Agriculture is one of our two basic industries. The other basic industry is mining.
Over the last two decades, three out of every four metal miners have lost their jobs. While Farmers wallow in boundless public sympathy, miners rate only apathy. Farmers rank right up there with mother, apple pie and the American flag. We know who put the chicken, milk and ear of corn on our tables, and a drive on the interstates is a panoramic display of agriculture in action.
But kids, unless raised in mining towns, are basically ignorant of mining. The public neither understands nor cares what miners do in those dark holes and big pits. And mine products are unlike the farmer’s ear of corn, for metals and minerals reach the consumer in manufactured forms that obscure their origin. When the mining industry was the darling of the frontier and endorsed by an expansionist, land-rich government, there was no need for concern about public relations and image.
In the 1960’s, however, mining became the whipping boy of the emerging conservation movement. Caught with half-century-old operating mines that were environmental calamities and countless cast-off, frontier-era ruins, the industry made a big mistake: it became defensive and reclusive, rather than working to educate the public and building a favorable, modern image.
Even though mining affects less than one percent of the nation’s land, it became synonymous with environmental degradation. No one complains that farms despoil the Nebraska Plains or Sacramento/San Joaquin Valley, thanks to the misconception that farms are a natural and wholesome part of our environment. However, in overall detrimental environmental impact, agribusiness—the catchword for big-time capital and chemical-intensive agriculture—makes mining look like small potatoes.
By 1978, both agriculture and mining were well on their way to deep trouble. While the demise of the farmer was well documented and even dramatized, miners, mostly in the West, watched their livelihoods disappear with relatively little fanfare.
Unlike the busted farmers who drove tractors to Washington or through the front windows of the foreclosing banks, the jobless miners did not vent their frustrations through media tantrums. Although many lost their homes, cars, credit and way of life, few lost their self-respect. Men and women, many whose fathers and grandfathers had been miners, left their homes and friends, moved to the cities to find strange jobs, and quietly got on with their lives. Thousands of miners made that sad, often painful transition with their heads high, and without tears from Jane, songs from Willie or collections from school kids.
Agriculture annually dumps over $6 billion in chemicals into our environment. It utilizes enormous quantities of water, returning it salted and silted to our rivers and still Willie Nelson, Emmy Lou Harris, Jane Fonda and their successors sing for farm aid. So I invite them and others to pass through the haze of sincere ignorance regarding miners and mining. Unlike the farms and farmers, Farm Aid is alive and well. My point is not to decry foul play at the expense of them. With them, I understand the most fundamental social and cultural ingredient for a high quality of life is disappearing, in truth it is almost gone.
If I were to opine my 27 years as a gold miner it would be: “Gold is a weapon of war and a tool for freedom.”
Michael Meister Miller
President and CEO of the oldest operating underground gold mining company in the United States.