Can Mining Be Saved?

TeslaGigafactory

The Tesla Gigafactory, currently under construction in Storey County, Nevada.

Andrew Critchlow, Commodities Editor at The Telegraph, speculates in a recent article that Elon Musk and Tesla might “save the mining industry” by ushering in a new age of renewable energy. Domestic battery power production at the Tesla Gigafactory (now scheduled to go into production in 2016) is bound to create such demand for lithium, nickel and copper, Critchlow thinks, that the mining industry will find a way out of its current (price) slump and into new growth, or possibly a new supercycle.

“Major mining companies are already ‘future proofing’ their businesses for climate change by focusing more investment into commodities that will be required by the renewable energy industry,” writes Critchlow; and the “smart commodity investor” will follow suit, with investments in “leading producers” such as — this is Critchlow’s list — Freeport-McMoRan, Lundin Mining and Fortune Minerals.

It’s a credible scenario, but it’s also terribly short-sighted. The big switch over to domestic solar power and battery storage Musk is hyping in the run up to the opening of the Gigafactory would no doubt give miners a short-term boost, but it will also take a lasting toll on the places where copper and nickel are mined, raise serious human rights concerns, and put even more pressure on the world’s freshwater resources.

After all, the copper and nickel used to make Tesla’s batteries are going to come from places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Lundin and Freeport-McMoRan operate a joint venture at Tenke Fungurume, and which has been at the center of the recent debate in the EU parliament over conflict minerals; Peru, where protests against Southern Copper Corporation’s Tia Maria project led the government to declare a state of emergency in the province of Islay just last Friday; or the nickel and copper mining operations around Lake Superior that I’ve been following here, where there are ongoing conflicts over free, prior and informed consent, serious concerns that sulfide mining will damage freshwater ecosystems and compromise one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world, fights over haul routes, and repeated complaints of lax regulatory oversight and political corruption.

Rice farmers clash with riot police in Cocachacra, Peru. The fight is over water. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

These are just a few examples that come readily to mind. It wouldn’t take much effort to name others (Oyu Tolgoi, Oak Flat, Bougainville) and to see that the same problems arise, to a greater or lesser degree, no matter where copper and nickel mining — sulfide mining — is done.

The mining industry and commodities investors have historically tended to minimize and marginalize the environmental and social costs of sulfide mining; so it’s really no surprise that Critchlow should argue that increased demand by battery producers is all it will take to “save” mining. Leave it to others, I guess, to save the world.

But the supply and demand model is reductive and misleading, even for those looking to make a fast buck. A recent Harvard study of company-community conflict in the extractive sector summarized by John Ruggie in Just Business suggests just how costly conflict can be. A mining operation with start-up capital expenditures in the $3-5 billion range will suffer losses of roughly $2 million for every day of delayed production; the original study goes even further, and fixes the number at roughly $20 million per week. Miners without authentic social license to operate lose money, full stop. So Critchlow’s is at best a flawed and myopic investment strategy that ignores significant risks. It also appears to shrug off legitimate human rights claims, and turn a blind eye to environmental degradation, and deadly violence of the kind we’re seeing in Peru right now. That’s irresponsible, if not downright reprehensible.

A Macquarie Research report cited by Critchlow claims that the switch away from fossil fuels to battery power in the home is all but inevitable. But if we make the switch to renewables and fail — once again — to address the ethics of mining, what exactly will we have saved?

A White Peacock

A white peacock — like this one in the Children’s Sculpture Garden next to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine — may not be a black swan, but it is a wonder.

Austin and Asking, 2

I’m re-reading Austin’s How to Do Things With Words, trying to come to terms with these lectures and what perspectives they offer on the broad theme of conversation and collaboration I’ve been exploring in a series of posts on the power of asking.

On my first reading, which I discussed here, I must have nodded midway through Lecture VI, or maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate the historical argument Austin advances in that lecture about the “evolution of language” (focusing specifically on the development of the explicit from the primary performative).

…historically, from the point of view of the evolution of language, the explicit performative must be a later development than certain more primary utterances, many of which are at least already implicit performatives, which are included in many or most explicit performatives as parts of a whole. For example ‘I will…’ is earlier than ‘I promise that I will…’.The plausible view (I do not know exactly how it would be established) would be that in primitive languages it would not yet be clear, it would not yet be possible to distinguish, which of various things that (using later distinctions) we might be doing we were in fact doing. For example, Bull or Thunder in a primitive language of one-word utterances could be a warning, information, a prediction, &c. It is also a plausible view that explicitly distinguishing the different forces this utterance might have is a later achievement of language, and a considerable one; primitive or primary forms of utterance will preserve the ‘ambiguity’ or ‘equivocation’ or ‘vagueness’ of primitive language in this respect; they will not make explicit the precise force of the utterance. This may have its uses, but sophistication and development of social forms and procedures will necessitate clarification. But note that this clarification is as much a creative act as a discovery or description! It is as much a matter of making clear distinctions as of making already existent distinctions clear.

One thing, however, that it will be most dangerous to do, and that we are very prone to do, is to take it that we somehow know that the primary or primitive use of sentences must be, because it ought to be, statemental or constative, in the philosophers’ preferred sense of simply uttering something whose sole pretension is to be true or false and which is not liable to criticism in any other dimension. We certainly do not know that this is so, any more, for example, than, to take an alternative, that all utterances must have first begun as imperatives (as some argue) or as swear-words — and it seems much more likely that the ‘pure’ statement is a goal, an ideal, towards which the gradual development of science has given the impetus, as it has likewise also towards the goal of precision. Language as such and in its primitive stages is not precise, and it is also not, in our sense, explicit: precision in language makes it clearer what is being said — its meaning: explicitness, in our sense, makes clearer the force of the utterances, or ‘how…it is to be taken’.

What Austin says here about how human beings came to mark and remark the forces of utterances and took language from a primitive to a sophisticated state can apply to asking as well. In this view, the explicit use of the performative ask (“I ask…” or “I ask that…”) would constitute a step forward in the evolution of language, “a later achievement…and a considerable one.” Austin calls it a “creative act” of “clarification.”

Historically, one thing that act might have helped to clarify — Austin’s caveat about the presumed historical priority of imperatives notwithstanding — is the difference between asking and command, and, therefore, the terms on which interlocutors meet, or the “social forms and procedures” that govern their relationships and necessitate this clarification or distinction.

This puts us in murky territory, and Austin readily admits it. The historical argument here seems “plausible,” as Austin says, but ultimately it may not stand up (though it’s hard to see how it could be decisively knocked down).

This much seems clear: the creative act of explicitly asking will always help clarify the force of asking; and the articulation of that force — that power of asking — essentially creates a new charter for conversation with a second person, an interlocutor or interlocutors whose standing to address us we recognize and whose replies we await and then take into account.

That said, let’s also admit that the explicit performative “I ask…” or “I ask that…” is not (nowadays) so widely used, but is reserved, it seems, for certain kinds of serious inquiry and formal address. (Austin’s own lectures furnish numerous examples of this reserved use, as I suggested in my earlier post; but they were given in 1955, and both words and things have changed, at Harvard and everywhere else, since then.)

Still, making asking explicit can help render the conversation serious, not just because it makes language more precise, but also because it clarifies the relationship between interlocutors and the power they have to reckon with, and share.

Serious Conversations, 8

There’s a serious aspect to what Stuart jokingly says here. Philip Pettit and Michael Smith put a finger on it in their discussion of what they call “the conversational stance” in “Freedom in Belief and Desire” [pdf].

When we engage in serious conversation about what to believe or do, Pettit and Smith observe, we assume, among other things, that our interlocutor can, and will, change her beliefs (about the way things are) and evaluations (about what to do) in light of evidence. We assume, further, that she will adjust her desires and assess her plan of action in light of these evaluations. (So, they will go on to argue, we hold her responsible as a free thinker and as someone possessed of free will.) Otherwise, there is no point in having the conversation, and there might even be reason to fear that we are involved with a zombie or psychopath:

Were you to think that your interlocutor lacked the dispositions to register and respond to the demands of the norms governing evaluations that you both countenance, and lacked them even in the provisoed measure allowed, you would either have to put his evaluative understanding or commitment in serious question or you would have to regard him as something close to a zombie or a psychopath. How could your interlocutor agree that doing such and such is irrational, so you will ask, but not see that the prescription applies to him? Or, if he does admit it applies to him, how could he fail to adjust his desires and actions accordingly? In particular, how could he fail to do these things, when the failure is not to be explained by reference to familiar obstacles [such as fetishes and obsessions, disabling moods and passions]? The only answer available would seem to be that he is not seriously or sincerely involved in the business of practical evaluation, or that if he is, then he is not reliably attuned to the practical values in question. In either case, you lose solid grounds for authorizing him as a conversational interlocutor. You must cease to see any point in conducting a conversation that is supposed to bear on how he should behave.

Deepening the Dow Conversation

“Let’s take this show on the road,” quipped Mark Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, at the close of Dow Chemical’s Google hangout on “Redefining the Role of Business in Society.” Moderator Alice Korngold guided the panelists, three Dow executives and a few big names in sustainability from the NGO world, through the hour-long hangout without a hitch; audience approval (registered via the thumbs up/thumbs down Applause function) seemed pretty consistently high. Everyone played their part well, and they had reason to congratulate each other.

Still, Tercek’s final remark was telling, a sort of gloss on the hour that preceded it. In fact, if I had to offer just one criticism of yesterday’s hangout — and I intend this to be constructive criticism — it would be that this was, essentially, a show. It lacked the spontaneity and the give and take of conversation, as well as the informality promised by the word “hangout” (and which characterizes hangouts I’ve attended and in which I have participated).

As a result, the hangout was less about “redefining” the role of business in society than promoting a settled definition of that role. Dow executives ran through talking points, and at several junctures even the people from the NGO world seemed to have adopted the jargon that Dow has developed around its 2025 sustainability goals. Where conversation would have uncovered discrepancies in order to work toward new understanding, here was little disagreement or dissent, and nothing like irreverence or skepticism — which are ways that interlocutors withhold assent and keep conversations honest.

For example, no one in the hangout challenged what in most other settings would be regarded as a relatively new and extraordinarily controversial idea: that business’s role is to “lead” society; no one suggested that it ought to be the other way around. The most vocal dissent focused on one small point: Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, said that he didn’t think it would be necessary for Dow to create another sustainability think tank. Maybe he’s right: the world has plenty of talk shops; but in this context, where it was quickly followed by Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris saying we need “do tanks, not think tanks,” it felt like another way to close the discussion, short circuit deliberation, and declare the matter settled.

I appreciate that this may not have been the appropriate occasion to invite others into the circle, to take live comments, or open bigger questions that couldn’t be resolved in the short space of an hour. I appreciate, too, the effort it takes to bring a twentieth-century industrial giant like Dow into a twenty-first-century online social forum, and the legitimate concerns about everything from reputation to litigation that effort raises. But the broadcast quality of this hangout lent it an air of artificiality and, more importantly, just didn’t seem to jive with the commitment Dow has publicly made to collaboration, dialogue, listening, and building social capacity.

Clearly, the sustainability goals Dow has set for itself warrant a more inclusive and dynamic conversation — where the outcome is not set in advance, and which allows heterodox views, strong dissent and unresolved, maybe irresolvable differences. That’s especially true because Dow claims to be serious about its sustainability goals — this isn’t just window dressing — and what Liveris called its sustainability “journey” has only just started.  At the very least, subsequent conversations should tease out and develop some salient points about this ambitious program and the thinking behind it. Here, I’ll confine myself to identifying just three of these points, based on what was said during yesterday’s hangout.

The first issue concerns the historical roots of the corporate sustainability movement. Two participants in the hangout, Liveris and John Elkington (who coined the phrase “Triple Bottom Line” and has written extensively on the subject) both traced it back to the 1960s, and what Liveris called their “hippy” days.* But, as Elkington came close to suggesting, sustainability thinking also has roots in the reactions of the 1970s and 1980s, which saw the rise of neoliberalism and the idea that markets can offer solutions to social problems, sometimes better, or at least more efficiently, than governments. This is obviously not just a debate with historical interest; it is a question of the commitments — and the ideas about business’ role in society — that sustainability thinking carries with it.

The second point worth discussing and developing has roots in the 1970s and 1980s as well. This is the idea of natural capital. It not only went unquestioned in the hangout; it seems to have achieved the status of an article of faith. The trouble isn’t just that the figures used to calculate natural capital are made of  “marmalade,” as George Monbiot put it in a lecture on the topic, and reduce the inestimable — the natural, living world, all of creation, if you like — to the merely estimable; but there were several points during the hangout where that trouble lurked just beneath the surface. There are other objections that merit fuller discussion here; namely, that the concept of natural capital:

[harnesses] the natural world to the economic growth that has been destroying it. All the things which have been so damaging to the living planet are now being sold to us as its salvation; commodification, economic growth, financialisation, abstraction…. what we are doing here is reinforcing power, is strengthening the power of the people with the money, the power of the economic system as a whole against the power of nature.

That’s Monbiot again. The point is not that he’s right, though I think he’s got a strong argument here. Agree or disagree, meeting these arguments and others like them when it comes to natural capital would produce a much deeper, more nuanced and truer understanding of the interventions that sustainability thinking requires.

And finally there’s that question of power that Monbiot raises, which I would recast in this context as a set of important ethical considerations that cluster around the idea that you can do well by doing good. At one point, Liveris ran through some impressive numbers to suggest that Dow has figured out how to make sustainability profitable. But there was no mention during the hangout of what agency or power will hold Dow and other companies to account — or oblige them to meet their responsibilities — in case of non-performance.

The unspoken assumption just underneath the surface here seems to be that we are to trust the company, because its intentions are good; or at least the intentions of its executive team are. There’s no reason to doubt that, but if you are rolling out a “blueprint” for society’s future, as Dow says it is, you are also assuming responsibilities toward the people who now live and will live where you plan to build that future. So to get buy-in to the blueprint, earn the trust and engage the energies of all those people, it’s important to enumerate and discuss those responsibilities, to put in place appropriate checks that measure success in society’s terms, not just in business terms, and to prescribe remedies in case of failure.

All this brings me back to Bakker’s suggestion that the world does not need another think tank, and the idea that it’s time for Dow and other companies to partner with NGOs and other social institutions in order to start “doing.” The challenges Dow is trying to address —  climate change, clean water, food security, income inequality and youth unemployment were among the issues Liveris enumerated — are no doubt urgent. But a focus on “solutions” to pressing problems can’t be an excuse to short-circuit discussion or sidestep political process; and we should be careful not to mistake the advance of a business agenda for social progress, or, in our rush to meet the very real challenges the world now faces, confuse the two things. The thing we need to sustain, right now and into the future, is the conversation.

*Postscript, 18 April 2015: The day after I wrote this post, a friend brought this provocative 2006 essay by Slavoj Žižek to my attention. Here, Žižek characterizes professions of “love” for May 68 as a staple of “Porto-Davos” sustainability discourse: “What an explosion of youthful energy and creativity! How it shattered the confines of stiff bureaucratic order! What an impetus it gave to economic and social life after the political illusions dropped away! And although they’ve changed since then, they didn’t resign to reality, but rather changed in order to really change the world, to really revolutionize our lives.”

Five Questions On Business And Society

Dow Chemical is currently soliciting questions for a Google Hangout on “Redefining the Role of Business In Society.” The Wednesday morning Hangout will be moderated by Alice Korngold, author of A Better World Inc., and feature Dow Chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris along with other “global sustainability leaders.”

I submitted five questions for the group’s consideration. I can’t say whether they’ll address any of them or whether these questions are even appropriate for this forum. This is a huge topic, and there are lots of ways to approach it. Nor do I pretend that these are the only five questions worth asking. But it strikes me that these five simple questions might help others start and structure a conversation about business’s role in society. So, after tweeting my questions and putting them up for easy reference on Google docs, I thought I’d post them here as well.

  1. Governance: Where’s the seat for “society” in the boardroom, and who sits there?
  2. Priorities: Whose role is it within the company to identify and set social priorities?
  3. Non-performance: What mechanisms should be in place to identify and address human rights and environmental grievances?
  4. Authentic social license: What mechanisms ensure all stakeholders — esp. dissenters, skeptics, opponents — are represented?
  5. Metrics: How does [the company; in this case, Dow] currently measure social performance, and factor it into overall business performance?

Zeno and the Invention of the Second Person

When Aristotle remarked that Zeno of Elea (490-430 BC) was the first to discover dialectic, he was crediting Zeno with the invention of the philosophical interlocutor or second person.

This is how Allen reads the famous passage as well. The remarks attributed to Aristotle by Diogenes Laertius make Zeno “the discoverer of the…oral two-party question and answer debate,” not just “argumentative technique.” The only thing I might take issue with here is Allen’s use of the word “debate,” which could give the mistaken impression of a contest in which one person’s view prevails, rather than a dialogue or conversation in which interlocutors reach agreement — or uncover their discrepancies — by asking questions and responding to them.

This is an expansive reading of Zeno’s discovery. But it’s perfectly consistent with the tradition of commentary that makes Zeno out to be the inventor of the prose dialogue and with the ask and answer approach discussed and demonstrated in Plato’s Parmenides (where Zeno is presented as Parmenides’ philosophical apprentice). The inquirer enlists or authorizes an interlocutor — in this case, Aristoteles, the youngest of the group — to answer him. 

Even more restrictive ancient definitions, like those offered elsewhere in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives, emphasize that dialectic is not just a matter of “discussing” topics by means of question and answer, but “correctly” discussing them. That is presumably why dialectic may be regarded as “indispensable and…itself a virtue, embracing other particular virtues under it,” and Diogenes Laertius draws connections between the practice and ethical teachings.

To help elucidate this point, a note in the Hicks edition of Diogenes’ Lives recommends this passage in Plutarch’s Contradictions of the Stoics, where Plutarch cites a passage from Chrysippus characterizing “dialectic skill” as “one of the greatest and most necessary faculties.” Note the word Plutarch uses for “faculties” here: dynamis: a power or capacity.

This is the power that Zeno is said to have discovered. It is — let’s not lose sight of this —  a power shared with others: it’s the “dynamic” of serious conversation.

It strikes me that it’s possible and edifying to connect Zeno’s discovery of this power or second-person dynamic with his resistance to tyranny. Immediately after reporting Zeno’s discovery of dialectic, Diogenes Laertius tells us that Zeno “plotted to overthrow Nearchus the tyrant (or, according to others, Diomedon) but was arrested.”

The story of his arrest has it that on pretense of imparting some important information about the conspiracy, Zeno drew the tyrant near and bit down on his ear “and did not let go until stabbed to death, meeting the same fate as Aristogiton the tyrannicide.” Another version has it that Zeno bit off the tyrant’s nose. Yet another, related by both Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch, has it that Zeno bit off his own tongue and spat it in the tyrant’s face.

In all versions, Zeno’s life ends with his refusal of illegitimate authority.

Postscript: Slightly revised on 2 April 2015, but still just rough notes waiting to be written in earnest. That said, I think there’s something important and worth pursuing in the connection of Zeno’s discovery of the dialectical “power” with his resistance to tyranny. His discovery of the conversational stance in philosophy helped him appreciate, and committed him to the defense of, political freedom, I want to maintain. Victor Cousin arrives at a similar position in his discussion of Zeno in Nouveaux Fragments Philosophiques. For Cousin, Zeno is “l’ἀνήρ πρακτικός” of the Eleatic school, exercising “purely dialectical…genius” in defense of Parmenides’ doctrine of “absolute unity” and defending “the laws” of Elea. Much here to unravel.

Mark Your Calendars

This week, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed a resolution brought to the floor by Senator Tom Casperson, who represents the 38th district. Senate Resolution 27 declares an official day to commemorate mining in Michigan. Mining Day will fall on September 6th.

It’s clever to create a holiday for mining on 9/06 — the area code of the Upper Peninsula. But it’s also a little strange that the holiday will fall on a Sunday in its inaugural year (so much for sabbath and the respite it promises from the workaday world). Labor Day falls on the 7th of this year, and on the 5th in 2016; so maybe Mining Day will help put the focus on the Upper Peninsula’s archetypal laborer, the miner. But as the text of the resolution never even uses the word “miner,” “worker,” “labor” or “laborer,” and notes only in passing that mining in the UP “attracted immigrants from around the world,” it might be a little hasty or naive to conclude this measure is being taken to honor the working men and women of the region.

Casperson himself promotes Mining Day as a day to recognize the role of mining “in the settling of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula” and as a “way of life” characteristic of the region, and in a press release, he added that the day would also be an opportunity to “celebrate and support responsible mining operations” in the state. So SR 27 doesn’t just look back to a bygone era of mining, but forward, positioning mining as a “growing industry” in Michigan. The adopted resolution even includes language about the “Limestone mines” in the news lately.

In this way, SR 27 tees up a second resolution that Casperson introduced: SR 28, another pro-mining measure that met with unanimous approval. In this resolution, the Senate expresses its unqualified “support for the renewed growth of mining in Michigan.”

This is not just boosterism or servile flattery. SR 28 actually serves a couple of important political functions.

First, it burnishes Casperson’s legislative track record at no political cost. Down the road, he can and probably will claim some responsibility for the jobs that mining companies create in the UP.

Second, SR 28 establishes legislative precedent. Casperson and others can point to this resolution and the unanimous support it received when introducing other pro-mining legislation or when confronted with challenges to mining projects already underway. Interviewed about the bill, Casperson made this explicit: “we will work to remove any remaining barriers that could inhibit the continued growth of responsible mining interests in Michigan.” No barriers to continued growth: but still, somehow, “responsible,” as if responsibility can be had without limits.

The barriers to growth Casperson has in mind are, first and foremost, the flimsy ones upheld, but barely, by the EPA in the face of the new mining boom. The federal agency has not prevented any mining projects in Michigan; but it has so far been the primary obstacle to the building of CR 595, which was originally planned as a haul route for Lundin’s Eagle Mine. The EPA entered and then upheld its objections to construction of the road, and denied the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality authority to permit the road. (The US Army Corps of Engineers along with the US Fish and Wildlife Service had also entered objections.)

Casperson elsewhere has tried to cast this as a standoff between state sovereignty and federal government intrusion. Now, with SR 28, Senator Casperson has enlisted the full body of the Michigan Senate in his crusade to cut that haul road through the Michigan wilderness, and show big government what’s what in Michigan. (He’s been on similar state-sovereignty kicks to reinstate wolf-hunts — which caused him some embarrassment when he was caught fabricating stories of children being stalked by wolves — and to prevent the limiting of emissions from wood-burning stoves by the EPA.)

Casperson is now colluding with the Marquette County Road Commission to sue the EPA over CR 595. So far, the Road Commission and affiliated CR 595 die-hards have created a 501c4 non-profit organization called Stand U.P., which says it will raise $500,000 to cover the lawsuit. But there’s no reason to stop there. As a 501c4, Stand U.P. can fund the EPA lawsuit as well as a broad range of activities in the name of improving the “social welfare” — a concept even the IRS calls “abstruse” and lacking any clear definition. 501c4 organizations are not required to disclose the names of donors, but Brian Cabell figures “it’s safe to say” that the money for Stand U.P. won’t come in “$5 contributions or bake sales or lemonade stands. It’s mostly corporate money.”

Even if the EPA lawsuit fails, then, there is little to prevent Stand U.P. from becoming (unless it already is) a trough of dark money. No wonder the Senator is eager to celebrate mining’s return to the Upper Peninsula.

Social License in a Less Exuberant Climate

The things I’ve written on the new mining around Lake Superior — most of which are gathered here — might amount to nothing more than a series of postscripts to my film 1913 Massacre. P.S., then P.P.S, and so on, a long envoi or send off, I suppose, or maybe a recognition that the story we told in our film never really ended, or is about to be repeated — first time tragedy, second time: it’s still too early to say. In any case, I’ve often been struck by the ways that the new mining appeals to the very history (or what people in the UP call their mining “heritage”) Ken and I encountered while making our film, in order to claim social license.

While I’ve focused on developments around Eagle Mine, which is situated on the Yellow Dog Plains just outside the city of Marquette, Michigan, I’ve also been trying to keep track of mining activity all around the lake — the Polymet and Twin Metals projects in Minnesota, the failed Gogebic Taconite project in Wisconsin, uranium exploration on the Eastern shore, and so on; and I’ve tried to emphasize here and when talking about the subject that Eagle along with those other projects constitute the first phase of a Lake Superior mining boom.

With no effective international oversight of the lake — one of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world — the mining companies have moved in, facing down what opposition local groups can muster, promising jobs and economic development, exploiting loopholes in state laws, and buying state politicians (as Gogebic bought Scott Walker) or enlisting the services of other lackeys and lickspittles in local and regional government (as, e.g., Eagle seems to have enlisted the services of the Marquette County Road Commission).

A larger commodities boom (or pricing bubble) ushered in this Lake Superior mining boom, and that bigger boom has started to go bust, as Chinese demand for stainless steel, copper and other metals — one of the main drivers of the boom — slows. So the story ripples out way beyond the lake, to developing economies on the other side of the world, and to a larger arena of commodity markets, over which huge commodity traders like Glencore and Trafigura preside, and where the metals mined around Lake Superior are not actually used to make things the world needs (as mining companies want us to believe), but warehoused by the London Metal Exchange and financialized in complex instruments like ETFs or simply as collateral.

It’s unlikely we’ll witness the great unraveling of this global complex that some doomsayers predicted, but the slowdown has already left some miners stranded and made some projects founder or at least become riskier to undertake. Shareholders are already feeling the pain and pressures on companies to streamline operations, discard assets or service their debt will continue to mount. On the ground, these troubles should occasion some reflection on just how closely mining, global financial markets and development are now intertwined; and that volatile combination is likely to make the future for communities around the Lake even more uncertain. How committed are these companies? Whose interests do they really represent, and to whom do they answer? How resilient are they? What happens when things fall apart?

Maybe in this less exuberant climate, all the confident assertions about future prosperity, tributes to mining heritage, promises of responsible stewardship, and bids for social license to undertake mining projects will receive closer scrutiny.

Postscript: after a response from Eagle Mine’s Dan Blondeau, I’ve updated this post with a link to our exchange over my remarks here on the Marquette County Road Commission. The Michigan DNR’s green-lighting on Thursday of Graymont’s proposal to develop 10,000 acres of public forest lands into an open pit and underground limestone quarry is yet another example of Michigan public officials eagerly serving mining companies — or doing their bidding, sometimes without having been explicitly bidden.

Fluency is Belonging

localswimDR The gringo usually learns the unwritten rules of a place the hard way: he’ll be duped, cheated or swindled. He may be perfectly intelligent, know the geography, history, flora and fauna of a place, but his habits make him a stranger.

Habit has a simple grace that knowledge can only hope to describe. Studying the practices of local people in the way an anthropologist might will not make them one’s own. In fact, it’s just as likely to have the opposite effect, of objectifying and externalizing them. Unless a stranger becomes used to the ways and manners of others, or until their usages become his own, he will never enjoy the easy social intercourse the locals effortlessly enjoy. He will have to settle for making observations and taking notes, and conducting transactions of various kinds.

His lonely case is not unlike that of someone who has mastered the grammar but not the idiom of a language. At best he can correctly fill out forms (making verbs agree with subjects, changing tenses or moods, and so on). But ordinary conversation takes an ease and fluency that can’t be gotten out of a book or committed to memory.

That’s because real fluency is more than successful mimicry. It’s belonging.