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Are you sustainably managing your resources?

Sustainability has a broad definition and relates to virtually every part of our lives. In fact, with the number of different interpretations available, the sheer number of definitions for the word itself is becoming unsustainable. So, for our resource-based industry, it’s time to put some context around it.

Let’s go back in time, then.

While the human species diverged from apes millions of years ago, it was not until about 60,000 years ago that modern society appeared, bringing with it much of what we identify with today to define ourselves as different from “animals”. One of the key advances at the time was the use of stone for tools.

Quarrying had commenced.

Through the ages since, mankind has extracted resources from the surrounding environment to provide the necessities for survival and to advance its way of life. As a starting point, the essential resource base includes food, water, energy and infrastructure materials. In today’s global society, some would argue that those essentials should also include communications, and transportation or logistics, but as a resource, these two are underpinned by materials and energy, thus we return to the original four identified throughout history.


The lifestyle of a society is dependent on the resources it has available, and accordingly, a cessation of access to suitable resources will result in the collapse of the previous lifestyle. This is particularly the case for the access to food supply and shelter materials. It is difficult to gauge the rate at which biological resources can be harvested indefinitely without depleting them. Where there are insufficient resources to support the population, then that population reduces as people move or die out; and when people move – then cities move or die.

As obvious as this may seem, history indicates that we humans have a very poor record of managing our resources in a sustainable way. There are multiple examples of civilisations that have collapsed or been abandoned as a result of ruined resource bases.

One of these is in North America, where the Anasazi developed the most advanced Indian civilisation on the continent, lasting from 900AD until the 12th century. They constructed massive multi-storey dwellings (called Pueblos) utilising stone and timber. The Chaco Canyon national monument includes one of these that had 650 rooms. It stood five storeys high with massive timber floor beams and was 205m long by 96m wide. The structure is located in the middle of the desert and was the largest building ever erected in North America until the late 19th century when it was topped by steel skyscrapers.

why was it abandoned?

Originally the location was surrounded by woodland. As the Anasazi civilisation developed, they consumed the surrounding forest for construction materials and energy sources. With the depletion of their resources, access to energy sources extended out to 16km and roads were built to bring construction materials from 40km away and then further out from 80km away. The Anasazi had no beasts of burden so logistics consisted of manpower. When food production finally failed, the city was abandoned.

In the Eurasian continent, history shows the centre of power shifted geographically from the Mideast (Assyria, Babylon, Persia) to ancient Greece, through Rome and further to western and northern Europe. A plausible hypothesis for this shift is as a result of each of the ancient civilisations ruining their underpinning resource bases progressively.


Moving forward then, the population of the world today is approximately six billion, with an expected figure of nine billion people by the year 2050. In our existing cities, the demand for resources will outstrip supply as the number of people inhabiting these continues to swell. As city residents will climb from three billion to an estimated six billion people in the same period, we are looking at a future where two-thirds – or 66 per cent – of the world’s population will live in cities. This increasing population requires increased quantities of resources and more efficient use of those resources.

Interestingly, 2008 was the year when city dwellers exceeded 50 per cent of the world’s population. (Moreover, the world’s city dwellers over the last century went from 250 million to 2.8 billion people).

Clearly then, cities themselves, as the largest focus for consumption, need to be sustainable too. That is, using the definition of the United Nations’ Bruntland Commission, they must be able to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Residents of cities use far less resources per capita than those in suburban or rural areas. When the size of a city doubles, its material infrastructure does not. A city of eight million people typically needs 15 per cent less of the same materials and infrastructure as do two cities of four million people. On average, the bigger the city, the more efficient its use of infrastructure, thereby leading to savings in resources and materials as well as energy. This holds true across nations with very different levels of development, technology and wealth.

So, there are environmental benefits in reducing the geographical footprint for living and working. For example, when Australia requires an additional power line or more houses, new ones are placed beside the existing ones (welcome to the “land of sweeping plains”). A similar observation in Japan shows that when they require additional infrastructure, the new one is placed on top of the existing one. Going vertical results in more land being available for alternative use, including resource access where the land is suitable.

Clearly, these factors are already in play, with the trend for vertical construction accelerating. The last decade was the single greatest period of skyscraper construction in history, with over 97 due for completion in 2011 alone. China has lead the boom, as the capacity of its cities will increase by 350 million people by the year 2025. For the quarrying industry, vertical construction and condensed high usage infrastructure means an increased need for our heavy construction materials.


No country has ever sustained economic growth without urbanisation. Data also shows that there is a direct correlation between GDP and the consumption of quarry materials.


As managers of one of the key resources underpinning our society’s lifestyle, the extractive industry has a great responsibility to protect and maximise the resources for the best benefit of current and future communities. This includes the extraction yield, efficient use of end products, and secure reserves, all with a minimised impact on the surrounding environment.

As in the example set by the Anasazi, when resources were consumed, they were sourced from further and further away, but the demand and subsequent value placed on the products exceeded the cost and logistical difficulties in accessing resources. Likewise, recognising the value of close proximity stone reserves, and other sources of construction materials, is equally important and there is no doubt that a resource found closer to the city would have been both highly desired and protected, had the difficulties of proximity been realised prior to this.

Of course, as cities become more densely populated, they also become more difficult to abandon. There is an increasing reliance on resources and hence a broader range is required to source them. For this, logistics plays an increasingly important role. As you can see, history repeats itself.

In today’s world, the logistics are mostly mechanised, depending on the country, and this in part allows for the extended range required. Long-term resource management, and more recent environmental thinking, highlight the need to be more efficient in the utilisation of our energy resources. With the high density and relatively low value products yielded for construction materials, the moving of large quantities becomes a high energy exercise. This weighs heavily against the sourcing of construction materials from afar but ultimately it becomes an economic exercise. This does not dispute the need for efficient energy utilisation, however – how that exercise is managed is an excellent topic for others to discuss.

We have the opportunity and knowledge to be one of the first generations to sustainably manage our resources. Should we fail, we may be one of the last of our era to be unsuccessful.

So, coming back to the facts:

  1.  History says society relies on resources.
  2.   Forecasting says mankind will need more and more resources.
  3.  Quarry products are an essential resource.
  4.   Logically then, quarries are needed for the protection of civilisation as we know it!

But does the government know? Do the people know?


Unfortunately, for the quarry industry to be sustainable, it needs the support of those parties. So the extractive industry and our society have a symbiotic relationship, only it appears that one or both parties are in denial.

What are they missing? What are we missing? Why isn’t the extractive industry associated with the infrastructure it provides for? Just as milk comes from cartons, so too roads come from trucks and high-rise buildings come from cranes.

In Australia, statistics show that each person uses, on average, about seven tonnes of aggregates per year compared with an average of two tonnes of food consumed in the same period (see Figure 1). Communities value their buildings and roads but for the greater part disassociate the quarry industry, perceiving it as a “hole in the environment with trucks coming out of it”. Further, quarries could be located anywhere – rock is just rock after all. Just ask anyone (who doesn’t know)!


In Europe, the European Aggregate Association (UEPG) a few years ago held discussions with the European Union to address a growing shortfall in construction material reserves across the continent. Available resources were being reduced annually, with conflicting land use sterilising far more reserves than consumption could take. Presenting an obvious case, the UEPG was met with a positive response.

For Australia, we have a similar structure to negotiate, with state governments controlling the approval processes but no national consistency. The protection of reserves located within close proximity to major cities should be addressed nationally. However, this is a first step – the planning. The actions must next pull through to the state governments, and then be enacted at a local level to be effective. This will assist in securing reserves, but as seen in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales and elsewhere in the country, the approval of reserves doesn’t secure the co-operation of the local community which subsequently impacts on a quarry’s ability to operate.

Therein lies the heart of “public perception”. It is a broad issue that must be managed at a local level. For the industry/community interface, “perception is everything”. It is built up of individual issues that are raised locally and, when combined, present as the community experience. There are multiple messages and multiple communication mediums that work both for and against our industry.


What have you done to contribute to the perception held of your operation?
In parallel to gaining a supportive society, there are a number of key operational areas that need to be addressed for a sustainable construction material resource base. In addition to securing sufficient supply to meet demand, there is the production of appropriate products for the applications and the effective management of the logistics from reserve to final placement.

As I indicated earlier: “In existing cities, demand for resources will outstrip supply as the number of people inhabiting cities grows from three billion to six billion over the next 40 years”. With this in mind, we can’t continue to do the same thing. We need a different outcome. How do we gain additional resources?

Competing uses for land reduce the availability of resources and reserves. With limited availability of suitable geology the imposition of conflicting land use becomes unsustainable, leading to the question: What land use is the real priority?

It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention”. However, it may be more appropriate to say that “invention is the mother of necessity”. Flexibility in thinking is critical to creative and clever solutions. When added to knowledge, good communications and the desire to fulfil our responsibilities, challenges can be overcome. In support of this, most of the physical stuff in cities was built by everyday people as a collective effort, rather than one-off design and construct. The most effective solutions have been based on actual need or application, not on assumptions and that’s why they are resilient to change.

Clearly, the recycling of resources is necessary to meet our responsibilities as stewards for scarce resources. The obvious one is the reuse of construction material waste from demolition but what about moving competing land uses onto landfill to free up access to reserves? Lagos in Nigeria is an example where compacted garbage is covered with silt for the reclamation of working and urban land areas. While this community development is unsanctioned, why isn’t this option more fully pursued?

What about the use of mounting waste materials from mining and power generation? How can previously developed technologies be employed in new applications? How can these be harnessed to supplement our resources?

In the future, will an increasing need for waste products like ash ultimately drive the type of power generation utilised?

But securing the quantities is only part of the equation with access and proximity just as critical. Sustainability requires a solution – how to meet today’s needs as well as provide for the future requirements. Our job is to do this in the most effective and efficient manner, maximising the available stock for future generations.


Over the course of history, mankind has managed to repeatedly fail in the sustainable management of the resources available to it. While it could be argued that previous civilisations and those who came before were irresponsible, and failed in their obligations to their future generations, this would be unfair. The key to effective management is around what is known (or should have been known) about the resources, and the implications of the choices made. Poor knowledge of previous failures could be used as an excuse for past outcomes, but that “luxury” is no longer viable. All of us here are responsible for the future now.


Interestingly, the armorial bearings of the Institute of Quarrying bear the Latin motto:

“Terram Autem Filiis Hominum."

This roughly translates as: “the earth hath He (God) given to the children of men”.

Latin scholars advise that a more meaningful translation is: “The fruits of the earth for the children of men”.

The motto reminds quarry operators of their responsibilities to preserve and optimise the usage of the land, and the need to protect the environment surrounding the land. The Institute’s coat of arms was designed at the College of Arms in London and granted in 1958. That was nearly 60 years ago and it is more relevant now than ever.

So, with the information that is available to us today, we need to ask ourselves and each other:

  •   What will you do to fill your knowledge gap?
  • What will you do to fill the community’s knowledge gap?
  •   What will you do to address the community’s perception?
  •   What will you do to manage your resources? 

David Cilento is a leader and manager with over 20 years in the construction materials industry. He is a Past President of the IQA and a current national extractive committee member of Cement Concrete & Aggregates Australia.

1. Diamond J. The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee: How our Animal Heritage affects the way we live. Vintage Books, London, 1991.
2. Scientific American (Cities edition), September 2011.
3. United Nations Brundtland Commission report “Our Common Future”, 1987.
4. Wikipedia summary of the Institute of Quarrying. 

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