In 2006, a previously obscure gold mine in northern Tasmania became a focus of world media attention.
A mild earthquake triggered rock falls at the Beaconsfield gold mine on 25th April. 17 miners were underground at the time. 14 managed to get out of the mine safely the day of the collapse; three were trapped. It later turned out that one of the miners had been killed in the rockfall, but the other two miraculously survived.
The elation of their discovery on 30th April was matched by the tantalising drama of the subsequent rescue attempt, which took more than a week. All up, the two miners were undergound for a fortnight. By the time of their successful rescue, media interest was at fever pitch.
Media circus at the San Jose mine in Chile
This year a similar story – on a dramatically larger scale – has been underway at the San Jose mine in Chile.
33 miners have been trapped far undergound for 68 days (and counting) at this gold and copper mine in an isolated, arid area near Copiapó.
At the time of writing, a newly-drilled shaft has just been completed and it’s expected the miners will be hauled to the surface, one by one, starting a few hours from now. With luck, the rescue will be a complete success.
When the miners do emerge blinking into the world above, they may notice an unprecedent media cluster. Media interest is appropriate; the public is genuinely fascinated by this remarkable human drama.
Yet in all the vast amounts of media coverage of the Beaconsfield disaster – and this latest episode in Chile – I’ve never once heard a commentator ask what seems to me the most obvious question: what on earth are these men doing in such a dangerous place?
If they were engaging in scientific exploration – or even experiencing the thrill of exploring subterranean environments for sport – their uncomfortable forays into the bowels of the earth’s crust might make some kind of sense. But no, that’s not it. They’re miners, working for mining companies. In the case of the Beaconsfield and San Jose mines, extraction of gold is the goal.
The desirability of gold is generally taken as self-evident in our culture. How much gold? The more the better, of course! Few question the rationality of seeking ever more gold, even in highly dangerous places.
But in a more rational society, it would be apparent that the last thing humanity really needs, at this time in our history, is more gold. Gold has limited economic uses and we already have countless tonnes of the stuff, sitting in protected vaults in different parts of the world.
Gold ingots: inedible and not much use for anything
In a truly rational society, growing turnips would be valued as far more useful work than fossicking, bulldozing or grovelling for yet more gold.
At a time when a major rescue operation is in progress, comments such as these could be construed as disrepectful to the trapped miners and their families. Unfortunately, the subject is also taboo between disasters. It barely ever gets discussed at all…
By the time the Beaconsfield mine drama was over, two ambitious young union leaders – Bill Shorten and Paul Howes – had achieved a national profile in Australia. Both men have been features of our political landscape ever since.
It’s indicative of the ideological shallowness of contemporary unionism – at least in Australia – that trade union leaders who rise to fame via the trauma of their members never publicly question why these brave workers need put themselves in such extreme jeopardy in the first place.