Wrong Lessons From The Chilean Mine: Technology as the Ultimate Savior

Count me among the billions of people who followed the saga of the Chilean miners with intense interest. The story captured me in so many ways. Following the 1999 earthquake in Izmit, Turkey, I’ve worked in the quake disaster zone (20K dead, thousands of collapsed buildings) with rescue teams from Fairfax County – and there are very few moments in my life which can compare to those precious minutes when a person is successfully pulled out alive from under the rubble. Just the thought of a rescue anywhere brings up an enormous well of emotions. Plus, I’ve done recreational cave explorations in the past (yes, spelunking) so I have an intimate sense of the darkness and other-worldiness that the underground holds. (And unlike mines which tend to be dreary, natural caves are hauntingly beautiful). Add fascinating questions of social dynamics in a largish group in forced confinement (students in my introductory to sociology class this semester have repeatedly heard me talk about the miners as examples to key concepts we’ve been exploring), sprinkle some discussions of NASA helping design capsules, mix in the issue of mine safety and resource depletion, and you’ve got me, hooked before we even get to the miners whose wife now learns of his mistress (he must not have been on Facebook as they likely would have discovered each other long ago).

But the spectacle is wrong. The message is wrong. The feeling it’s generating is wrong. Not because it’s not great to celebrate such these almost literal rebirths (it is wonderful), nor because it’s wrong to marvel at the technology or the drama (how can you help but marvel?). What’s wrong is the message that whatever our high-stakes technology messes up, our highly-advanced technology can solve.

My unease with the portrayal of this story isn’t just about the fact that this mine, like many others around the world, had an appalling safety record and the miners would have been out by themselves in 48 hours had the mine owners installed the safety ladders in the ventilation shafts as they were, by law, required to and warned about. And I do realize, as others have noted, that we copiously consume many mined metals and minerals as if they do not come at a huge human and environmental cost – costs which have been increasing as the easy pickings have long been picked over and we are now drilling deeper and deeper to extort the earth to give up these precious elements. Miners around the world are treated as discarded lives (thousands were dead just in China just last year) and suffer from a wide-range debilitating diseases.

The problem is that this rescue was a spectacle of technological confidence. The message was that with enough money, determination, technological savvy, gadgets, NASA, experts, smarts, we can solve these problems which are of our making. Yes, we can, for small problems (and we should) like one collapsed mine. However, our bigger problems, climate change, resource depletion can’t be solved by just-the-right-amount-of-tech-wizardry. There are hard choices and inevitable compromises ahead and we should get ready for a (global) discussion on how to finally start ameliorating the unavoidable upheaval that is headed our way.

There is one part of the message, however, I believe is crucial. The spirit of solidarity and camaraderie that the miners held onto under very difficult circumstances will be key. Paradoxically, such a spirit is often easier to hold on to under grave conditions that threaten survival and require sacrifice from all. Metaphorically speaking, we as humanity are already trapped in mine, a big blue and pretty one but still one that confines us and is under threat, and our technology is not going to provide us with a magical phoenix capsule that will solve everything without much sacrifice or pain and there will be no extraterrestrials who send us glucose drinks and video-feeds through ingenious tubes.

It’s just us. We need to gawking at gadgets and capsules and start talking.

One thought on “Wrong Lessons From The Chilean Mine: Technology as the Ultimate Savior

  1. Robert Nagle

    Good essay. We encounter this in climate change media coverage a lot. In coal mine disasters, lots of coverage about the families and the drills, but little about the thousands who are afflicted with black lung disease. Lots of coverage about hurricanes and floods, but little coverage of how climate change may be contributing to it.

    From a Mark Fiore satirical video about the generous BP spill coverage : ““We love it when our environmental disasters have good visuals, little submarines and crying tourists to make even better. You just don’t get that kind of TV with some kind of dead zone in the Gulf.”


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