IN THE discussion of the future of mining or mining policy, the debate will inevitably be dragged to a contention between economic growth and environment.
Mining will plead its case by highlighting the contribution that it makes to the economy and the gross domestic product (GDP), and the number of jobs and families that it supports.
Environmentalists, in turn, will unfurl their graphic evidence of devastation, waste and greed in the mining of natural resources.
My sympathies in the debate have been shaped in part by my seeing firsthand the impact of mining on some of the nation’s mountains and forests. They have also been influenced by my readings on the epic fight to save the environment and on ecology.
One highly influential reading for me is Wendell Berry‘s classic and respected essay, “Faustian economics,” which was published in Harper’s, May 2008.
Berry is a writer of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is noted for his belief that one’s work must be rooted in the environment and be responsive to it. His literary background explains the vividness and resonance of his ideas.
Like tragedy of Dr. Faustus
In “Faustian economics,” Berry essays the theory that in man’s treatment of the environment, in an attempt to master nature, he destroys and creates devastation around him and impoverishes himself. Such destruction is justified as being done for the sake of progress. But it is a delusion.
In the Faustian story, dramatized by Christopher Marlowe in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Dr. Faustus, a man of learning longs to possess all nature’s treasury, to ransack the ocean, and search all corners of the newfound world. To assuage his thirst for knowledge and power, he deeds his soul to Lucifer, in exchange for 24 years of the services of Mephistopheles, nominally Faustus’s slave, but in fact his master. What Faustus reaps from his bargain is hell in the end.
Berry draws a parallel between what man reaps from exploiting and destroying the environment to Faustus’s tragic fate.
Time of inescapable limits
Berry writes: “There is now a growing perception, and not just among a few experts, that we are entering a time of inescapable limits. We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability too outsmart, by means of science and technology our economic stupidity…We are coming under pressure to understand ourselves to be limited creatures in a limited world.”
In confronting the limits of our reserves of cheap fossil fuel, man is really confronting the end of his customary delusion of “more.”
“Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity…. We will have to reexamine the economic structure of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Here there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have.”
A lesson from the arts
Berry draws some of his ideas from the arts. It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer’s and the reader’s memory.
A natural ecosystem survives by the same sort of forms of intricacy, ever-changing, inexhaustible. If we want to make our economic landscapes sustainably and abundantly productive, we must do so by maintaining in them a living formal complexity like that of natural ecosystems. We can do this only by raising to the highest level our mastery of the arts of agriculture, animal husbandry, and ultimately the art of living.
In the arts, no limitless sequence of works is ever implied or looked for. No work of art is necessarily followed by a second work that is necessarily better. In the arts, there are no second chances. We must assume that we had one chance each for the Divine Comedy and King Lear. If Dante and Shakespeare had died before they wrote those poems, nobody would have written them.
The same, Berry says, is true of our arts of land use, our economic arts, which are our arts living. With these, it is once-and-for-all. We will have no chance to redo our experiments with bad agriculture leading to soil loss. The Appalachian Mountains and forests we have destroyed are gone forever. It is now and forevermore too late to use thriftily the first half of the world’s supply of petroleum. In the art of living, we can only start again with what remains.
The one-time mining of resources
In the book, Deep Economy, Bill Mckibben writes of the mistakes in strategy of developing countries, and how they lose natural resources to waste and greed.
He writes: “The growth that has taken place in China and in other developing countries is in many ways suspect. Much of it has come from one-time mining of resources. Indonesia saw a decade and a half of 7 percent growth in the latter part of the 20th century, but when World Resources Institute recalculated the figures to subtract the value of the extracted oil and logged trees from the country’s stock of assets, that growth rate was halved.
The Cambridge economist Partha Dasgupta says such scenarios are common. “GNP misleads because it does not acknowledge that capital assets depreciate. This happens if increases in GNP are brought about by mining vital assets—for example, degrading ecosystems and depleting mineral deposits—without investing appropriate amounts of output in the accumulation of other forms of capital such as knowledge and skills.”
If someone with political connection manages to gain control of, say, a mangrove swamp that serves as the basis of community fishery, he can cut down the mangroves, put in a shrimp farm, and export the prawns to Japan. He gets rich, and the GNP goes up, but most people get steadily poorer. After four or five years, he abandons the shrimp farm because the waters have grown diseased, eliminating even the few jobs he originally provided.
In studying the three decades between 1965 and 1993, Dasgupta found that the inclusive or actual wealth of every country except China declines, even as their GNPs shot up.
Mining no bargain at all
The Faustian bargain is especially distressing in the case of our mining industry, because after it flattens mountains, cuts forests down, and destroys ecosystems, the economic returns are not so significant.
IBON Foundation says the Duterte administration should stand by the closure and suspension orders issued by Environment Secretary Gina Lopez against large-scale mining operations in the country, and should be wary of arguments about the economic contribution of mining to the economy.
IBON debunked claims that large-scale mining has been beneficial to the economy.
“While mineral exports hit a high $3.4 billion in 2013, mining contributed a measly 0.7 percent to gross domestic product (GDP) in the same year. The sector’s contribution grew to this level only from 0.5 percent after more than a decade of operations,” it emphasized.
The group added that the annual average share of mining revenue to total government revenue in 2009 to 2012 was only 1.18 percent.
“The contribution of the mining and quarrying sector to employment was also negligible at 0.7 percent of total employment,” IBON said.
“More than 90 percent of mineral production is exported for consumption of steel industries in other countries while the Philippines has no such industries, despite the Philippines being one of the world’s top producers of gold, copper and nickel.”
And worst of all, the country has had a string of mining disasters since the enactment of the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.
In short, mining is no bargain at all.