Mining News

The view from England: Time to wake up sleepy heads

I have a theory that mining executives are eating too much salad. Beatrix Potter warned us in 1909 that eating lettuce is soporific (in her Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies). Whatever the cause, mining companies seem to be sleepwalking into a catastrophic shortage of skills.

The revered children’s author was a remarkable lady. A keen natural scientist, Potter had a particular interest in archaeology, entomology and mycology, producing accurate watercolour drawings of unusual fossils, fungi and archaeological artefacts.

Born on July 28, 1866, Potter’s tales of Peter Rabbit were published in 1902, followed by her Jemima Puddle-Duck stories six years later. She designed a Peter Rabbit doll in 1903 (making it the world’s first licensed literary character) and went on to explore other merchandise options, including a Peter Rabbit board game. Potter died in 1943 (shortly after becoming the first woman elected President of the Herdwick Sheep Breeder’s Association), leaving 15 farms and over 4,000 acres of land to the National Trust.

Perhaps Potter had also studied Italian history. In the early Roman empire, lettuce was eaten at the end of dinner to help people sleep. It has been known for over 2,000 years that milky sap in the vegetable contains an opium-like substance, lactucin, that helps you relax.

Asleep at the wheel doesn’t come close to describing the performance of our leaders as the number of mining graduates dwindles in the developed countries (mining undergraduate enrolment has been zero in the U.K. for the past two years, as reported in the previous ‘View from England’ column).

Hard on the heels of the U.K. Mining Education Forum’s report on the scarcity of mining graduates (published July 10) comes two pertinent reports in the space of four days.

First, on July 18, the High Court ruled that the government’s landmark ‘Net-Zero Strategy’, first published in October 2021 (in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow), was “inadequate and unlawful”. The London-based court described the strategy as “too vague” as it contained no assurances that the targets (to decarbonize the domestic economy by 2050) could be met, and ordered that the strategy be amended within eight months.

Second, on July 22, the Department for Business, Energy & Industry Strategy published a policy paper entitled ‘Resilience for the future: The U.K.’s critical minerals strategy’.

In a forward to the report, the Department’s Secretary of State, Kwasi Kwarteng, said: “As technology evolves faster than ever, we become more and more reliant on a new cohort of minerals. We are moving to a world powered by critical minerals: we need lithium, cobalt and graphite to make batteries for electric cars; silicon and tin for our electronics; rare earth elements for electric cars and wind turbines.”

Kwarteng added, “Our jobs and industries rely on minerals vulnerable to market shocks, geopolitical events and logistical disruptions, at a time when global demand for these minerals is rising faster than ever. It is vital that we make our supply chains more resilient and more diverse to support British industries of the future, deliver on our energy transition and protect our national security.”

The U.K.’s first ever Critical Minerals Strategy sets out a plan to grow domestic capabilities, collaborate with international partners and enhance global markets to make them more responsive, transparent and responsible.

The report says the government will “re-establish the U.K. as a skills leader, and continue to do cutting-edge research and innovation in exploration, mining, refining and manufacturing.” A first step, of course, might be to encourage Exeter University to restore undergraduate mining at Camborne School of Mines.

A net-zero carbon-emission strategy can’t be secured without critical minerals, and these can’t be sourced without mining, which needs graduates. The mining industry knows what is required, and must persevere.

In that regard, executives could learn from Potter, whose manuscripts were initially rejected by several publishers. Undaunted, in 1901 she privately produced copies of a story she had written in 1893. Peter Rabbit was published the following year (being reprinted six times) and more than 250 million copies of her legendary tales have now been sold worldwide.

A Critical Engineers Strategy is required from our leaders, and soon. Universities need to be encouraged into continuing with mining courses and, crucially, methods found to entice students to enrol. Let’s hope mining executives share some of the can-do attributes of Peter Rabbit, rather than those of Jemima, who was a very silly duck.

— Dr. Chris Hinde is a mining engineer and the director of Pick and Pen Ltd., a U.K.-based consulting firm he set up in 2018 specializing in mining industry trends. He previously worked for S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Metals and Mining division.

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