The Gleision Disaster: Quantum Theory and Butterfly Effects in Mining

Monday, 16 December, 2013

One of the most fascinating facets of quantum theory is that all things in the universe are in fact interconnected: known as the Pauli Exclusion Principle, it states that all atoms in the world are unified through their energy levels, and therefore any change in one atomic state (i.e rub your hands together) changes the energy balance through the entire universe. And did you know that electrons can also be in two places at the same time?

Watching the complex, almost quantum world of the global economy, events sometimes take on eerie dynamics. With protests, legal rulings and geopolitical issues flaring up round the world, it’s hard not to make whimsical speculations on some deeper underlying pattern. Edward Lorenz’s Butterfly Effect is a more familiar theory, theorizing that tiny world events - a sneeze, a kiss, a butterfly flapping its wings – can cause massive traumas: an earthquake in Japan or a world war.

In the past week a host of interconnected events tickled the inner physicists at CSR21. First we had a road blockade at Beowulf’s Kallak Project in Sweden. Then, suddenly, two more blockades appeared simultaneously in opposite parts of the world in Manchester, England, and eastern Australia. In the early hours of this morning, England, anti-fracking campaigners strew a blade from a wind turbine across the road, blocking access to IGas Energy’s drilling site; this event providing a seasonal symmetry to the Balcombe protests in the summer.

At the same time in Australia, protesters formed a picket line against Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek mine in New South Wales; a project which was approved during the Balcombe fracking protests. Did Whitehaven Coal suffer from the Pauli Exclusion Principle, or the Butterfly Effect?

In the legal sphere there are more patterns: with the Gleision Mine Disaster back in the news today after the manager during the disaster, in which three people were killed from flooding, is to be brought to trial for gross negligence manslaughter. In a similar legal ruling of accountability, Canada ruled that TSX-listed Hudbay Minerals will stand trial for the human rights violations of their subsidiary in Guatemala, even though parent companies are not usually considered liable for their subsidiary's actions. An insightful piece written last week from Norton Rose Fulbright’s Janne Duncan well explains the situation.

And so what might this pattern be? Quantum mechanics? Chaos Theory? Well, most likely a rather less exciting but effervescent discontent with extractives and commodities companies: a discontent that led the UK government to make an inquiry into the industry last month. The pattern is one of major communicative disconnect between the public and the often esoteric dynamics of international mining companies.

Having spoken to many activists over the past year, it’s clear that people are not theologically ‘against’ mining (as some companies fatalistically believe) and are aware of the important minerals garnered in the extraction process. What they are against is, above all, the opaque and elite process of mining; much of it justified, much of it not. Anger is usually against governments and advocacy group’s as much as mining companies. A fundamental belief that mining ‘destroys value’ rather than ‘creates value’ pervades, and until the social and developmental benefits of a transparent mining industry are properly communicated, we can expect more chaos theory and butterfly effects.