This is not a metaphor. By mining I really do mean digging things out of a hole in the ground. More exactly, mining is the extraction from the earth of natural resources which either are not being replenished, or are replenished at a rate much lower than the rate of extraction. Thus one could refer not also to coal or diamond mining, but to oil mining, water mining (the Oglalla aquifer), topsoil mining, etc.
Humans have been mining since pre-historic times. Mining makes an extensive appearance in the book of Job, chapter 28:
1 There is a mine for silver
and a place where gold is refined.
2 Iron is taken from the earth,
and copper is smelted from ore.
3 Miners put an end to the darkness;
they search out the farthest recesses
for ore in the blackest darkness.
4 Far from human dwellings they cut a shaft,
in places untouched by human feet;
far from other people they dangle and sway.
5 The earth, from which food comes,
is transformed below as by fire;
6 lapis lazuli comes from its rocks,
and its dust contains nuggets of gold.
7 No bird of prey knows that hidden path,
no falcon's eye has seen it.
8 Proud beasts do not set foot on it,
and no lion prowls there.
9 The miners' hands assault the flinty rock
and lay bare the roots of the mountains.
10 They tunnel through the rock;
their eyes see all its treasures.
11 They search the sources of the rivers
and bring hidden things to light.
This lyrical passage, which is apparently one of the earliest sources of information about ancient mining techniques, points up for me three groups of theological questions raised by mining in the present day.
1. The bountifulness of God
2. The nurture of creation
3. The search for wisdom
First question. How are we to understand the bounty (generosity) and mystery of God in a world whose absolute resource limits are becoming apparent? Chapter 28 (which is a speech from the mouth of Job) belongs to a theme of the book which emphasizes the vast extent and multi-dimensional mysteriousness of the world that God has created. Here the mystery is that just underneath the familiar earth (7,8) lies a whole other, different world – and yet God has made that world too and filled it with resources. (Later in the book the vastness of the sky and the incredible diversity of the animal kingdom are brought to witness to the same truth.) The miners in this passage are like astronauts: explorers of a new, vast kingdom, who return with mysterious treasures.
Mining in the OT is mining for metals and jewels: primarily precious metals (gold and silver), though iron, copper, bronze, lead and tin are also mentioned (Nu 31.22). Deuteronomy 8:7-9 aligns mined resources (iron and copper) with other “renewable” resources as marks of the generosity and bounty of God. The context is law-giving on the entry to the Promised Land: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out of the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.”
Throughout Scripture we hear that God generously provides for the needs of his people. With Him there are no limits and no scarcity. The story of the manna, the law of jubilee, the laws about required feasts (Deut 14:22ff, 16:13ff), Jesus’ teaching (Matt 6:25-34 “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things”, Luke 12:13ff “so is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich towards God”), Luke’s report of the early church (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37 “there was not a needy person among them”), Paul’s teaching about communion (1 Cor 11:17-34) all proceed from the same point. There is no scarcity with God: therefore, classical economics (which is about allocating goods under scarcity) does not apply.
How does this fit, then, with the fact that the minable resources of the earth are limited and the expansion of human population and per capita demands is pressing on those limits? The most notorious of those limits is the so-called “oil peak”. Hubbert (1956), a geologist with Shell, wrote a seminal paper surveying US and global energy production and predicted, correctly, that US oil production would peak in the 1970s and thereafter enter a period of decline. The basic thesis of this paper is summed up thus: “We can assume with complete assurance that the industrial exploitation of fossil fuels will consist of the progressive exhaustion of an initially fixed supply to which there will be no significant additions during our period of interest….On such a time scale (5000 years), the discovery, exploitation and exhaustion of the fossil fuels will be seen to be but an ephemeral event in the span of recorded history”. The phrase “peak oil” is now applied to the event of maximal global oil production. When will that be? Peak-oil pessimists argue that it has already occurred; but even the optimists place it well within the lifetime of someone living today.