Monday, October 18, 2010

Happy Ending for Chilean Mine Rescue, But What Next?

Anyone who watched last Wednesday as the thirty-three trapped Chilean miners were hauled up one by one through a two-thousand-foot borehole must have felt at least some emotion as we witnessed the great joy and relief the miners and their relatives and friends expressed. This was truly the best possible ending to a type of disaster that so often ends with funerals instead of parties. Many kudos go to the Chilean, Canadian, and American engineers and managers who drilled access and transportation boreholes accurately, safely, and in record time to make the rescue possible. But the highest congratulations go to the miners themselves, who, despite rumors of arguments deep underground, managed to survive those first seventeen days on two days’ worth of rations and hope that help was on its way. The truth of their survival is probably better than the fictionalized movie and book versions that no doubt will be forthcoming. But as an Associated Press article published yesterday examines the futures of these miners, this would be a good time to look at the ethics and economics of mine operations in general.

As the AP article points out, by U. S. standards all the miners are very poor, and since the company that owned the collapsed mine has now declared bankruptcy, all its three-hundred-some-odd miners are now out of work. One miner returned to a “wood-and-tin” house where sixteen people live, and the street where he lives was lined with plastic bags filled with air because the residents could not afford balloons. Working in a mine—at least as long as you don’t own it—is no way to get rich, except perhaps by comparison to what you were doing before. If you were a subsistence farmer whose livelihood depended on the vagaries of wind and rain, you might view a mining job as a great way to improve your life. It lets you live in a city or town rather than the country, it gives you a regular job that doesn’t depend on the weather, and as long as your health and strength hold up, you can even earn enough to provide for a family.

With the exception of freelance prospecting, mining is a capital-intensive business, which means the people who put in the money to make the mine work are the ones who reap the profits. The miners themselves are paid wages and perhaps some benefits, and take the risks normally associated with mining. There is apparently no such thing as an absolutely safe mine, unless no one ever goes in it, and the day of totally robotic mining has not yet arrived. So for the foreseeable future, there will be mine owning and operating companies that hire local people to do the dirty, dangerous work underground.

There will also be a tension between spending money on safety equipment, training, and other overhead expenses that improve the miner’s lot, and spending it on means of exploiting the mine itself. This is why governments enact mine safety regulations and enforce them, because human nature is such that if firms are left strictly to themselves, the dangerous cost-cutting mines make more money and drive out the safer ones, other things being equal (which they never are, of course). The ultimate unrestricted free-market situation for mining in South America existed during the early years of Spanish exploration in the 1500s, where natives were basically enslaved to work the mines. Things are much better now, but the temptation to create a kind of de facto slavery with company towns and stores is always present, and has to be guarded against.

In the best possible circumstances, mine operators treat their employees fairly and run their mines under a consistent and justly administered set of rules that make the playing field as even as possible in a given country. Commodity prices, which ultimately determine whether a given mine is profitable, are currently beyond the control of any one country, but whenever a mine’s output is worth mining, all parties involved can work together to achieve a stable balance between safety and efficient production.

Another lesson from the Copiapo mine saga is that engineering can do only so much. The character and behavior of the miners themselves was critical in this rescue. If thirty-three college professors had been trapped underground instead of thirty-three miners, I fear the only thing the drill would have found after seventeen days would be the minutes of a long and increasingly contentious faculty meeting that concluded in mass slaughter. Despite the hopes and speculations of groups such as the transhumanists and others who think man will eventually conquer nature completely, technology can do only so much. The humanity and faith of the miners and their people aboveground made as much or more difference to the outcome as the best technology could offer. Of all the lessons we can learn from Copiapo, I think that may be the most important one.

Sources: I referred to an Oct. 17, 2010 article on the Yahoo News website at http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/lt_chile_mine_collapse.

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