A world without mining

Coal mine, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. Photo: Stephen Codrington via Wikimedia Commons.
Coal mine, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. Photo: Stephen Codrington via Wikimedia Commons.
We must be able to imagine a world see from mining destruction before we can make this a reality.

Positive images of a future with no - or at least much less - mining can help citizens, movements and policy-makers to guide their actions in the present.

Can you imagine a world without mining? The US Geological Survey Bulletin bluntly claimed in a 1983 issue that “without mining, there is nothing”.

Even those who are now striving to get us out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into by burning massive amounts of fossil fuels and destroying whole ecosystems in the past century, often find it hard to break out from 'solutions' based on more and more extraction.

It is now argued that we need to mine far more metals for the energy transition and digitalisation.

Transformation

‘Breaking Free From Mining - A 2050 blueprint for a world without mining on land and in the deep-sea’ presents concrete alternatives for a different future in which primary metal extraction has become a thing of the past.

Using an evidence-based future narrative, the paper discusses existing and emerging alternatives.

These include an end of planned obsolescence and the rise of repair, reuse and remanufacture of goods.

It suggests a shift to distributed energy generation and mobility systems less reliant on private cars, amongst others.

Such solutions can become instrumental in a fundamental transformation towards societies based on wellbeing and needs, rather than growth.

Circularity

The paper also explains that phytomining – the extraction of metals in polluted soils through hyperaccumulator plants and fungi – trials with Pycnandra acuminate trees showed they could produce 200kg of nickel per hectare every year for centuries.

It also suggests that metal-free protein batteries could potentially make mining for batteries increasingly redundant.

Positive images of a future with no - or at least much less - mining can help citizens, movements and policy-makers to guide their actions in the present.

The absurdity of our colossal failure becomes evident from the many statistics presented in the paper.

The paper shows how, as a society, we’re mining in all the wrong places. In the EU alone, there are more than 500 million shelved phones, worth 1.3 billion euros of recoverable gold, silver, platinum, palladium and copper.

The paper suggests that one of the reasons for the failure of circularity policies is that none has seriously considered the need to leave minerals in the ground and in the seabed. 

This is despite the fact that extracting metals such as copper or gold from e-waste can actually be 13 times cheaper than extracting them from conventional mines.

Extracting

A mobile phone has 100 times more gold and 10 times more tungsten than a high-grade mineral deposit, in terms of concentration.

And yet, nine out of ten discarded phones – with an average lifespan of little more than two years – are being incinerated or buried in landfills when over 80 percent of their total metal value could be recycled with existing technologies.

The current market feeds relatively cheap metals into production at huge environmental and social cost. Is evidently not serving as an incentive to stop or reverse the colossal waste of metals in the Global North.  

Therefore, only decisive political will can curb extraction will force real progress towards circularity.

There’s currently enough gold in vaults and national reserves to meet global demand in perpetuity without extracting another ounce from the ground, according to International Resource Panel experts.

Polluting

More than 90 percent of gold is mined exclusively for luxury and financial markets, the continuing and unnecessary mining of gold is generating 20 percent of hazardous mine waste tailings in the world.

A number of countries and territories have had enough of this and are already moving away from mining.

The 1998 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty strictly prohibited “any activity relating to mineral resources”, showcasing how countries can agree to put an end to the environmental damage caused by mining.

Costa Rica banned open-cast mining in 2010 while El Salvador banned all metal mining in 2017. This year, Australia’s Northern Territory issued a permanent ban on deep-sea mining.

Mining is one of the world’s most polluting industries and a main contributor to climate breakdown.

Policymakers

The production of seven metals - iron, aluminium, copper, zinc, lead, nickel and manganese - is responsible for seven percent of total greenhouse gas emissions and a major cause of human rights violations, political instability and forced displacements in the Global South.

The good news is that we can move away from our current linear, throw-away economy focussed on overconsumption and GDP growth - toward a circular economy focussed on sufficiency, wellbeing and fair and equitable distribution.

As sociologist Elise Boulding showed in the 1980s, we cannot work to bring about something we can’t even see in our imaginations.

That’s why the paper’s invitation to imagine a world without mining is critical, so that positive images of a future with no - or at least much less - mining can help citizens, movements and policymakers to guide their actions in the present.

This Author

Joám Evans Pim is a farmer from Frojám, Galiza. He is also an activist in political, environmental, cultural and human rights issues, particularly focused on reinvigorating rural direct assembly democracy, defending and restoring Common Lands, and confronting destructive mining and other environmentally degrading projects. Joám is a member of the Advisory Council of the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, and he also seasonally lectures on civil disobedience and nonviolent action in the Master’s Program on Peace, Mediation and Conflict Research at Åbo Akademi University, Finland.

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