there!  Proponents may be a little optimistic. There may be no people out there, but there will be plenty near the launch and landing sites here on Earth and these neighbors may well start complaining about increased noise and traffic once mining gets underway. 

Other articles published in the IAPG Blog:

IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics