A keynote speech is entertaining, informative, and slightly provocative. The topic of a keynote speech is topical….the speech must face current facts, analyze them, and set a path to a better future. You should be challenged, but uplifted, by a keynote speech.

At the 2009 SME conference Keynote Session, Barbara Filas, formerly head of Knight Piesold chaired a panel discussion on sustainable development and what it means to mining. She and her four guests admitted they all have different definitions of sustainability in mining as then proceeded to tell us what they do, why we should employ them, or buy shares in their company.

The sponsors of the session, Aker Solutions, captured the current situation in mining best with the slogan that ended their self-promotional film: IF YOU ARE NOT AT THE TABLE, YOU ARE ON THE MENU.

Picking up this theme of eat or be eaten, Ernesto Sirolli of the Sirolli Institute told us of the trillion of dollars wasted in Africa in trying to promote community development. His tale of teaching Zambians to grow tomatoes, which when ripe were eaten by the hippos, should stand at a cautionary tale to all who see sustainable mining in primitive countries as simply providing locals with hoes and harnesses and vegetable patches.

Ernesto beguiled us with horror tales of mine-founded schools and hospitals that returned to dust when the mine closed. His solution: talk to the locals, ask them what they want, and then facilitate their achieving what they want. He warned mining companies not to become the local government, for the regime falls when the mine closes.

The starkest of alternatives to dealing with African locals was highlighted by Gary Goldberg, President and CEO of Rio Tinto Minerals who bragged about his company’s success in dealing with the people of Los Angeles and southern California….for he said he has succeed in making them forget that Borax is a mine.

Similarly Harry Conger IV, President, American Freeport McMoRan told us how he dealt with the locals in Tucson, Arizona when the mine had to layoff many workers as the price of copper fell once again. Seems both Freeport McMoRan and Rio TInto have set aside trust funds of money to be administered by the locals to continue environmental protection activities when the mine is no longer madly profitable. So different to the concept espoused by Ernesto in Africa and Western Australia where the emphasis is on helping the locals set up a bicycle shop or get a biggger oven to bake more bread, and to continue to do so when the mine closes and the expats return home to Europe and America.

There was a sidebar exhortation by some of the many speakers this morning to help get out the word to the community that mining provides the jobs that people need to pay their bills and feed their families, and that mining provides the materials that make living possible. The exhortation was to keep the word flowing to communities that mining is safe, both for the workers and for the enviornment, even though the industry is always judged by the worst examples, the deadliest accident, and the biggest bad guy.

Enresto Sirolli was entertaining even when he was calling for a liberal application of intelligence to the issues of mining next to Los Angeles, Tucson, Johannesburg, the Niger River, and Perth. Harry Conger promoted use of the ICMM materials as the best way to address the issues. Gary Goldberg recommended taking the Democratic politicians from Sacramento on mine tours as the solution. And Bill Scoggins, President, Colorado School of Mines promoted a liberal education as the solution.

Bill Scoggins gave us at least one roadmap to the future: acknowledge that miners work hard, are stubborn, use bad language, should espouse enviro-sustainability, be multidisciplinary, consider long time horizons, and do only those things that involve proven economic vialility.

None of this is or will be easy. But when I looked in the faces of the mining students last night, I suspect the future lies with them and will be very different from the concepts and platitudes that populated this morning’s keynote session.