Firstly, this is a subject that I’m far from being an expert on. The closest I have come to mining is once looking into jobs involved in land restoration following a dig. Friends that were somewhat closer to the industry than myself slapped some sense into me – for restoration is often far from adequate, being little more than greenwashing of a destructive habit. That said, I offer my views as an average Joe who is subject to the near endless political hype on either side and am more than willing to debate over the finer details.
I must say, I think that the typical line of opposition that, “this will kill economy and crush our growth,” is beyond saturation so much that it is nothing more than cliché. Whenever any political point is made, the opposition always uses this as a default argument that never seems to amount to more than a “the sky is falling!” scare in retrospect.
That aside, from my understanding, this is aimed at an industry that has quite good profit margins. That is to say, some company is given the rights to dig up a part of the country, pull useful stuff out and then sell it back to us and to interested groups abroad and make a killing on the rates that they sell it for. It’s as though you had a bunch of alpacas and your neighbour says that he has the equipment to shave the animals for you, but not only chops up your field running over it in his tractor, but then sells some of the wool back to you at high rates and the rest for even higher rates to the wool products company on the road to town. He and his advocates tell you that the profits merit the risk he takes on, but still he is making a packet on the wool your animals are growing.
In the case of the mining companies, they do take on risk, but that would be part-and-parcel of their risk management (and insurance) planning, not their profits. They decide the price they sell the material for and manage high profit returns – seeing as they are one of few providing the raw material, it sounds a bit like a monopoly to me. If I found out that the bloke next door was making a killing on my wool, I’d either ask for a bigger cut of the sales to the company down the road or demand more wool at much lower prices per weight which I would then sell off myself. I wouldn’t deny him a profit for his work, but I would expect some returns for my stock. Excuse me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this a simplified version of Rudd’s argument?
The argument that these companies would move off if we asked for a fairer cut for the minerals that they extract from our soils is one I shrug off for obvious reasons; if they can continue to make a profit, they’ll continue to mine, if not, there are still a number of benefits to be made.
If mining lost its steam in Australia, it would lead us to shift back to a farming country rather than the pothole country that we’re becoming. Unlike mining, farming at least has the option of remaining viable and sustainable (pending more work and a shift away from European methods employed), where mineral extraction is limited and finite. We, as a world community, would also be forced to look seriously at our habits as well, where mining wasn’t so prolific.
We’ve lived near a century and a half of excess; cheap and easy energy sources and ample mineral sources and increasingly efficient means to collect and convert it. This has led to an economic model where we use it up hard and fast. The amount of energy used to create what we tear open and throw out is nothing short of madness. The amount of useful material that makes its way to the tip is ridiculous. As supply of the raw materials shrinks, we would be forced to adopt much more reuse and would recycle as much as possible. I’d argue that this is our inevitable future regardless. One day a company cannot laugh that making a products that lasts is bad for business.
It would force economic models to give ever more appropriate value to material rather than whatever price an extraction company wishes to charge for it. If we continued to upgrade our technology every few years, it would force industry to produce material that can be recaptured and reused easily.
Unlike my alpaca metaphor above, what materials take from the soil can only happen once and is limited in supply. The fossil fuel stuff we extract is eventually burned or converted into fertilizers, plastics and other materials. The minerals we collect from the earth are generally converted into other substances and become the bulk of the constructed environments in which we live. Too often this process is a one way road back to a dump somewhere.
It’s not that I’m green in my thinking; it just seems that we’ve become too far unattached from the life of struggle that our ancestors endured as part of day-to-day life that any form of humility is stripped from our psyche, leaving us like Pac-man on speed without a next level once we’ve consumed all in our current maze. There is no long term planning, just a lot political hot air about a fragile, insatiably hungry economy ever waiting to die if we even hint of improving our practices.