Tag Archives: research

A Mining Renaissance?

On the Almanac program I discussed in yesterday’s post, Kathryn Hoffman cited “42 exceedances of water quality standards” at Eagle Mine to make the point that reverse-osmosis technology isn’t as effective as mining proponents in Minnesota make it out to be. I was expecting some rundown of those exceedances in Codi Kozacek’s January 8th article about Eagle Mine on Circle of Blue; but Kozacek focuses, instead, on the Eagle Mine water-monitoring agreement Rio Tinto struck with Superior Watershed Partnership and Land Trust two years ago.

It’s not hard to see why. Kozacek seems to have traveled from Hawaii (where she’s based) to the UP to do some interviews and take some photographs: it appears she was there in summertime. But so far as I can tell she’s based her article on a “case study” jointly commissioned by Rio Tinto and the Superior Watershed Partnership, a piece of bespoke research entitled Unity of Place: Giving Birth to Community Environmental Monitoring.

In fact, the opening of Kozacek’s article documenting – or should I say celebrating? — this “unprecedented” water-monitoring agreement seems to be nothing more than a loose paraphrase of that publication, which tells the story of how the community around Eagle Mine gained “a measure of power over the mine. And it was Rio Tinto that gave it to them.”

Leave aside for the moment the preposterous idea that that power was Rio Tinto’s to give in the first place: the Unity of Place case study simply asks us to accept that business can and will decide the power society has over it, and Kozacek seems untroubled by the notion. That Rio Tinto sold Eagle Mine to Lundin Mining after descending from the heights to strike this unprecedented power-sharing agreement with the little people living around the mine does not give her pause, or raise questions about the mining giant’s good faith or much-touted commitment to the community around Eagle; and Kozacek only gets around to mentioning the sale to Lundin 28 paragraphs into her 34-paragraph story.

For the sake of balance, she includes a couple of interviews with “skeptics,” people who remain, to this day, distrustful of the water monitoring agreement but express the hope that it will have some good effect. She mentions the uranium leakage discovered at Eagle last year, which she offers as proof of the success of the program in alerting “the public to potential water quality threats,” quoting the Superior Watershed Partnership’s Jerry Maynard (who is also featured prominently in Unity of Place): the monitoring program, he says, “is gaining the trust and respect of the community….We want this to get out there—we want other mining communities to say ‘we want this too.’” But she fails to mention any other exceedances or violations – I guess she missed that episode of Almanac before filing her story — and apparently didn’t bother looking into the new water story now unfolding around Eagle Mine: the renewal of the mine’s groundwater discharge permit. (Michele Bourdieu has that story over at Keweenaw Now.)

My guess is that Kozacek is unfazed by any of these questions and complications, because the real story she wants to tell here is the story of a mining “renaissance”: she uses the word a few times in her article, once as a header and then twice in the body:

The Eagle Mine is viewed as either on the leading edge or the troubling future of a mining renaissance in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a region that has seen more mining bust than boom in the past 50 years. Just as in the oil and gas industry, improvements in mining technology are making previously overlooked ore bodies economically attractive. Rapidly developing countries, particularly China and Brazil, are driving demand for iron, copper, nickel, silver, and gold.

But many of the once booming mine communities in the U.P. and northern Wisconsin, operating with a fraction of their historical populations and downtowns darkened by empty storefronts, are eager for a mining renaissance.

Not a return of mining. Not a re-opening of the mines. Not a new mineral leasing, exploration and mining boom (which would have to be followed by yet another bust). A mining renaissance. It’s an odd word for someone writing about water issues to choose. I wonder if the ungainly use of the word “birth” in the subtitle of the Rio Tinto-Superior Watershed case study inspired Kozacek here: with the “Birth” of “Community Environmental Monitoring” advertised on the cover and on every recto page of that pamphlet, why not imagine a rebirth – and wouldn’t the word “renaissance” be so much more elegant? – of mining?

MinersAtVillanders

Renaissance miners, in the early 16th-century stained glass window of the Villanders parish church.

It’s at best an ugly parody of historical discourse, but I take it that it’s intended to give the new mining around Lake Superior a historical stature that it would otherwise seem to lack. In the second of the two paragraphs I’ve quoted here, Kozacek even imagines the area longing to emerge from a kind of Dark Age, or at least “darkened” downtowns, into renewed prosperity.

But in the first of those paragraphs, I must admit, she does a pretty good job of spelling things out. New extractive technologies have made it not only possible but “economically attractive” (read: highly profitable) for large multinational players to mine previously neglected or abandoned ore deposits, extract oil from tar sands and drill for natural gas by fracking. Chinese urbanization and rapid development in the BRIC countries continue to drive and raise demand for minerals and fossil fuels, as economic power shifts away from developed, Western economies.

Communities in the Upper Peninsula and all around Lake Superior are now feeling the pressures of these bigger changes. Whether they will bring renewal — or more boom and bust, or just catastrophic demise – is another question altogether.

O, The Humanities!

Last week, the National Research Council of the National Academies issued Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation’s Prosperity and Security. I came to the report wondering how this august committee of bureaucrats, bigwigs and business people might go about defining the mission of the research university and how they would define “prosperity”; and I wanted to see what sort of future they envision for research that doesn’t immediately yield new machines, products or services, and doesn’t necessarily play well — historically has not played well — with business: namely, the kind of research I do and I value, research into the human world and the human condition.

I’ve noticed that in most national debates over educational policy and funding (which this report is supposed to inform) and in discussions of the R & D Tax Credit (which this report touches on), “research” gets defined way too narrowly. It gets restricted to scientific research and the invention of useful products and machines. As for prosperity, it tends to get confused with economic growth, or reduced to GDP and employment figures. It’s a limited, myopic view in which “research” is valued only insofar as it yields new machines and tools and products to fuel economic growth.

That’s pretty much the view here.

There are gestures throughout this report to find a place for the humanities (along with the social sciences) in the research university centered around science and engineering. The authors consistently maintain that the research university has to be “comprehensive” in scope, “spanning the full spectrum of academic and professional disciplines,” in order “to provide the broad research and education programs required by a knowledge — and innovation — driven global economy.” But there is not much ink spilled here on the value or the purpose or the place of the humanities. The idea that I advanced as a “crazy” idea in previous posts (here and here and here)– that research in the humanities might provide a much-needed critical orientation in an innovation-driven economy (and should therefore be covered by the R & D tax credit) — seems just as crazy as ever.

Perhaps we can expect a bolder stance on the humanities in the forthcoming report on the humanities and social sciences from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences mentioned in the footnotes here. Maybe without that report this group felt unqualified to tackle the subject, or they were simply being deferential to their colleagues. Be that as it may, Research Universities focuses on the humanities in just one place. This is in a chapter about “national goals.” It opens with a jingoistic account of American progress. Cue the bombastic voiceover:

In the course of our history, our nation has set grand goals that have defined us as a nation. And then we accomplished them. We created a republic, defeated totalitarianism, and extended civil rights to our citizens. We joined our coasts with a transcontinental railroad, linked our cities through the interstate highway system, and networked ourselves and the globe through the Internet. We electrified the nation. We sent men to the Moon. We created a large, strong, and dynamic economy, the largest in the world since the 1870s and today comprising one-quarter of nominal global gross domestic product (GDP).

The most muddled word in this historical muddle is, of course, “we.” The pronoun carries a lot of freight here, and it is meant to reduce history to a story of central planning. We set grand goals and we accomplish them: how grand!

At best, this version of American history is nothing more than the committee projecting the fantasy of central planning on to the past. But it’s also an attempt to sanitize history, to scrub off all the blood and dirt from our past and forget our present afflictions and troubles. Civil rights? The creation of a republic? These weren’t grand goals advanced in a planning session, set out in the form of pure ideas and then acted upon, but the very difficult, tough and very real struggles of people to gain and maintain their liberty. In the area of civil rights, some would say we still have a long way to go; in the matter of the republic, some would argue that we are now more than ever at risk of losing it, if we have not already lost it.

The railroad? Think only of Josephson’s account of how the railroads were laid. Or to take a more recent example, consider what was really involved in networking “ourselves and the globe through the Internet” (and don’t forget that networks are not only systems of inclusion, but of exclusion). The Eisenhower Interstate system may have been the closest we ever came to nation-wide military-industrial planning; but even that took a lot of cajoling, a propaganda campaign, and some serious political maneuvering, and given our current car-crazed, oil-dependent, environmentally-weakened, militarized state, it is debatable whether the Interstate system really deserves unqualified accolades.

Of course these questions and considerations were kept out of the discussion here. But I would hasten to add that these are exactly the kinds of questions and considerations that research in the humanities (and social sciences) allow us to ask. These are questions not only about the past, but also about where we are going, what we want, what we need to do, what is the best thing to do, how we should go about doing it, and how we ought to discuss all those questions.

Just as importantly, the humanities allow us to look at the American story and ask who “we” are, and help us recognize that we are a plurality, not reducible to a single historical agency or identity or even a unified, entirely coherent, unimpeachable history. Indeed, it’s fair to say that the humanities – research into a broad domain of language and historical experience, and questions about the role of language in historical experience as well as the incommensurability of language and history – give us at some very basic level an awareness that history is many stories, that we can ask questions about those stories and that doing so creates the option of telling (and living) another story.

You’d think that at least some of this thinking – which is hardly radical or new – would find its way into this report. Or at least that at some point this report would acknowledge that research into language, thought and history is of value to deliberative democracy, and to considerations of American prosperity. But, no – not even a gesture toward the traditional notion of the “liberal arts” (artes liberales) as the arts most befitting a free people – arts of language and understanding that equip a free people to deliberate and exercise their freedom. In fact, when the report turns to “civic life,” the humanities play no role whatsoever in the discussion. Instead, The Council considers research in the humanities under the heading “Enhanced Security.”

Research in the social sciences and humanities has allowed us to better understand other cultures we may be allied or in conflict with so we can adapt strategies to improve diplomatic and military outcomes.

A handmaid to military strategy and diplomacy: that is a pretty poor rationale for the humanities – about as poor as one can imagine. Humanists can help military generals and diplomatic missions “adapt strategies” for dealing with friends and obliterating enemies. The understanding of “other cultures” – which involves complex, enduring, maybe unanswerable questions of interpretation, translation, language arts, anthropology, history – has been placed here in service of the all-powerful State. “We” are no longer the people, in the plural and in all our plurality, with all the uncertainties that entails, but one singular, grand, innovation-driven, militarized, secure State.

Our friends may delight in this technocratic fantasy, but our enemies had better look out.

Kyl’s "agenda" disappoints on the R & D tax credit

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Jon Kyl calls for a “uniform and generous treatment of research and development expenses” as part of a “growth agenda for America.”

…we should consider a uniform and generous treatment of research and development expenses that does not favor any particular innovation but will encourage businesses of all kinds to create and grow in ways that could never be achieved if government officials try to pick winners and losers.

This position is in line with Kyl’s view that “our tax system should not be a tool for social engineering; rather it should collect the revenues needed to operate our federal government.” But what exactly does he mean by “uniform and generous” here? It seems odd language to use if you are simply trying to get government out of the business of picking winners and losers, or — more likely — out of business’s way altogether.

“Uniform” for Kyl means non-preferential, I suppose; government will not say that wind or solar energy are deserving of credit while coal mining is not. He does not say that with this autonomy — and with the tax credit — comes responsibility, to respect limits, show restraint, and make the right choices. And this is a telling omission. As for “generous,” Kyl would seem to mean hands off – not too much oversight or scrutiny, allowing businesses to determine what counts as research and what does not — which, as I noted in another post, led to some of the abuses of the original R & D tax credit.

This op-ed may simply be the Republican Whip’s attempt to set himself up as an anti-Keynesian — some public posturing before November. His position on the R & D tax credit seems to say, research is whatever business wants it to be; it will benefit the public because it will produce growth; growth is good in and of itself. This is not particularly original stuff, nor does it take the discussion anyplace new.

There’s nothing wrong with championing the R & D tax credit or trying to minimize government intrusion in business. Where Kyl fails is asking for anything in return for the kid gloves treatment. His position would be much richer and more nuanced if he did. Maybe he’s of the Joe Biden school and thinks you can’t run on nuance or stuff that’s “too hard to explain.”

In any case, we are certainly a long way here from any very interesting thinking about “research” and how it ought to benefit the public who subsidize it. And I am more convinced than ever that in this area, as in so many others, reasonable and intelligent policy — where innovation is balanced with orientation, and a growth agenda is balanced by an agenda for sustainability — will continue to elude us.

Another Postscript on Innovation- Where I’m Going With This "Orientation" Thing

In my last couple of posts I started to make a case for what I admitted might seem like a far-fetched idea: that research into the human condition and the social world could be as deserving of credit and support as scientific and technical research, especially if the goal of supporting “research” with the R & D tax credit is to deliver “public benefits.”

At the very least, non-scientific modes of inquiry – the study of people and society, languages and culture — deserve more credit than currently given (which is, when it comes to the definition of “research” in the R & D tax code, none), because, I suggested, they provide critical balance to innovation, the very thing R & D is supposed to spur. They provide orientation.

I want to talk a little more about the work I want that word to do. I used orientation just to rough out an idea at first, but I’ve come to like it, not in spite of but because of its association with geography, maps, directions, coordinates and a sense of place. Orientation, in the sense I’m using it, is like having an internal compass — a deep sense of where you are, where you ought to go, and the best way to get there.

To take this a little further, orientation requires and stems from a profound sense of place, of the here and now, in all its complexity and connectedness to other places and to what has come before and what is likely to come after. Knowing where you really are is not just local knowledge; it’s knowledge of how you are situated, connected and not connected, where there are continuities and where you can expect discontinuities. For decision-makers, that contextual knowledge is critical to planning and strategy as well as business judgment (and therefore good governance).

Why? Because orientation helps you appreciate and respect limits, providing a much-needed sense of human scale, without which you cannot make innovation meaningful or growth sustainable. Innovation is the spur, orientation, the reins. A good rider needs both. The events of the past few years should make that tolerably clear.

Or, to use the shorthand I’ve been using since my last post: innovation produces wares; orientation creates awareness. I’m not entirely sure of this formulation, because the play on words here disguises as much if not more than it reveals. Wares can take the form of software, hardware, housewares, or other goods and services; I heard someone the other day use the barbarism “thoughtware.” Our word ware comes from an Old English word meaning “goods” – waru. Awareness, on the other hand, would seem to have nothing to do with commodity exchange. We think of it almost as a synonym for consciousness. It derives from the same root as our word guard; to be aware is to keep watch.

But tellingly both words ultimately derive from the same Indo-European root: wer. This particular “wer cluster”

has to do with watching, seeing, and guarding, but the sense of direction is often there—as in guarding (warding) or looking in a certain direction. From this root we get aware and wary, ward (from weard, keeper) and warden, as well as award and reward and wares (things that are guarded or watched).

It’s a good question whether wares need watching because they are valuable or are made valuable by being watched. Likely both, in some measure. Wares – the products of innovation — are the goods awareness watches and keeps, holds and esteems, prizes and guards, the things entrusted to its direction.