Generating Systemic Wealth — Part 6: The Second Wealth-Generating Source, Minerals
Minerals are most often viewed as commodities, and offer the exemplar of an extractive industry. They fit easily within a closed systems view of industry, where improvement in return is gained primarily through increasing efficiencies. Not surprisingly, oil companies, mining companies, and chemical companies are widely believed to be inherently destructive to the environment and to communities.
However, minerals are not inherently evil — living organisms, after all, are a special case of structured mineral exchanges. Recent research on the evolutionary role of minerals has cast doubt on the old view of minerals as dead. Robert Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory and Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science says in Scientific American, March 2010, “Looking at the mineral kingdom through the lens of deep time leads to a startling conclusion: most mineral species owe their existence to life”.
In other words, minerals are not closed systems. An open systems business that depends on minerals or chemicals — either as its primary product, or as the stuff from which its products are made — understands that it has a responsibility to do no harm through how it extracts, refines, utilizes and disposes of these materials and their by-products. It recognizes that it must maintain a fair and healthy relationship with those communities from which its products are sourced if it is to have a viable future. It may work to restore landscapes disturbed by mining, and it may seek to achieve a goal of zero waste. The mindset is one of quid pro quo, where each party is compensated fairly for impacts it experiences, and impacts are continuously reduced through process improvements.
A business operates from a living systems perspective when it seeks to discover the unique contributions that each mineral can make to life, contributions it would not otherwise be able to make if left in place. The transformation of Dupont’s sodium cyanide program (and the corresponding increase in wealth-generating capacity) depended on truly understanding the molecule’s essence, its role in living systems, and its relationship to the places where it was used or extracted. This understanding profoundly changed the processes by which sodium cyanide was extracted and brought it to a higher order creative use. For titanium dioxide, Dupont was able to significantly change the mining process itself. This reduced mining impacts, renewed the way of life and culture of an entire community, and offered a challenge to the mineral industry as a whole about what was possible when one is willing to take responsibility for outcomes. The proprietary position Dupont achieved increased its own wealth-generating capacity. But the effort also addressed the economic future of the region and its workforce, and the health of its landscapes.
For background on my pentad framework, an investigation of what constitutes real wealth, and an expose of myths about generating wealth, see parts one, two, and three of this series. To get an overview of the system of wealth generating sources, which minerals are a part of, see part four.