Calculating Costs in Human Lives

2010 has been the year of mining accidents in the headlines all over the world, from West Virginia to Chile to China. In April, I wrote about the hazardous state of mining in the United States, and the conditions on par or worse can be observed elsewhere in the world. Mining in general, not just of coal but of minerals and precious metals, is poorly regulated and it’s dangerous and we pay the cost in human lives, from people killed in cave-ins in poorly maintained mines to people dying of cancers acquired as a result of working with toxic chemicals used in minerals processing.

There are a lot of environmental concerns about mining; I see much discussion about mountaintop removal, for example, and a question of whether it’s possible to have ‘clean’ coal. These discussions are important and they have an important place in the dialogue about regulating the industry. It’s critical to talk about the historic and current environmental impact of mining, the huge damage that has been done in some regions of the world out of greed and eagerness to get at what lies below the surface of the earth.

But I would like to see a lot more conversations about the cost in human lives. As we talk about environmental damage, we should be able to also discuss the way that industries like mining impact human beings. In the short term, we clearly need better and more effective regulation to get better protections to workers, although it’s impossible to make an occupation like mining wholly safe even if we try. (And that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try; some improvement is better than none.)

As we talk about clean technology, as we debate ‘clean coal’ and discuss solar panels and alternative energy, we should discuss the cost in human lives, because there is a cost, and we need to stop eliding it. Is it possible for coal to be ‘clean’ when it comes with a price tag in blood? Is it possible for technology to be ‘clean’ when the precious metals used are soiled with the lives of exploited people in Africa and Asia? When we talk about how great recycling e-waste is, can we lend a thought to how that recycling is done and talk about the pollution in areas where workers are handling recycling without adequate protections and dumping toxic compounds in waterways?

It’s excellent to see a push for clean technology, do not get me wrong, and I do not want to argue that ‘dirty’ technology is somehow better for human beings. Obviously it’s not, as the lives lost on the Deepwater Horizon testify. But I think it’s important to avoid the tendency to skip over the things we don’t want to talk about when we promote better environmental policy. Why not talk about the human impact of these things, to see if there is possibly a way to do it better, more effectively, more safely, in a way that will protect human beings and preserve not just the environment, but also human communities?

Environmental issues are very much a social justice issue. Problems with the planet are clearly tied in with many human problems, from wars over water scarcity to environmental racism. Addressing these intersections is the only way to combat them and some areas of the environmental movement are better at it than others. One area where people are really falling short is in technology and energy. We are told that clean tech will save the world, but we aren’t told about the problems that still haven’t been resolved.

It’s not that these things cannot be solved, are intractable and unavoidable. It’s that we aren’t talking about them, the attention of the general public isn’t being drawn to them, and as a result people aren’t working on ways to fix them. When I look at something like the coal industry, I see an intractably dirty industry, not just environmentally, but also in terms of social justice, in terms of who works in mines and where mines are located and what kind of practices are considered legal in the industry. I don’t want to talk about ‘clean’ coal because there is no such thing. I want to talk about alternatives to coal and weaning ourselves away from coal. I want to talk about a world where no person of any age has to go into a coal mine.

Human lives matter. When we talk about the cost in human lives we must recognise not just the cost and value of a human life as determined by actuaries, X years of lost wages translating into Y dollars. We also need to talk about the intrinsic value those human beings have to their families, their loved ones, their communities. We need to talk about the culture of loss present in some communities as a result of the fact that so many residents work in dirty and dangerous occupations. Some of these occupations support supposedly lofty goals.

Environmental justice only works, in my opinion, if it’s available to everyone. We don’t get to pick and choose who lives and who dies, and we need to have frank conversations about the inherently dangerous structure and organization of some industries if we want to have a fighting chance at making the world a better place. If we believe that something is good for the environment, we also need to ask if it’s good for human lives; I don’t want organic strawberries kept artificially cheap with the use of exploited labour any more than I want to power my house with electricity bought in blood.