Preamble. Since the failure of the Mount Polley TSF in British Columbia and Samarco in Brazil, many things have changed in the tailings management industry. New guidance documents and regulations have been promulgated, for example. More and more mining companies have engaged third party reviewers and expert review panels. The industry has become vastly more diligent. In this post, I pose several questions and scenarios that are meant to provoke, create discussion and perhaps raise even more questions. In this post, please don’t think that I am indicating that a future without tailings is even possible. I am simply posing a “what-if”. And it is a HUGE what-if. I am also not suggesting in any way that tailings facilities are inherently unsafe. And, of course there are highly viable alternative tailings management practices, such as underground backfill, in-pit storage, filtered tailings and blended tailings and waste rock, just to mention a few. But here, if you will indulge me, I am visualizing a possible future where the practice of tailings management is fundamentally re-imagined from the ground up (pun intended). The 25 January 2019 failure of Vale tailings facility in Brumadinho, Minas Gerais Brazil has re-set the mind and hearts of most people in the mining industry. My industry. Up until that point, I think that it is a fair generalization to consider that the following quote by Albert Einstein is at least somewhat applicable to the state of mind in tailings management, “Everything has changed except our way of thinking.” And now, as former US Department of Defense worker, Google executive and Facebook team member Regina Dugan put it, “We think someone else – someone smarter than us, someone more capable, with much more resources – will solve the problem. But there isn’t anyone else.” Are we supposed to do the impossible?
Set your mind to the following quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: “Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,” she said. “One can't believe impossible things”. “I daresay you haven't had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast”. I know. It’s a children’s book, but please bear with me. I am reading a brilliant book about the entrepreneurial spirit and unbridled thinking. I don’t mean the “outside the box” kind of thinking that leads to a 10% improvement in a process, but rather a 10-fold improvement. The kind of thinking that Elon Musk engaged in when he founded Space-X, pursued and won the X-Prize for safely sending a reusable spacecraft into space and returning it to earth, twice. Musk did not resolve himself for the “settled science” mindset that would warn him that a layperson could not outperform NASA. Musk had a dream, a vision, a goal and an audacious plan. Yes, he began a Ph.D. in applied physics and material sciences at Stanford University in 1995 but dropped out after only two days to pursue his entrepreneurial career. He had no real training or background in space travel, except for his bachelor’s degree in physics, and I am sure that Musk would be the first to admit that this background does not a rocket scientist make. Musk had an impossible dream, and through very hard work, drive, perseverance and having an amazing team built up around him, he not only dreamed an impossible dream: he achieved it.
The book, “Moonshots: Creating a world of Abundance”, is incredibly thought-provoking. I suppose if you could sum the book up in a single thought, it would be captured in Jim Goodwin’s quote, “The impossible is often the untried”. The main author of Moonshots (Naveen Jain), writes, “What is it to believe in something that does not yet exist, has no proofs, cannot be examined, measured, or even seen? It means that if we believe in it because we can conceive it, then we must create it! In the act of creating, we pass from imagination to faith to knowledge. More important, in the end, we learn that the nonexistent is whatever we have not yet sufficiently desired or imagined”. According to Jain, entrepreneurs believe that simply due to the existence of potential, anything can be brought into exist; we don’t have to know how, but we can always ask, “What if?” Jain writes of an entrepreneur, “He knows that the moonshot is going to be difficult. In fact, the conventional wisdom is that what he seeks to accomplish is not merely difficult, but ‘impossible’, and that he is ‘crazy’ to even contemplate it. This is his starting point. And mere positive thinking is no match for this reality. Moonshots are not for mere dreamers”. More next week. Please watch this spot.