If I were a state education minister I would endeavour to make it a compulsory part of a high school curriculum for students to have at least one field excursion to see with their own eyes a mine – or for that matter an iron smelter, a big factory or an agribusiness. But ideally a mine. I wouldn’t be able to force adults to go and visit anything, but I would happily encourage anyone out there who has never been anywhere close to a coal or a metal ore mine to put it on their travel and activity “to do” list.
Why? For many different reasons. Firstly, because as a general principle it’s good to see and learn about something we’re not familiar with. Secondly, because mines are ubiquitous, important – and yet quite mysterious. For a great majority of us living in the developed world, and particularly the developed world’s cities, mines are an abstraction; we have some vague idea of what they look like and in a country like Australia we know the extractive industries make a significant contribution to the economy; in most cases that’s the extent of our familiarity. But it’s only through a first-hand exposure that you can learn just how big and complex operations they are in terms of infrastructure, technology, employment, activity, and importance, both local and national. Seeing is believing. Thirdly, because being directly exposed to a working mine might help inculcate impressionable young minds against the influence of political extremes that oppose development and fetishise “the nature”. Seeing how mining operations fit within their environment and how much effort is made to minimise their impact serves to demystify and de-demonise them. Reality trumps second-hand caricatures.
The other day, I had the pleasure, thanks to a friend who should remain nameless, to visit and walk around a mine, which should also remain nameless. For obvious reasons, visitors are not allowed underground, but my friend’s guided tour of all the aspects of the operation on the surface – from water management, through massive mills breaking down rocks and refining the ore into the final product, to health and safety issues surrounding everyone’s work on-site – was as fascinating as a walk-around of an art gallery or a historical district. The only other mine I have ever been to was the old salt mine at Wieliczka, just outside Krakow, which does happen to be a museum and an UNESCO-recognised heritage site – and that was forty years ago. It was good to finally see how they do it in the 21st century.
Nothing prepares you for the sheer size of it: the man-remade landscape that dwarfs hauling trucks that dwarf normal trucks, the conveyor belts carrying car-sized chunks of rock from below, the mills and refineries the size of multi-story apartment blocks, where rollers the size of houses break up the rock into ever smaller chunks until they can be mixed with water to extract the metal-rich broth. I stood on metal walkways suspended above those modern witches’ cauldrons, watching with nerdy fascination the sludge bubbling and frothing in the vats, with the metallic goodness being scooped off the top for further processing (the water itself is continually recycled). The whole place teems with purposeful activity as hundreds of workers from engineers in prefab offices to miners on their shift hundreds of metres below me go about their jobs.
This is where so much of our country’s wealth is made, the wealth that makes so many things possible, from work for those directly and indirectly employed to all the things our governments can afford to fund thanks to taxes paid at every step of the way – royalties, corporate tax, payroll tax, income tax, permit fees and so on – and everything in between. And what a living monument to human imagination and ingenuity it is. Walking the dusty paths between the buildings I kept thinking of what an incredible amount of knowledge, expertise and skill goes in creating an enterprise like this – from design through producing and putting together all the myriads of individual parts and elements that make the whole to making sure it works like clockwork hour after hour and day after day. It might not be as aesthetically pleasing as a museum full of priceless artworks but I find it as beautiful in its way and as imposing and humbling a physical testimony to our species’ creative achievement and power over our destiny.
In case of mining, as in many other instances, it’s the unfamiliarity that breeds contempt. Let’s make sure that our young people – as well as the not so young – have the opportunity to see and learn first, instead of graduating straight to indifference or hostility.
P.S. Thanks again to my nameless friend. Most mines organise (infrequent) open days for the public. We need more of them.