In June 2021, Swann Group founder, John Murray, was invited to present at the Critical Minerals Association‘s G7 event in Cornwall to discuss the importance of mining to society.
In his talk John highlighted six issues facing mining beyond the immediate challenge of the pandemic.
In this series of articles, John expands on his G7 presentation and explores those challenges in more detail. In some cases, he makes suggestions for how we might address them, based both on interviews with some of the mining greats and his own lifetime of experience in the industry. In others, he poses questions to provoke thought and discussion for inclusion in a future update.
The articles are gathered in a single publication readers can download from the Swann Group website research page: https://the-swann-group.com/research/
In this first article John explores mining’s relationship with society.
Part 1 – Mining’s relationship with society
Mining underpins the infrastructure of our society. Everything that people use or consume is either grown, mined or extracted. Yet this fundamental fact, familiar to anyone in mining, is not understood by a whole generation who have been persuaded by negative social media and NGO campaigns that mining is a bad, carbon intensive, dirty and often socially irresponsible industry.
This perception is not society’s fault. It is our own.
Our industry’s marketing and external affairs work with society has been poor. We’ve been unable to create a coherent and shared narrative that lands well with society and the tired stereotypes persist. Events such as Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge cave don’t help.
But there is another side to the story. Society’s understandable desire for a cleaner, greener world too often ignores the fact that the metals that are used in green technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles need to be mined. That also applies to the now indispensable technologies of modern life, from smart phones and tablets to medical devices.
Mining also provides employment prospects in emerging economies that go beyond the manual jobs of old. Miners provide training and education to encourage local talent into management and leadership roles.
Yet we hear little of these initiatives outside of our industry bubble where mining means dirty, carbon-releasing fuels such as coal.
We need to change the relationship we have with society – and with each other
Mining is losing its influence
The need for mining to reposition itself in the minds of a sceptical and environmentally aware public coincides with a period when the strength of the industry’s influence appears to be disappearing.
Like all organisations, mining, quite rightly, has to face questioning and challenge from the governments, campaigners and the media. But the various sins of mining (both real and perceived) have made it an easy target for increasingly belligerent criticism, reinforced and amplified by social media influencers.
There once was a time when mining was such a dominant industry it was able to exert significant influence over host governments, a power that was unethically exploited by some to the point of bullying.
Now, like the car industry before us, our sectors power is diminishing as the irresistible forces of Silicon Valley overtake us. The uncomfortable truth is that the owners of the social media platforms that hosts such vitriolic criticism could easily buy all of the biggest players in mining.
It may be premature to suggest traditional mining firms may go the same way as once flagship brands like Kodak, and Blockbuster, left behind by more agile and technologically advanced new entrants. But we must act collectively now to avoid that possibility
Our industry does not have an enduring compact with society
Over my long career in mining, I have witnessed a continuing inability for the industry to collaborate effectively with society. There is clear evidence that the rules and norms by which mining agreements were established thirty years ago are no longer fit for purpose. Yet I have seen little evidence of miners renegotiating these terms without the threat of government intervention.
It is incumbent upon miners to build a new relationship with society by doing more to realise the value we can add to a greener society by, for example, funding young entrepreneurs who are developing innovative technologies.
Such new technologies may substantially extend the life of individual mines, which will certainly make them more sustainable, and is arguably cheaper than creating a new mine (in Capex if not Opex terms) and delays decommissioning costs.
Extending a mine’s life may also bring into question the appropriateness of the original agreement under which the mine was licensed to operate (see section 4), but the wider sustainability and economic benefits are compelling.
The need for cooperation
Consideration of Environmental, Social and Governance issues has evolved over the years. For many years they were largely ignored by many industries, before becoming an inconvenience to which lip service had to be paid. As they began to be taken more seriously ESG concerns transitioned into a competitive battleground, resulting in unedifying industry battles which undermined efforts to demonstrate mining’s positive credentials.
I maintain that ESG needs to become a collegiate topic in which all miners should collaborate to ensure we have a positive impact on the world and the communities in which we operate.
Once we get this right, we can begin to communicate about the benefits of mining in a way that is authentic, and evidence based. To do this effectively we need to work collectively through an industry-funded representative body such as the ICMM
I see a role for the ICMM, empowered and resourced by mining companies, to lead a PR, lobbying, social media and advertising campaign to articulate the necessity of mined materials for modern society and the role mined materials play in renewable energies and new technologies. Mining companies, other representative bodies such as regional chambers of mines, educators, and government ministries have a collective responsibility to collaborate to tackle the negative stereotype and get this message heard.
In the next article in this series, John looks at mining’s search for new forms of investment.
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