Geotimes

From the Editor

Increasingly, concerned citizens are talking about sustainable development, the notion of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Discussions are fueled by the moral imperative of intergenerational fairness. This is not a difficult concept to understand or even embrace, until one turns to the extraction of nonrenewable mineral resources. This issue of Geotimes focuses on mining and mineral resources and their social roles, particularly in two regions on Earth’s surface that could not be more different.

In our first feature, “Sustainable Development and the Use of Nonrenewable Resources,” F.W. Wellmer and M. Kosinowski begin to clarify the following seeming paradox: How can you mine the easily discovered, higher-grade deposits without compromising the ability of future generations to do so? Low and behold, sustainable development does not mean that you mine and preserve the same mining options for the future (obviously impossible), but that “quality of life” is sustained through a range of parallel and sequential options. These include maintaining the availability of metals and materials, or the desirable functions that they perform, through now-familiar substitution, recycling, and more efficient extraction and use. Meanwhile and quite independently, the resources of sufficient time and human ingenuity create unimagined means of maintaining and raising quality of life. Now I get it — as usual, the devil is in the definitions.

Ross Sherlock and co-authors add an interesting twist to the discussion in our second feature, “Bringing Sustainability to Nunavut.” Subtending the northern fringe of the continent and the Arctic islands, Nunavut is Canada’s newest and most northern territory. A mere 28,000 people, mostly Inuit and under 25 years of age, are scattered across an area four times the size of Texas in 26 communities. The vision for the new territory is that public geology (surficial and bedrock maps) will attract international exploration and mining activity, from which some significant value will be transformed into human and social capital to sustain the local people beyond mine closures. What a dramatic notion — that geology will jump-start the native people toward a sustainable, nontraditional lifestyle. Imagine if that had occurred during the development of our West and what the names of Butte, Mont., Virginia City, Nev., and Leadville, Colo., might be now.

It is a big jump from the Nunavut “territory of the future” to the disproportionately mineral-endowed and mining history-rich country of South Africa. Mike G.C. Wilson lays out in our third feature, “South Africa’s Geological Gifts,” the amazing metal endowments of gold, diamonds, platinum, chromium, manganese and other commodities and their fascinating history of exploitation. Such seemingly different regions of Earth suddenly begin to resonate, however, with Sara Pratt’s accompanying piece on sweeping changes in South Africa’s mining policy. On the heels of the far-reaching political and social changes in that country, plans are well-along to transfer mining rights from mining companies to the state and to transfer a portion of currently held assets from companies to historically disadvantaged groups. Although the language and words are different, the intent is the same: to begin the process of building a sustainable future for the local people.

Our final feature, “Probing an Underground Acid-Mine Drainage Ecosystem,” by Eric C. Hince and Eleanora I. Robbins, highlights a component of sustainability inferred but not discussed above. To be sustainable, exploitation of nonrenewable resources must be done in an environmentally responsible fashion. This entertaining account of biogeochemical observations in the acid-mine waters of a coal mine demonstrates the complexity and sophistication that remediation efforts must involve.

As fiercely as we would defend the affinity of the earth sciences to other natural sciences, it has become abundantly clear that we also have exceedingly strong social-science obligations.

Believe your compass,

Samuel S. Adams
Geotimes Editor-in-Chief


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