But first:

Thomas McA.: “I still use Managing Your Money. I find it far superior to Quicken or Microsoft Money. I partially blame you for its demise. You spent so much time putting drivel into its publication that you forgot that Quicken was outpromoting you.”

Is this a great country, or what?

Now:

Jim Whyte: “I really enjoyed your reflections on flying to Omaha for lunch. Every once in a while I marvel that the journey that takes me forty-five minutes a day was, at the time of Confederation, a long day’s ride. I get e-mails from people on the other side of the world, while my father, in his boyhood, listened to the first radio stations on the continent (XWA in Montreal; KDKA in Pittsburgh) on the one crystal radio in his home town. Both my parents lived before antibiotics and polio vaccines; two years ago my doctor sent me for a CAT scan, for heaven’s sake, just to see what was wrong with my sinuses (nothing much, as it turned out).

“But I had to take exception to your McCain column. I’m not interfering in U.S. politics; I resent it enough when others interfere in my country’s. And I do accept that you can’t confuse McCain with a liberal. I honestly don’t know which way I’d jump if I was an American of moderate political stripe. (Mind you, if I was an American I’d probably do what my post-revolutionary American forbears did, and go live under the Crown, but that’s just a nasty aside. There are more of those to come, below.)

“What got up my nose was the comments about mining. How can you believe the false dichotomy of ‘mining interests’ and ‘environmental interests’ that you quote Time taxing Senator McCain with. (As for his ‘supporting subsidies for mining on public lands,’ I confess only limited acquaintance with U.S. mining law.)”

[This refers to the practice of giving mining companies the right to mine public land all but free. But shouldn’t the owners of the land — the American people — auction off those rights for good money to the highest bidder? If you discovered molybdenum under your lawn, wouldn’t you require a fat fee to allow someone to mine it — if you allowed it at all?]

“I’m a geologist, and have worked my entire professional life in three fields: mineral exploration, the geology of civil works, and environmental science. I have training and experience in all three, and with great respect, I don’t think I need improving lectures on those subjects from staff writers for Time, or from the League of Conservation Voters, or from politicians.

“And I think the part in your column about ‘if you would put mining interests above environmental interests’ is, first, a cheap shot, and second, wholly ignorant about the relationship between mining and the environment.

“The urban public, along with Time staffers, seems to think that mining is the ultimate despoiler of the planet. Have you ever probed their knowledge about that? Are they going on evidence, or are they just going by some primary-school picture of a mine as a big hole in the ground that just has to be bad for the environment?

“Because…because… well, because it’s a big hole and big holes are always bad!

“Let me be clear on one thing: I am not blind to the problems. I have been watching, with rather better-informed horror than most, the current disasters in Romania, where two tailings dams have failed in two months; and the downstream disasters as panicky governments tried to battle the spills and made things worse instead of better.

“I covered the Los Frailes tailings dam collapse in Spain and the Omai rupture in Guyana for a leading mining newspaper, which was legitimately critical of the practices that led to the dam failures. I see the things that can happen and I see what kinds of things cause them. I also see environmental pressure groups jump on every situation, and make up falsehoods to exaggerate the danger and use each incident to blacken the reputation of the entire mining industry. I’ll tell you about it sometime, if you like.

“But the urban public, and Time staffers, and pressure group honchos, are all perfectly happy to use what’s dug out of the ground for them by ‘mining interests.’ They probably think they lead environmentally blameless, beatifically mine-free lives. But I suspect the man who went to Omaha for lunch and visited an oil platform not long ago knows better than they do.

“Let’s retrace those steps, as you recounted them in your Omaha column. You check the weather in Omaha on your computer, which is plugged into the electrical system in your house, which is full of copper (if you’re lucky) or aluminum (if you’re not). And the signal carrying the data to your web browser is carried by either a copper wire (if you’re on a phone-line connection) or a fibre-optic cable made of silica (if you’re not).

“Someone had to get to the Omaha airport to read the thermometer (mercury type, no doubt), the rain gauge (with its galvanized steel tipping bucket), and the other instruments. I don’t know for sure he didn’t walk there at 4 AM (Omaha time) to get that information for you, but my money is on his having driven a steel car on that rainy morning. Or maybe he’s on the graveyard shift, and he’ll drive home after he’s finished, badly in need of a hot shower (copper pipes and ceramic tiles).

“Speaking of steel cars, you called a cab to go to the airport. I’ve ‘been to Miami,’ if landing and taking off at MIA can be called that, but haven’t needed to leave its confines on anything but a plane since about 1978. (Thank goodness for the Admirals’ Lounge and the pool on top of the hotel.)

“Still, I’ve got a feeling the roads you took to get there are made of either asphalt or cement concrete with about 70% coarse aggregate (from quarries or gravel pits). Most roads are. (In this respect they strongly resemble airport runways, which to a guy like me, with some experience of heavy construction, are really just very thick, short roads.)

“Was it raining in Miami, too? I know you are a man with sense enough to come in out of the rain. Into a concrete and steel building, with electric lights fed by copper wires, that is. And once there, you put yourself through the grand old air-traveler’s ordeal of checking in.

“Maybe you had one of them newfangled e-lectronic tickets. In that case the entire proof the airline owed you a journey sat on an iron-oxide disk, aided by that copper-and-silica information highway we discussed before, and displayed on a silica screen (coated on the inside with beryllium, which is something else that had to be mined).

“Boarding pass in hand (or its electronic equivalent flying along another of those pestilent copper wires), you head through airport security, passing through an electromagnetic-induction detector, developed in the first half of this century by Canadian and Swedish geophysicists to detect conductive base-metal deposits. They might have a bomb sniffer, developed by a company whose principal product was geophysical instruments for the mining industry. You’re clean and explosive-free, so, with a little time to spare, you plunk yourself down on those nice Miami departure-lounge chairs. Well, they’re nicer than the ones in Lubumbashi anyway. Been there, and not just to the airport. The roads stink, and the copper mines are all closed.

“That big metal thing at the end of the departure ramp takes you to Atlanta, and then another one rather like it takes you to Omaha. Maybe the second one is painted a bit differently (titanium dioxide, here).

“Both airports have those environmentally unconscionable steel rebars in their walls and those ecologically disgraceful copper wires running everywhere. Some of the walls are painted, and that substance you can see-through-but-not-fall-through? Those are windows made of silica glass.

“That big flying boat thingy is made of steel, aluminum, titanium, zinc; it runs on jet fuel, which is pumped and not mined, but the electrical starter (plugged into the terminal’s electrical system) uses juice generated by coal (mined) or by nuclear power plants. (These operate on uranium, which is mined, too — but fogeddaboudit — nukes have enough PR trouble without my mentioning the mining connection.)

“You’re several miles up in the sky, chawing on a sticky bun (baked in a metal baking tray, and probably served in a little aluminum thingy with plastic wrap that just won’t come off), and slugging back coffee (perhaps made from beans chopped down the old-fashioned way, by campesinos with steel machetes, and sent to coffee mills in the old-style, non-flying metal boats), checking out the deathless prose in the in-flight magazine (barite filler in the paper, pulp from trees buzzed down with metal chainsaws), and listening to a recording of a symphony orchestra. I won’t trouble you about the tympani and everything in the brass section, or the building materials in that acoustically-perfect concert hall, but I will ask you to look out the window.

“How many cities do you see scarring the sides of hills? How much urban sprawl where once a mighty forest stood? How many charming family farms on drained wetland? That was all wilderness once, yet I don’t hear too many people jawing about how the wilderness has been ‘sold out to homeowners’ interests’ or ‘sold out to farmers’ interests.’

“Wait! Look out the window. There’s a mine — probably Buick, one of Doe Run’s lead-zinc mines in southeast Missouri. See it? That grey thing, that’s the headframe. I was underground there back in ’81. What, you were expecting a monstrous open pit? Anyway, you can quit craning your neck, we’re almost in Omaha.

“Of course, nothing in Omaha was ever mined. Warren Buffett paves the roads with recycled Gillette razor blades and the phone system is all made of Coke cans and string. Or perhaps I’m being ironical.

“Speaking of aluminum Coke cans, did they give you any for lunch? Maybe you got wine instead, in silica glasses from silica bottles, a decent-enough wine, fermented in nickel-stainless-steel vats. Organically grown grapes, so the only thing sprayed on them is copper sulphate.

“Well, okay, so the copper was mined. So was the sulphate — a mining by-product from smelting sulphide minerals. It’s better than letting all that sulphur dioxide go up the flue and turn into acid rain, and you can sell the sulphuric acid you make to people that make copper sulphate for pool shock and politically-correct vine spraying.

“By the way, did the turkey in your sandwich ever eat any grain grown with potash or phosphate fertilizers (mined, again)? Okay, I realize you can’t ask him now, and who ever got a sensible answer from a turkey or a fund manager anyway. And the turkey probably met his end courtesy of a metal cleaver.

“Nasty aside: this gives me an idea for some fund managers.

“But how about the bread — was it from fertilized wheat or rye fields? Anybody use a metal plow or a combine harvester on them, or even a metal scythe?

“Back on the plane, now. Seat belt sign’s on — never mind the metal buckle. Or the metal oxygen tank. Just place the mask over your nose and mouth and breathe normally if anything goes wrong.

“Then you get to Atlanta and there are mechanical problems with your connecting flight. Somebody talented in Atlanta fixed ’em. Wanna bet he used a wrench?

“Those ‘mining interests’ Senator McCain ‘put above environmental interests’ sure didn’t do much to get you to Omaha and back, did they?

“What a time to be alive? I couldn’t agree more.

“And what a time to depend on mining for your livelihood, when sheltered urbanites that know mining only for its supposed environmental misdeeds have the undivided and uncritical attention of opinion-makers (everywhere).

“Thanks for the soapbox. I can imagine you’re saying to yourself, ‘hey, what gives — sixteen words in my column and this guy has to come back with 11 KB of poorly spelled invective?’ It did turn out to be a lot, and I didn’t plan it that way. But deeper explanations usually do take more time and effort than facile representations of an issue.”

Hey, what gives? Sixteen words in my column and this guy has to come back with 2,000 words (albeit perfectly spelled and engagingly composed) in praise of metal? They weren’t even my 16 words, they were Time‘s!

In truth, this reminds me (a little) of Roseanne Roseannadanna, may she rest in peace, who would get truly incensed over something only to realize it wasn’t quite she thought. (“Oh, Soviet jewelry. Well. That’s different. Never mind.”)

I don’t think anyone would dispute the crucial role mining and metal plays in the modern world — or even the ancient world. (Anyone ever hear of the Bronze Age?)

It’s just a matter of balance, and unless you think the environmental groups are all wrong all the time, a zero rating probably suggests a Senator who has not carefully weighed the pros and cons in every instance. But Jim is not just interesting and spirited, he’s right. If there’s anyone out there (and I don’t think there is) who would ban all mining, or even most of it, that person probably licked a lot of lead paint chips as a child.

 

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