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By Rose Ragsdale
For Mining News 

Movie gives industry a big black eye

James Cameron's 'Avatar' exploits outdated stereotype; gifted earth scientists and engineers lead most successful mining companies

 

Last updated 1/17/2010 at Noon



I must join what appears to be a growing parade of voices criticizing some aspect of the mega-blockbuster sci-fi movie, Avatar, and add my two cents.

Critics have complained about the movie's story line, citing everything from its blatant allusions to the worst aspects of the recent war in Iraq (a la military contractors run amok) to its disturbing similarity to some of the most shameful chapters in western history where Europeans brutally exploited gold and other precious metals controlled by Native Americans.

But the bone I'd like to pick with James Cameron, who reportedly spent more than $300 million on his cinematic masterpiece, is the thoroughly irresponsible shot that he takes at the mining industry.

Some critics have chalked up such lapses in the plot to sloppiness, but I find it difficult to believe that meticulous researchers and gifted science fiction screenwriters could not have done a better job, given Cameron's budget, if he had required them to do so.

515 times more valuable than gold

Avatar is a story about conquest, but Cameron chooses to make mining his industry "du jour" to slam on the way to telling us how the good guy gets the girl.

In 2154, the RDA Corporation is mining Pandora, a lush, Earth-like moon of the planet Polyphemus, a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system. Since the events are set in the year 2154 - that's 144 years, or 14.5 decades, in the future - and given the current pace of technology, it seems reasonable that this moon, Pandora, is fairly close in distance to earth.

As we join the story, humans are busy mining a rocky mineral called "unobtainium," that we are told sells for $20 million per kilogram. This means the miners are there to exploit a resource that is roughly 515 times more valuable than gold at current record prices of around $1,100 per ounce. Given the movie's near-future timeline, we are either poised for a prolonged period of outrageous inflation, or this unobtainium is a true wonder mineral.

Cameron, by the way, neglects to tell us what unobtainium is used for, but one might infer that it is something like the rarest of rare earth elements, and like REEs, it would have numerous important applications.

No evidence of innovation

Yet here we are, mining this exceedingly valuable resource on a distant moon, using equipment that suspiciously appears unchanged from that currently in use at major mines around the world today.

Also, Pandora is so hostile to humans that the atmosphere, itself, can kill us in four minutes. Yet no unique technology has been developed to meet this thorny challenge. If the apparatus they strap to their faces is any indication, humans might as well still be swimming in Earth's oceans with a small oxygen tank.

The fictional mining company, meanwhile, spent many years and untold millions of dollars developing clones of the blue, 10-foot-tall, sentient inhabitants of the planet, in hopes of what? Here, the story line gets a little fuzzy. Are the avatars to influence the Natives, or should I say, "Na'vi," which is what the Pandorans call themselves, or to spy on them and learn all their secrets.

We never find out because the chief mercenary jumps the gun with the mining exec's blessing and attacks the peaceful Na'vi in an attempt to forcibly take their unobtainium resources.

Of course the attack fails and a few good people and many Na'vi die, along with one bad human, before the miners and their mercenaries are sent home in disgrace.

Good sci-fi could happen

The thing about good science fiction is that a reader or viewer can sigh after enjoying the story and say, "That could happen."

The reason: The plot always incorporates true science into a fantastic story line.

Not so with Avatar. All I could say after admittedly enjoying the show's flashy 3-D special effects, was, "That could never happen."

Why? Because miners have come too far to slip back hundreds of years into the unenlightened past.

It is often true that corporations are guided by directors who answer to shareholders. But shareholders universally want profits, not problems, and there is a very big difference between the two.

This is a concept that Hollywood grasps well enough in the box office but seems to have trouble conveying on the big screen.

Cameron's mining executive in Avatar is an inept fellow, more concerned about improving his golf game than about finding an amicable solution to his community relations challenges on Pandora.

This guy would be as rare as a dodo bird in a modern, successful mining company.

Modern miners are technically savvy and hardworking. They equip themselves with the tools to get the job done within governing regulations, and they do it in ways that benefit the local communities rather than harm them.

Mining organizations today are increasingly conscious of the impact their operations have on the environment, and they work to infuse their ranks with an urgency to meet these challenges using innovation and collaboration, rather than intimidation and violence.

This drive to "do it better than we did it last time" is a mechanism that I believe will endure in the years to come and serve the industry well over time.

In 150 years, I think the one thing that may still be easily recognizable in a mining operation will be this respectful "can do" spirit.

 

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