October 22, 2018

CONTACT: Anthony Roeber


With Otto Schumacher’s passing, we find his words below still ring true.

Do We Understand Our Role?

Otto Schumacher, Northwest Mining Association President 1997

As I watch our member companies trying to convince the public of the benefits of their particular mine developments, I have noticed that the opposing argument always seems to come down to the possibility of environmental damage and that corporate greed drives it all. We tend to counter with statistics about the number of jobs that will be created, taxes paid, and overall economic benefits to the local economy. Listening to these arguments, it occurs to me that even we don’t fully grasp our true raison d’etre, so how can we expect the public to understand?

To a large segment of the involved public, the lost production, sacrifice of a few hundred jobs, and loss of a few million tax dollars, is a very reasonable trade-off to prevent the dire consequences they believe will result. Of course, it is not that simple and, ironically, it is the complexity of our civilization that allows our opponents to cling to the somewhat naïve notion that mining is not necessary. Unfortunately, the economic statistics we contribute to the equation fail to convey why our society must encourage mining if it is to succeed, just as all past successful societies have done, and all future successful societies will do as well. Let’s broaden our thinking a bit as we explore the depths of this rationale. There are two levels to examine. One is a broad economic analysis and the other is a deeper, more philosophical angle. A future column will emphasize the economic issues.

To fully understand a civilization, we must look beyond its economic trappings. In the greater scheme of things modem economics is nothing more than an extremely complex form of barter. Its purpose is exactly the same now as it was at the dawn of recorded history, to facilitate the distribution of goods, materials and services needed by people. Of course, as civilization developed, mechanisms arose to allow certain benefits to be shared by everyone in a, society and provide incentive beyond;    those of the marketplace alone. Western civilization has grown so complex over the past 6,000 years that it has become virtually impossible for any individual to completely comprehend. However, it is very possible for a group of individuals to take a subset of our civilization and make themselves believe it could somehow stand alone. To avoid this trap (and it is one many of our opponents have fallen into) we need to grasp the essence of what civilization is.  We can do that by examining what we know about its earliest beginnings.

Archaeologists tell us that the seeds of modern civilization sprouted over a span of a millennium or two in several parts of the world. The most notable are in four widely separated locales, along the banks of the Nile River in Egypt, the Tigers and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, the Indus River valley of India, and the Yellow River in China. The importance of this is not where they sprouted, but why. The most widely accepted explanation is the fortuitous combination of fertile soils and valley settings conducive to efficient irrigation. This allowed some people to raise more crops than they needed for the survival of their own family and clan. These farmers were thus able to provide food to other individuals, who in turn were freed from the daily drudgery of simply trying to feed themselves. The people who were no longer tied to the land were therefore able to spend their time in other endeavors, such as development of the arts, sciences, medicine, government, education and commerce. Taken together, this became what we now call civilization.

So, clever people with a bit of time on their hands were soon able to discover the basic principles of first copper, then bronze metallurgy. It was not long before ‘high tech’ metal tools began transforming these societies, allowing them to grow beyond their humble agrarian origins·. But unlike today, the people of these cultures never lost sight of the fact that they were all dependent on what came from the earth for their continued survival, as well as their newly found wealth.

These fundamental concepts are as valid today as they were in ancient times, even though civilization has grown so complex that it is easy to lose sight of them. Let’s take the example of an individual working at one of the pinnacles of our civilization, a surgeon in a modem operating room.  There are some obvious connections to natural resource production in this scene. The latex gloves, the scalpel and other finely crafted instruments, the bright lights, and sophisticated electronic devices. But to stop here misses the point entirely.

The most significant connection in this scene is not the material objects, but the surgeon. This surgeon could not exist as a professional entity without the benefit of the materials and the wealth that civilization provides. Our surgeon could not have been sustained through the many years of medical school, nor would there have been instructors available to teach, nor would the medical researchers have had the opportunity to develop advanced surgical techniques. Again, reduced to the basics, society has a contract with this surgeon that says, ‘we will provide you with all your material needs; food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and the tools of your craft, so long as you serve society by using your unique skills.’  As a practical matter, it means that there is no need for our surgeon to stop in the middle of an operation and say, “Excuse me, but I have to go trap a rabbit for supper.”

Much the same can be said for most of the rest of us who don’t spend our days growing food, catching fish, digging for minerals, herding livestock, or felling trees. Without miners, ranchers, farmers and loggers, civilization as we know it would cease to be. We mine minerals because our society demands that we do so; that is why a profit can be made from time to time. Without mining there is no civilization, pure and simple – no art, no science, no temples. Our society is filled with people who do not understand these fundamentals. If we forget such things, how can we expect others to understand?


NWMA March/April Bulletin ’97 2