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INTRODUCTION

It is hard to disagree with the goal of sustainability—that economic activity today not come at the cost of such extensive environmental degradation and resource depletion that future generations are worse off than we are. As a concept, sustainability is so appealing intuitively that it has become a unifying theme of both academic and popular debates about environmental policy. It is a rallying cry of environmental activists and a stated goal of a number of governments. The concept was popularized in the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future. Known as the Brundtland report, this report defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Since then sustainability has been institutionalized in President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development, in the World Bank’s Vice Presidency for Environmentally Sustainable Development, and in the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development which is responsible for carrying out Agenda 21, the action plan of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Yet when applied to mineral resources, there is little agreement on what is to be sustained, and by what means. Without such agreement, sustainable development will remain little more than a slogan of little practical value to public-policy makers. Part of what is missing from most discussions is an understanding of the nature of mineral resources and the dynamics of their development. Perceiving



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MINERAL RESOURCES AND SUSTAINABILITY: CHALLENGES FOR EARTH SCIENTISTS 1 INTRODUCTION It is hard to disagree with the goal of sustainability—that economic activity today not come at the cost of such extensive environmental degradation and resource depletion that future generations are worse off than we are. As a concept, sustainability is so appealing intuitively that it has become a unifying theme of both academic and popular debates about environmental policy. It is a rallying cry of environmental activists and a stated goal of a number of governments. The concept was popularized in the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future. Known as the Brundtland report, this report defines sustainability as “meeting the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Since then sustainability has been institutionalized in President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development, in the World Bank’s Vice Presidency for Environmentally Sustainable Development, and in the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development which is responsible for carrying out Agenda 21, the action plan of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Yet when applied to mineral resources, there is little agreement on what is to be sustained, and by what means. Without such agreement, sustainable development will remain little more than a slogan of little practical value to public-policy makers. Part of what is missing from most discussions is an understanding of the nature of mineral resources and the dynamics of their development. Perceiving

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MINERAL RESOURCES AND SUSTAINABILITY: CHALLENGES FOR EARTH SCIENTISTS this deficiency the Committee on Earth Resources of the Board on Earth Sciences and Resources convened a workshop on Mineral Resources and Sustainability on November 15, 1994. This document is the Committee ’s report on the ideas and concepts discussed at the workshop. It complements the 1994 National Research Council book Assigning Economic Value to Natural Resources. The report that follows does not attempt to cover all aspects of sustainability. It begins by summarizing various definitions of sustainability. It then focuses on two issues to which earth scientists have much to contribute: (1) depletion of mineral resources, and (2) the direct environmental effects of mining. Downstream environmental effects of mining are not treated in this report.