I haven’t posted in weeks–with final exams and papers taking up my time at the end of the semester, I really couldn’t spend any time blogging. And indeed over the whole semester my output was quite restricted. But the semester’s over and I hope to be back to blogging form for the summer. Over the last 2 days I read Michael Klare’s The Race for What’s Left. Klare describes the scramble for fossil fuel, mineral, and even agricultural resources that we are seeing in the 21st century, as old sources–often still drawing on wells and mines from the 50s and 60s–are drying up. He describes in detail the various energy and mineral substances that modern industry needs and how companies are trying to meet ever-rising demand, which is rising so fast today in part due to China and India’s economic growth. Companies like BP, Exxon, Rio Tinto, and others can obviously profit by supplying this demand, and are struggling to find new sources of energy and minerals in particular that can be extracted economically.
In the energy sector, this demand is not only leading companies to seek new supplies of oil, coal, and gas, but also to develop “unconventional” sources, such as tar sands, shale oil, and oil share (these last 2 are, it turns out, actually quite different). Klare describes these efforts in chapter 4, after revealing how the Arctic, in particular, is becoming the site for conventional oil and natural gas extraction (in chapter 3). Chapter 5 and 6 outline the mining industry’s efforts to maintain supplies of both relatively common minerals, like copper and iron, as well as more exotic ones, including gold, platinum, and the buzzworthy rare earth minerals. It’s this discussion of the rare earth minerals that, I think, is most crucial to the book as a whole.
After discussing agricultural land-grabs, especially in Africa, in chapter 7, Klare concludes the book in chapter 8. He calls for an end to the “race for what’s left”–which he sees as fueling military conflict, global warming, and ecosystem poisoning–and calls instead for a “race to adapt”. Klare argues that the old industrial order is coming to a close, and that the future will be defined by those countries and companies that can develop new, clean technologies (pp.227-234). Klare seems to think that these two “races” are totally distinct, that working to develop future technologies is somehow totally divorced from the old industrial approach.
The problem is, of course, that even supposedly green technologies, like photovalic solar cells and wind turbines, though they may be able to wean us off fossil fuels (at least in theory), still require huge natural resource inputs. Klare himself discusses this in chapter 6, as mentioned above: those rare earth minerals are crucial inputs for “green” technology. This is important, and worrisome, for 2 principle reasons. First, rare earth minerals are, at least when compared to minerals like copper and iron and as their name suggests, relatively rare. Klare presents US Geological Survey data from 2001 suggesting that total worldwide reserves amount to 114 million metric tons. The question is: is this a lot, or a little? That of course depends on how much we need to develop and produce various technologies. Smart phones, for example, require some rare earth minerals, for example Gallium and Tantalum, but they require tiny amounts–far less than an ounce. So even if we manufacture billions of smart phones, it’s probably unlikely that we’ll run out of the necessary minerals.
However, other technologies require much larger inputs. Even the lightest lithium-ion batteries require many pounds of lithium. Luckily, lithium is relatively common compared to materials like Gallium and Tantalum; nonetheless, it’s not clear whether there are global supplies sufficient to replace all existing vehicles with electric ones. And when we look at photovalic cells and wind turbines, the problem seems even more acute. These require substantial amounts of some of the rarer minerals, but a “green energy future” would require millions upon millions of turbines and solar panels. I’m not saying that we are sure that we won’t have enough rare earths to manufacture these–I am saying that no one seems to know whether we will.
The second main concern around this is that the extraction of rare earth minerals, so necessary for “green” technology, is itself extremely energy-intensive and environmentally damaging. The rare earths themselves have to be separated from their ore, which involves the use of powerful acids, which, once used, are simply discarded as tailings in massive reservoirs. If these tailings were to leak into water supplies, the impact on human health and the environment could be catastrophic. In short, their reliance on such minerals means that even supposedly “green” technologies aren’t at all environmentally friendly or neutral. They may be better, overall, than the burning of coal or petroleum, but they still come with vast health and environmental risks.
In other words, even the brightest technological future seems dimmed with serious concerns over scarcity and environmental degradation. Klare rightly laments over the scramble for resources, but then, rather incredibly, announces a highly optimistic confidence that future technologies can deliver us of these problems, if only we invest now. The conclusion of the book reads more like an ad for a solar-panel or lithium-ion start-up rather than a sober, well-thought-out conclusion. The reality seems to be that even the best-case scenario for the future of technology is rather bleak. Klare seems to hope–and believe–that with sufficient research, we could develop technologies that use either no rare earths, for example, or so few that we can limit the economic and environmental risks discussed above. While one can’t dismiss that possibility, right now, such a future is by no means guaranteed. The reality seems to be that the development of green technology will lead to different resource extraction than previous technologies, with different economic and environmental risks–but still plenty of economic and environmental risks. In short, new technology is not going to solve the conundrums that old technology poses. This doesn’t mean that the only ethical response is neo-Ludditism, but I do think it’s important that we’re honest about the economic and environmental realities we face. Klare, as far as I can see, gets the diagnosis of the current problems right, but in his over-enthusiastic plugging of technological research, falls into the very error of those he was just criticizing.