Minerals matter. From the first stone tools used by our ancestors to the high-tech metals that powered our computers throughout the global pandemic, minerals and their respective elements continue to push society forward. Minerals shaped the course of human history as key ingredients to some of humanity’s greatest accomplishments and discoveries. Without minerals, the equipment used to develop the COVID vaccine, mass produce it, and transport it across the world would have been impossible. It is often argued that minerals are not as important as water and food. While that may be true to sustaining life, it is far from reality. Rising populations and urban centers require new technologies and infrastructure, made possible by minerals, to provide sustainable supply of food and water.
However, minerals are not always a force for good in the world. Their use in weapons, military technologies, nuclear devices, and as a source of illicit financing for rebel groups have reinforced some of humanity’s darkest moments. Mining operations have also historically polluted local communities and old extractive techniques contributed to climate change and land degradation.
Whatever their use, the rising importance of minerals in the world cannot go unnoticed. Supply chains demand increased materials necessary to meet energy transition goals and climate change targets. Demand is outpacing future supply and the victims will be the most vulnerable communities and the global south. Humanity has hit a crossroads where it must balance the positives and negatives of a new green revolution. Unlike the previous industrial revolution, society must get this right and ensure the future is sustainable. The same materials used to induce climate change will be needed to mitigate and adapt to its worst consequences.
Committed mine production (blue area) and primary demand (yellow and red lines) for selected minerals under different scenarios. Sustainable development scenario (SDS) and stated policies scenario (STEPS). Source: IEA.
A major obstacle is the public’s perception of the extractive industry. There is a disconnect between minerals and their role in everyday life. Technology has advanced to a point where individual components in our daily products are so foreign to the materials that were used to make them. For many communities, the idea of a new mine opening in their area is unacceptable and many argue the “Not in My Backyard” principle. The public asks for alternatives or substitutes but the periodic table is only so diverse. Each element has specific properties which make it useful for humans, so finding alternatives can be a complicated and timely process. Even recycling has its environmental impact and is unlikely to meet projected demand.
Countries across the world are recognizing the importance of where their materials come from and the vulnerabilities along the way. If policymakers and academics want to move forward on this evolving problem, then a reframing of the issue must be developed to incentivize and increase public engagement and ensure extractive operations will not harm the environment.
Industry and policymakers are desperate to gain the trust of these key communities. However, industry is forgetting that their mining activity produces one of the greatest public diplomacy tools of all time: mineral specimens. Hidden away in cracks and fissures of complex ore deposits are beautiful perfect forms of natural art that encapsulate the ultimate potential of these critical elements. Compared to majority of ore, these faceted complex forms are rare and often destroyed in mining process. Companies cannot waste their time on material that serves little value to the bottom line.
What if these mineral specimens were the key to changing the public’s perception, improving industry relations, and starting a new mineral revolution?
Every mineral has its story. From its geologic origin to its extraction and eventual use in products, the journey of minerals are a story of grand potential. Humans used art to express themselves for thousands of years, exploring issues facing their societies and contemporary civilizations. Are minerals not natural art? Minerals draw millions of people every year to museums across the globe. Families and schools flock to see some of the universe’s most beautiful creations.
How can global issues, such as the energy transition, be better understood and communicated by knowing and using minerals? Imagine walking into a museum gallery where minerals are laid out with their end products in an exhibit that transcends multiple disciplines and engages the audience with issues that matter to their daily lives. Minerals are normally shown for their aesthetic value only, when the reality is they serve more meaningful connections to economics, history, security, international affairs, and human rights.
Left: Specimen of carrolite (CuCo₂S₄), a primary mineral of cobalt, from the Katanga province in the Congo. Right: Two children busting boulders looking for previous metals in the Congo (The Carter Center).
The time has come to reframe minerals as part of the problem to part of the solution. Connecting the public’s fascination with beautiful natural art to future issues engages not only current voters, but future generations of scientists, policymakers, and industry professionals. The shared passion of minerals and their uses can create common ground between extractive industries and local communities. Education is something both sides want, so minerals provide the perfect avenue for cooperation and communication. Companies must recognize the social potential of these rare crystals that produce massive dividends in public engagement and aid in community trust and negotiations.
Throughout the next few articles, our team will explore how companies, museums and communities can begin to conceptualize these concepts. More importantly, how can society as a whole utilize what will be termed as “Mineral Diplomacy” to engage domestic audiences and abroad to the challenges facing humanity and the role minerals will play in humanity’s future.