Sustainable Development | Mining University

Sustainable Development

One of the popular catch phrases of our politically correct society is 'Sustainable Development.'  People in the natural resources field have long considered this phrase a misnomer.  Almost all of the elements we depend on for our materialistic society could not be considered 'sustainable' in a strict sense of the word.  The term 'Sustainable Development' is a hippie invention used to raise funds for unproven technologies.  The target for potential donors is people with too much money and too little sense and people who feel guilty about being rich, like actors. 
I will begin disproving the idea of 'Sustainable Development' with the energy industry.  The first step is in determining that most energy sources derive from solar power.  Solar panels directly convert the sun's rays into electricity.  Other methods convert byproducts of solar energy.  Wind energy is really just solar energy that has heated near the earth, risen in the atmosphere and caused the motion of the earth's atmosphere.  Coal and other fossil fuels are plant material that has been concentrated into a usable form.  The original plants converted the sun's energy into fuel via photosynthesis. 
The second step in proving that no energy source is 'Sustainable' is to state that the sun is really just a big nuclear reaction.  We all want to think that the sun is going to be around forever but that is only true in a relative sense.  Other methods of producing eneryg with nuclear elements fall into the same category as solar energy.  I don't think that anyone fond of the term 'Sustainable Development' would argue that mining uranium is a non renewable resource.
Finally, we must look at wave energy.  I have heard of a town in Europe where they use the crashing waves to turn a turban which powers the whole town.  Wave power, like wind power, is a result of the heat provided by the sun along with the gravitational pull of the moon.  In addition, if there were no energy from the sun the ocean would be a frozen lump of ice.  Good luck getting waves out of an ice cubes.
Next time someone starts preaching about 'Sustainable Development' remind them that it is all non-renewable, and should be used responsibly.  Thus, the term 'Sustainable Development' should really be replaced with the term 'Responsible Development.'



  1. I hear a lot about "Sustainable Development". But what does it really mean?
    -solar electricity

  2. Frank,
    What do you mean by 'solar electricity?' Wind power could be considered 'solar electricity.' It is created by the heating of air near earth's crust which then rises and displaces the air above it. Ocean waves could also be said to be 'solar electricity' by the same logic. Coal and oil are really just condensed 'solar electricity' (they use the sun's rays to grow plants which become compressed into fossil fuels).
    The sun's energy is, in reality, nuclear power. What is the problem with mining uranium and creating the power without the visual pollution of solar panels?

  3. Anthony,
    You are entirely correct! All the resources in the universe (that is, 'everything that is known to exist') can be classified as non-renewable.
    We should start by defining that term. A non renewable resource should be considered anything that can not be regrown, repackaged, recycled (etc) at a rate equal to that of it's consumption - or expected rate of consumption.
    With our current population growth rates, and our increasingly consumerist society, our consumption is expected to grow dramatically over the next hundred years.
    As a recent post you made pointed out, the 'JORC' reserves of Coal, Uranium, Natural Gas and other popular energy sources are limited. Our supply of these resources are finite, that is, they will not replenish at any rate beneficial to humanity. Coal and Natural gas take millions of years to form.
    'The Sun' is responsible for almost all the 'Hippie' resources you discussed, and is technically a reaction process that will one day cease. This cessation however, is not predicted for approximately nine Billion years. What you failed to mention is that quite some time before cessation (oh, about 4.5 billion years from now) the sun will form what is known as a red giant, expanding rapidly and engulfing our planet in quite a spectacular incineration or flames and brimstone.
    What we have here is a checkmate, an Earth that will be engulfed in flame and a humanity that refuses to see our dwindling resources issue. Luckily for us, this humanity will likely never make it to that catastrophic point. You see, the Earth has a way of killing off species that don't with to self regulate.
    Animals over-consume their food supply, their population is culled through starvation.
    Humans mine the planet with no thought of what is to come after they run out, they die off. Humanity MUST change and must prevent our own demise.
    It's not about saving the Earth, it's about saving ourselves.
    It is not a 'Hippie' attitude to think that a finite resource will one day run out; it's an Engineer's attitude.
    What do we do to prevent economic catastrophe and social disorder when it does run out or becomes economically non-viable to mine?
    Note: I'm a mining engineer specialising in coking coal. My job is to estimate resource volume, qualities (vols, sulph, ash, etc.), approximate feasibility and financial benefit of implementing a mining plan and estimate the point the coal resource will become inadequate in spec or uneconomical based on a variety of factors ($ value, cost to move burden, labour costs, maintenance etc.).

    1. Tom,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment on my post. I really appreciate the fact that you took the time to read it.

      In response to your classification of ‘renewable resources’ I think we have to include fossil fuels in the same group as the sun. They will eventually run out but that day is so far in the future as to not be a concern. I don’t mean that we aren’t consuming fossil fuels in large quantities or that estimates of global reserves are inaccurate but that the global reserves change with commodity price.

      As a mine engineer you know that ‘ore’ is classified as a mineral that can be extracted at a profit. If it doesn’t turn a profit, it isn’t ore. The flip side of this is that if the price of your mineral goes up, more of the low grade stuff can be extracted at a profit. This is exactly what is happening with fossil fuels. For a long time crude oil prices were static at about twenty dollars a barrel. Today they are over one hundred dollars a barrel. Can you extract deeper, lower grade oil for $100 a barrel? You bet you can.

      I also have a problem with the hysteria our society has over wanting to use ‘renewable resources’ right now. Someday in the future, fossil fuels will be prohibitively expensive to extract (we’re never going to get it all, it’s just going to be too expensive to mine), when this day arrives, solar and wind power will become economically viable power sources. This will happen even if the price to produce them doesn’t decrease and if the efficiency of capturing them doesn’t increase.

      That day is not today! We don’t need to spend billions of dollars on companies like Solyndra to make these power sources economically viable today. I believe that smart, hard-working, entrepreneurial people will make alternatives to fossil fuels work for us when the free market dictates that the price is right. If, in the future, we can’t figure out how to make solar or wind power work economically, we’ll all sit around in the dark and wait for the sun to explode.