On a late summer Sunday, I stopped my bicycle at the apex of the Lions Gate Bridge (Vancouver, Canada) and paused to take in the view and wave at the cruise ships as they cleared the bridge en route to Alaska. This must be the most beautiful and breathtaking (B&B) sight in all the world. I know of no better. But my analytical instincts kicked in and I wondered why I thought it B&B.

After all this is not nature. This is landscape thoroughly and utterly tamed and transformed by human activity. Sure in the far distance is a snow-capped volcanic peak (Mt. Baker). Sure there are towering mountains to the north and the ocean to the west. But the inlet is lined with ship yards, yellow sulfur, black coal, corn silos, high-rise buildings, rail yards, houses that splurge up the hills, bridges, boats, and parks. This is as urban a setting as any. Yet the eye and soul delight. Maybe it is the combination of natural beauty and the works of man that fascinate and thrill. Maybe it is the shear taming and subjugation of nature that pleases. But I think not. I suspect it is the plethora and cornucopia of detail that excites. The mind is stimulated to fever pitch and the senses reel at the things, both natural and manmade that take up the frame.

"Is this sustainable development?" is a question that flits through my mind. This dastardly thought is prompted by an e-mail I had read just before leaving the house. Here is part of that e-mail from John Meech, Professor of Mining at the University of British Columbia:

“We need dialog on the subject [of Sustainable Mining]. We need to make people on both sides of the issues come together to understand the realities of Mining in the 21st Century. We must pay attention to the environmental, social, and political aspects as much as the technical and economic ones if we expect to be a sustainable industry that is welcomed to operate in different regions around the world. The environmentalists and anti-mining groups that from time-to-time seem to gain centre-stage need to understand that the alleviation of poverty requires production of additional resources for existing mankind and those to come in the future. Whether this added production comes from virgin materials or from recycled matter is a legitimate question.

If the cost to recycle materials already mined exceeds that of mining new materials, how can one justify recycling? To do so requires a life-cycle analysis of a particular material or product. The cost of protecting the environment must be included to be certain that an effective comparison is made. The new middle class emerging in China (equivalent in size to our middle class development in the Western World in the 1950s) wants to have the same toys and benefits that we have today. How do we generate this for them without destroying our planet?

While the future impact of "Global Warming" is still speculative in my view, do we really want to take the chance of destroying our coastlines and creating ever-increasing turbulent weather conditions? The jury is still out, in my opinion, as to whether "Global Warming" is really a man-made phenomenon or is some natural cycle that we still do not understand. Since man is only directly responsible for about two to four percent of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, as we cut back our use of fossil fuels, is there any hope that we can really stabilize or reverse the warming trend?

However, when one factors in the political issues associated with fossil fuels - the Middle East, terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, the growing gap between the rich and poor - one must conclude that we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels for these reasons as well as to address "global warming". We need to reduce our production of waste—the so-called developed countries produce twice as much waste per person as the undeveloped countries. Perhaps we need a new definition of what we mean by the term "developed country".

The United States which represents less than 5 percent of the world's population produces 80 percent of its pollution and waste. Does this make sense? Is this justified? What will happen to our planet if China's development follows the same path - consuming the same quantity of resources and generating the same quantities of waste and pollution? Put India into this analysis and we go from 5 percent of the population to close to 50 percent. Can the world continue to operate as we know it with these ever-increasing consumption and production cycles?

We talk about changing Mining from a "boom and bust" cyclic industry, yet I see little evidence that we have yet grasped the full extent of the problem that industry and for that matter, Mankind faces as we continue to put such incredible pressure on the world's overall ecosystem.

To date, mining companies have embraced Sustainability to ensure their future ability to continue to mine. They recognize that in order to operate around the world they must gain a "social license to mine" by ensuring support from local populations and from the governments of the region and of the day. What I do not yet see in industry, is a recognition of the need to change the way we mine: how we explore for ore bodies; how we reclaim our past excesses; and how we operate our current mines.

The success of a company, a province, a state, or a nation can no longer be measured in terms of rate of return on investment or Gross National Product using conventional cost-benefit analysis. We must factor in the life-cycle costs that our exploitation sends on to the next generation and to repair damage of the past. We must find ways to produce the products we take for granted today from other materials that are cheaper or more abundant. These changes in economic analysis are not universally accepted nor understood by most economists, so how can we expect companies and their shareholders to understand the need for such change?”

Is it any wonder this exposition burned into my brain and recurred as I gazed on the B&B before me? Here was a scene that epitomizes mankind’s enjoyment of the products of mining and industry and human endeavor. Here was a scene that epitomizes the apex of the western world’s wealth and presumably production of waste. Damn! I recalled having forgotten to put out for recycling the five weeks’ of free newspapers delivered to my door, and which I discard unread, put off by their trivial journalism and repetitive advertising. Was there ever a mine that generated as much waste as the free newspapers that keep coming in Vancouver?

I recalled a completely different but “similar” scene from university days. The postgraduate room of the Hillman Building, the home of the Civil Engineering Department at the University of the Witwatersrand, perches on the edge of the ridge that gives the Witwatersrand its name. Through the windows of this room where I wrote my Masters thesis, I had gazed and dreamed through many a lazy afternoon at the city spread in the valley below, stretching to the reef where gold was first discovered in the nineteenth century. I recall how, forty years ago, I thrilled then to the buildings, the highway, the headgears, and the slimes dams that gave that far distant scene its B&B. Tourist will never go to that room to get that vantage point, for this scene is not famous or the subject of postcards. But it shares that cornucopia of detail and the taming of topography by human works with that scene I enjoyed last Sunday. Johannesburg is as much a city of mining as any—certainly more so than Vancouver. But both owe a great deal of their economy to mining. A simplistic answer butted my brain: if these two cities are examples of sustainable mining, so be it, let us promote more such around the world for all to enjoy.

From a friend who is now in Perth, Australia and with whom I shared many a technical discussion in the classrooms of the Hillman Building through torpid afternoons as we struggled with an equation and gazed idly at the scene spread before us, comes this report of what can only be described as sustainable mining, par excellence.

“7 September 2006. Gold Fields Limited is pleased to announce that it will invest R4.7 billion in the deepening of the Driefontein and Kloof Gold Mines in South Africa. These projects will access an additional 10.8 million ounces of gold below the current infrastructure of the two mines.

At Driefontein the company will deepen the existing 9 sub-vertical shaft system from its current depth of 1,988 meters below datum to a final depth of 4,121 meters below datum, making it the deepest mine in the world. To compensate for the challenges presented by mining at depth, the proven method of narrow reef mining with closely spaced dip pillars of 40 meter width and mining spans of 140 meters, with backfill for in-stope support, will be employed…..To achieve productive working conditions in an environment with virgin rock temperatures exceeding 55 degrees centigrade, the mine will use state of the art cooling technology, including bulk air cooling, chilled service water and ice technology.

At the Kloof Gold Mine [the extension] will be 4,020 meters below datum, making it the second deepest mine in the world. A conventional narrow reef mining method with closely spaced dip pillars of 35 meters wide and mining spans of 110 meters will be used. To minimize traveling time to and from working places, the transportation of personnel will be by means of a chairlift system, separated from the transport of rock and materials in the decline.”

And I recall my father and his friends in the mid-1960s worrying about the demise of the South Africa gold mining industry. Clearly research, technology, human ingenuity, and rising metal prices, will long sustain the mines and the cities along the Witwatersrand outcrop. I am sure there are lessons here for an expert in the history of mining and the sociology of urban development. Maybe all we need is a good book on the history and successful development of cities and towns and communities subsequent to and concomitant with mining to persuade the skeptic and silence the doubters.

And so I waved to those aboard the cruise ships. They are bound for the old mining towns along the Alaskan panhandle. They will descend en masse on Juneau and head for the Red Dog Saloon and snap up ugly T-shirts just like the one I have on. But how many will take a walk up and out of town to the Last Chance Mining Museum around the hill from the town? How many will head across the inlet to Admiralty Island and Greens Creek? How many will even wonder at the reason for the town being where it is. From mining town to cruise ship attractor. Now that is sustainable city development. It also helps that the wise citizens of Alaska keep the state’s capital out of harm’s way in that isolated town far from the real action.