Mining Suppliers: The Invisible Aliens in the Movie Avatar and in Canadian Society – by David Robinson

David Robinson is an Economist at Sudbury’s Laurentian University

Outer space has more than its share of miners and no mining suppliers. I wonder how they do it.

You may not have noticed, but the highest grossing movie in history was a mining movie. Technical support for the industry was provided by the military. The mining industry lost. The supply industry didn’t even show. The movie was Avatar.

Sci-fi fans know that one of the main activities in outer space is mining. There are stories about asteroid mining, lunar mining, mining on Mars and on planets half a galaxy away. Mining provides a reason to be in space. Mining supplies everything you need to live in space.

Mining supplies water, precious metals, helium 3 for energy and exotic jewels to drive the most unlikely plots. Mining technology is used to blow up asteroids headed for Earth. There are claim jumpers in space and whole underdeveloped worlds run by cruel mining companies. Mining in space is something the sci-fi writers take seriously.

And it isn’t just sci-fi. Extraterrestrial mining is a serious subject. Our readers have heard of Sudbury projects in lunar excavation and robotic drill rigs.

Space agencies are studying sub-surface habitations for the moon and Mars. If we humans ever get established in space, we will take with us radical new designs for mining equipment and mind-blowing new mining techniques.  And sooner or later, there will be a mining supply industry in space. So we have a mystery.

Here on earth, the mining industry depends on a growing number of specialized suppliers. The industry is increasingly high tech, and it depends more and more on sophisticated suppliers to allow it to work faster, deeper, and more safely. We can see the future of mining, and we know it will depend utterly on the supply sector for improved technology. So why can’t the sci-fi writers see the future as well as we can?

Stranger yet, why don’t these visionary science fiction writers understand that life in space will depend on the mining supply industry?

Maybe the mining supply sector is too boring for them. Maybe the consultants who jaunt from Sudbury to Botswana, Argentina and Greenland are as tedious as economists. Maybe the robotic pipe cutting and welding plants are less exciting than the plumbing section at Canadian Tire.  And maybe the incandescent steel shafts being twisted into drill shafts just wouldn’t make great visuals.

It does matter that sci-fi writers ignore the mining supply industries. Sci-fi isn’t just the escapist fiction of adolescent boys and assorted academic misfits. Sci-fi is part of the way we chart the near future. Sci-fi is shaping our future decision-makers. Indiana Jones singlehandedly doubled the world’s supply of archaeologists. Sci-fi certainly is keeping the most adventurous young people away form the industries that support mining.

And sci-fi really has taken over the minds of the young. Since 1977, 13 of the top 33 grossing movies of the year have been science fiction. Before Star Wars came out in 1977, only one science fiction movie ever topped the bill, and that was Frankenstein in 1931.  Since then, science fiction has become a cultural juggernaut.

It is a juggernaut that doesn’t like mining.  In Avatar, mining is the enemy and there is not one tiny, three-dimensional glimmer of enthusiasm for the technology that makes mining possible.

The closest thing to mining technology in recent movies has been machines that can bore through the crust at fantastic speeds and cause earthquakes or eruptions that threaten the world.  Or else the machine bores through the crust at fantastic speeds to prevent earthquakes and eruptions. And the closest thing to a mining supplier is a brilliant young scientist, male or female, who single-handedly builds a machine that can bore through the crust at fantastic speeds.

We have a mining supply powerhouse here in Sudbury, but we seem to be under-represented in the imaginations of Canadians. The Minister of Industry seems to believe the mining supply sector is based on another planet. Maybe it is time to cozy up to the movie industry and help it see the dramatic possibilities.  Maybe it’s time to help the next generation imagine a supply industry that is out of this world.