Sunday, December 11, 2011

Arizona's 5th C: Conflict?

Site of the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine in the
Santa Rita Mountains, 30 miles south of Tucson, AZ.

When I was in fourth grade, I remember learning about the 3 C's of Arizona's economy: cotton, copper, and cattle (and oh, the havoc those three have wreaked). At the time, I didn't understand why so much fuss was made over this; I'm not sure anyone really made a true effort to explain economics to fourth graders, and I don't blame them, since I'm hard pressed to understand any of it today. I did know that many of my not-so-distant Arizona relatives - people that I met at family reunions, people who wore cowboy boots and smoked Marlboros on the back porch - really! - were either ranchers or miners, and when I thought of them I inevitably felt the romantic pull of a notion I had, impossible to articulate but very real, of my family as makers of the Wild West.

In recent years, I've heard that a 4th C has been added: climate. Our lovely winter weather draws retirees' Winnebagos to Arizona like lumbering moths to a flame, and fueled a frenzy of building and development that only the near-collapse of the domestic economy could slow - which it did. But that doesn't mean that the other three C's are gone; in fact, yesterday I attended a Forest Service hearing regarding the draft environmental impact statement for the development of the Rosemont Copper mine, 30 miles southeast of Tucson in the Santa Rita mountain range.

I attended the hearing to speak out against this mine, and I did so. But it wasn't without acknowledgment of the complexity of this issue, which I feel is often lost as both sides batten down the hatches and prepare for a war in which the other side not only has no claim to legitimacy, but is morally repugnant. As much as I oppose the mine itself, I have to acknowledge that those who support it are simply coming from a different perspective - they are not necessarily scientifically illiterate morons, as the anti-mine crowd seemed to perceive (ok, so there's a high level of scientific illiteracy happening, but that doesn't make those who suffer from it morons, or somehow inherently less valuable humans than the rest of us).

There are plenty of reasons to oppose this project. It would destroy a large swath of the Santa Ritas, one of the least-trammeled ranges in southern Arizona. It would have unpredictable consequences for the watershed, including reducing groundwater levels and the flow of springs that feed important riparian areas throughout the range (well, the only thing that's unpredictable is how much impact the mine will actually have; there's no question that it will be highly destructive.) In a regional economy that currently brings in millions of dollars from tourism, the mine would destroy land of significant scenic, biological, and recreational value. The list goes on and on. I heard several interesting arguments during the hearing yesterday, one from a former mining engineer, saying that the copper vein that is to be mined is weak, and that the project is doomed to failure for many technical reasons that I wish I understood.

The argument for the mine, of course, is jobs. In an economy where the real estate, construction, and development industries have all crashed, Arizona's 4th C is no longer working out so well. And so the lure of copper once again has a hold on us - mining can provide jobs, and copper is an increasingly valuable commodity due to its use in high-tech applications. I fully acknowledge that without copper, I wouldn't be typing on a computer right now. I wouldn't have been able to drive a car to the hearing yesterday. We all use the products of these extractive industries, so how can we actually reconcile opposing them in our own backyards?

Then there's the uncomfortable question of what I can only think to call a kind of class warfare around these issues. Overwhelmingly, though not without exception, those who spoke out against the mine were well-educated, well-off folks who opposed the project on environmental grounds or because it threatened their way of life, which often involved a ranchette where they had retired a few years before to run a few horses and open a bed-and-breakfast. Those who spoke in support of the mine did so because it would support their jobs - for example, a trucking company brought in a busload of their employees who would be hired to truck copper away from the mine. The privilege of opposing these projects belongs to the wealthier folks in our society, or at least those of us whose jobs don't rely on these types of industries. And who are we to try to argue that habitat is more important that jobs?

Despite these complications, I still oppose this mine, mostly because it seems to cost so much for so little (or unpredictable) potential benefit. Assuming a cost-benefit analysis could accurately value things like habitat and scenic beauty, I feel confident that the costs of the project would outweigh the benefits. The deeper conflict is how to find alternatives to the cultural and economic paradigms that require such a heavy toll in terms of natural resource extraction, and deeper still seems to be the divide between worldviews represented at the hearing yesterday. The people around me were dismissive and demeaning towards those who spoke in favor of the mine; I have no doubt that the other side of the room snickered when I talked about the threats to riparian habitat. After all, what use is a bird when there's no food on the table?

1 comment:

  1. There is already 5 Cs. It's on the state seal. You missed citrus. Revise your blog so people don't ridicule you for messing that up.