As I See It: Mining in the Anthropocene Epoch
April 12, 2010 Victor Rozek
Movie images can be powerful and enduring. Years after they no longer reside in our conscious mind, they are still stored in memory, which is why Barack Obama owes Sidney Poitier a debt of gratitude. Back in 1967 when civil rights advocates were greeted with dogs, fire hoses, beatings, and worse, Poitier made a movie called In the Heat of the Night. It showed us that a black man could be better looking, smarter, more articulate, and a better dresser than a white man. Candidate Obama didn’t have to wholly reinvent the image because for a generation of voters it was already subliminally established by the character of Mr. Tibbs.
More recently, the visually stunning but plot-lite Avatar reminded us that we have the propensity to pave paradise and put up a mining shaft. Images of the destruction of sacred lands are now seared into the imaginations of several more generations. Those images may have a particular relevance for the IT community because in the coming years, the future of computer technology–like the quality of human life in Avatar–will, in part, depend on rocks.
Like the coveted mineral unobtainium possessed by the Na’vi, there is a looming shortage of several minerals crucial to the manufacture of high-tech products including superconductors, displays, hard drives, cell phones, hybrid electric motors, wind turbines, and precision weapons. These minerals, whose names are meaningless to people with only a passing interest in rocks, are commonly found in what is known in geological circles as “rare earth.”
The problem is that the designation is accurate.
It all began in 1787 in the village of Ytterby, which sits on an island off the coast of Sweden. There, a local military officer and chemist, Carl Arrhenius, discovered a black mineral that, with geographic fidelity, he named after the village in which it was extracted: ytterbite. Over the next two centuries, more minerals (and uses for them) were discovered until no fewer than 19 minerals were identified as part of the rare earth family. Identifying them, however, was one thing. Extracting and separating them on a large scale proved to be quite another.
Up until the end of the Second World War, most of the world’s rare earths were found in placer sand deposits in India and Brazil. (Placer is the name for an allulvial sand, which basically means water flow can’t move the heavy stuff, so it sinks.) In the 1950s, South Africa became a provider and, along with India, continues production to this day. But their contributions feed only 5 percent of the global appetite for all things rare and earthy. In fact, usage has become so ubiquitous that the worldwide requirement is soon expected to exceed supply by 40,000 metric tons annually (124,000 metric tons were produced in 2009).
And the pending shortage is beginning to impact product development. According to Jeremy Hsu, who has written several articles on the subject, Jim Hedrick, a former U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) rare earth guru, says that “No one’s trying to expand their use of rare earths because they know there’s not more available.”
But that’s not entirely accurate. There is another miner in the rare earth shaft that’s not worried about scarcity. It’s the 500-pound gorilla of rare earth mineral production and at present it supplies 95 percent of the world’s stash. The nation sitting of the biggest reserves just happens to be our nation’s banker, rival, and cautious friend, China.
For decades China was happy to export rare earth elements, and government subsidies kept the prices low undercutting rival producers. But its own runaway growth is putting a strain on supply. “China,” reports Hsu, “has warned that its own industrial demands could compel it to stop exporting rare earths within the next five or 10 years.”
Whether the warning is economic or strategic; whether China is intent on dominating markets for technologies dependent on rare earths, or whether shortages are an inevitable consequence of a finite planet, the prospect of the rare earth spigot being turned off has had a chilling effect on future high-tech innovation.
USGS to the rescue. Doing what geological surveyors do, the agency searched, sampled, and tested, and discovered that the U.S. actually holds “rare earth ore reserves of up to 13 million metric tons.” Problem solved.
Well, not exactly. There’s still the question of who pays, and who lives with the pollution.
Most of the usable deposits are located in mining-friendly, government-hating Idaho. But, it turns out, the mining industry only hates government when it’s being regulated, not when it wants handouts. The startup cost of a rare earth mining operation is quite high–perhaps as much as $1 billion. Once the ore is extracted, plants require “thousands of stainless steel tanks holding different chemical solutions to separate out all the individual rare earths.” So the industry is lobbying for the government to “encourage development of its own rare earth deposits.” And nothing says encouragement like taxpayer subsidies.
Then there’s the matter of what’s in the processing tanks. Not only is the chemical separation process costly, it is also toxic. A PBS report notes that “Rare earth processing in China is a messy, dangerous, polluting business.” Chinese mining operations are in Mongolia, where their local Na’vi have no say and less protection. Yet the environmental problems are severe. They include fluorine and sulfur air emissions; and wastewater that contains acids, radioactive materials, and ammonia. Deadly chemicals routinely leach into groundwater.
Presently, U.S. companies that mine the ore send it off to China for processing. The world, it seems, is content to pollute China, and so far, China has been content to allow it. When that changes, the people of Idaho will carry the environmental burden which, along with subsidies, is the other socialized aspect of mining.
Which brings us to a longer view of geology as articulated by a group of scientists writing in Environmental Science & Technology. They propose that we are entering a new epoch–the first period of geological time that is shaped not solely by nature, but by the actions of a single, powerfully destructive species. They suggest calling it the Anthropocene, meaning new man. “The Anthropocene,” they write, “represents a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.”
They are, in the language of scientific civility, suggesting that our relentless appetite for natural resources has ushered in a new and perilous phase in geologic history. And unlike Avatar, we play all the parts. We are the Na’vi, and we are the destroyers. But, as the movie reminds us, we are also choosers. In the abiding struggle between consciousness and calamity we will once again be presented with choices about if, and if so, how rare earths are processed.
Certain movies seem to capture the essence of issues challenging society. They mirror back to us our capacity for goodness, as well as the folly of our actions. Their visual images can be powerful and enduring. Perhaps the people making decisions about the future of mining in Idaho–or China for that matter–will, in a quiet moment of contemplation, find themselves entertaining an unexpected but compelling thought.
What would the Na’vi do?