November 3, 2010

What really matters

by Lorraine Collins

Whew! It's finally over! What a thrill! Oh no, I don't mean the election, which some may think of as more thrilling than others. I mean that enthralling rescue of miners in Chile last month. By now the rapt attention of the world has moved on to other dramas, but that event will live in song and story---television documentaries, movies, paperback books.

The first documentary about the rescue aired on PBS a few days ago. It showed the giant machines that were brought in to pound a hole through the rock and the men who worked so desperately. What a triumph of science and faith, technology and spirit, courage and teamwork it was. It also demonstrated government efficiency and innovation and an apparent willingness to share credit for the success. It's everything we long for here in America and we saw it for a few weeks there in Chile. The rescue also showcased American inventiveness and knowhow as American equipment and expertise were substantially involved in the rescue. So that makes us feel even better about it.

I guess you could say that what happened in Chile was the antipathy of what we've experienced here at home during the long, rancorous election season. The rescue of the miners cost a whole lot of money but maybe not as much as was spent by candidates in California. Or not as much as was lost by those big banks that were too big to fail.

In the midst of all the drama, one of the commentators who filled the television screens and airwaves during the rescue of the miners said something that I had not heard for a long time, but I think is still true. He reminded us that all wealth comes from two things only---mining and agriculture. Without mining and agriculture, it is said, nothing else exists. It's a primitive idea, perhaps, and one nobody thinks about. But if you wear it, sit on it, eat it, drive it, read it, watch it or use it to talk to somebody half a world away, whatever you are using would not be there for you unless somebody had dug a mineral out of the ground or grown a crop. That's where it starts.

Of course, a lot of other procedures have to go on after the initial production or extraction of the basic material, such as processing, refining, inventing, designing, manufacturing and marketing. All this leads, somehow, to banks, lawyers, corporations, hedge funds, speculation, bubbles, and Wall Street bankers who get millions of dollars in bonuses no matter what. Somehow, all those people who seem to have nothing whatever to do with mining and agriculture appear to be the guys with all the money. It kind of makes you wonder.

Our economic system seems to reward best those who are far removed from the basic source of all wealth---mining and agriculture. The only time we actually pay much attention to miners is when they are involved in a catastrophe that captures our imagination. And the only time we think much about those who toil in the fields is when we're wondering whether or not they're illegal aliens.

 There are easier ways to make a living than mining and agriculture so we should be grateful for those who are willing to do the work. The men who were trapped in that mine haven't spoken much about the experience yet, but they've said they realized what was important, what really mattered to them, and so did their families waiting for the rescue.

 The rest of us should stop and think of this, too. What really matters to the economic health of the nation? What are we producing, manufacturing, inventing other than complicated financial instruments that nobody really seems to understand?  If we thought about that a little more, we might not be in the mess we're in.

Lorraine Collins is a writer who lives in Spearfish. She can be reached at

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