Toxic Waste Photo

Mine Your Own Business – Rare Earth Metals In Mongolia

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Every time you turn on your computer, take a picture or even drive a car you are relying on a set of metals you’ve probably never heard of. With names like Praseodymium and Lanthanum, these space age sounding elements are in many ways central to the modern world, improving tech lightness and efficiency. Known as rare earth metals, or simply ‘rare earths’ these elements are driving the greener energy revolution. But like the force for good they present, they also have a dark side.

The Dark Side of the Earths

Toxic Waste PhotoSpewing forth into a vast lake created by the damming of the nearby river, are the tailings of the Baotou mine in the inner Mongolia region of the PRC and the largest producer of rare earth metals in the world. A toxic mix of nitric and sulphuric acid. Peppered with traces of Thorium-232, an element with a particularly nasty radioactive decay chain. The lake is unlined letting its carcinogenic cocktail leech into the local water-table. The pay-off? Large quantities of Neodymium and Cerium to serve the boom in Wind turbines and catalytic converters for the West’s new drive for low carbon energy and clean exhausts.

A result of the communist era, the mines were set up in the 50’s at a time where environmental and social conscience of business was severely lacking. This lake has been slowly filling for the last 53 years. Stepping back from the humanitarian crisis, this presents something of an ethical quandary. Can helping the rest of the planet justify the destruction of part of it?

When putting on an ethical lense to judge another’s actions, we are tempted in the West to use our Utilitarian and Kantian roots. The PRC was shaped by much older school of ethics. Confucianism. In order to truly argue from the ethical standpoint, one must first understand and persuade from the audience’s point of view. Confucianism argues from a basis of relationships from higher to lower social/economic class where each participant should be aiming to act as Junzi (the Confucian perfect person). If the miners are acting as the superior being in their relationship with the locals they should act with kindness, suppressing one’s own desires for the good of the group. This is part of Confucian ethics focus on collectivism where individuality should be suppressed to achieve greater goals. The destruction of land has forced farmers to leave and those who have stayed have suffered greatly for it. This is something that nobody could argue is for the common good with the companies prioritising profits over precautions.

Bringing the ethical consideration to us as consumers, we should consider now the role of Kant in our actions. We as a people would not desire for our own countryside to be tarnished by mere housing developments with every large development fiercely contested. Why therefore should we allow ourselves to exempt Baotou from these standards purely for its mineral benefits? To repeat a phrase handed across almost all races and religions and that which forms the heart of Kantian and Confucian morality: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. If we would not have such a mine in the UK, we should not permit one to exist at all, regardless of context.

It’s Not All Doom And Gloom

The reality of rare earth mining is not pretty. Make no mistake that it’s current state is unethical, irresponsible, and a stark reminder of the dark side of our ever increasingly capitalist and consumerist culture. Reading for just a few minutes of it’s injustice and harmful effects may have you scrambling for the closest petition link to ban it outright. Sadly, it is never quite so simple.

Imagine a world without MRI or X-ray systems in hospitals. A world jarringly thrown back to the drawing board without any renewable energy methods, and with severe downgrades to the efficiency of fossil fuel power generation. With hugely downgraded combustion engine cars, and the scrapping of all hybridisation and electrification. Most research and development from the aero propulsion, automotive, and power generation sectors from the last few decades is hugely set back if not completely thrown out. Even your leisure goes down the drain: cinema projectors are gone, smartphone and flat screen displays are gone, you can’t even afford the fuel to drive anywhere or the train fare to get anywhere now that fuel and electricity are so expensive. Even if you enjoy a walk in the countryside, you’ll have to live without your DSLR to remember it by. You get the picture.

Rare earth metals are essential to so much of our technology, in such a way that immediately cutting off the supply would have disastrous consequences to life as we know it. There are an estimated 1.2 billion cars worldwide, 2.53 billion smartphone users, and 6.5 billion people with access to electricity. A rational, utilitarian analysis would suggest that the unfortunate reality of rare earth acquisition is a sacrifice far outweighed by the more widespread damage it’s cessation would cause. However should we avoid this perspective as it may not be the ethical framework of the local population? – Many would argue that both the beauty and curse of ethical systems is that they are only applicable to the individual making the decisions, and that what you believe is the ‘right’ thing to do is something you will have to decide yourself. Then again many people have been wrong before.

Wind Turbine on HillsideShould you decide, consequentially or deontologically, that mining is a necessary evil, you may be pleased to learn that the US and Australia have begun to develop their own, more environmentally conscious mines to meet demands [7]. US Geological surveys estimate there are 110,000,000 metric tons of rare earth mineral reserves worldwide. Should these reserves be used intelligently and efficiently, with as much substitution as possible [8], perhaps we could create a worldwide infrastructure that will reduce our emissions by a large percentage, allowing us the time to develop alternative technologies for a completely sustainable future.

18 thoughts on “Mine Your Own Business – Rare Earth Metals In Mongolia

  1. The environmental legacy left near Batou would suggest that somebody is failing in the duties expected by Confucian ethics. Who has failed? Is it the miners, in their responsibility to the local community? Do they even have the power to mine differently, with fewer harmful by-products? Or is it the regional government, who are not using environmental law? Or us, as consumers of these materials globally? Is Confucian ethics a useful lens with these kinds of complex problems and lots of stakeholders in lots of different places?

  2. Personally, it would appear as though the production of the materials is (as stated) a necessary evil in the furthering of sustainable energy. However, it would be remiss of those who are benefiting from such ill-gotten resources not to offer some amount of compensation for the damage being caused in the process. Even with the ethical standpoint of the ‘ends justify the means’ this doesn’t absolve oneself of the potential to aid in the reduction of the damage caused. I would like to know what steps are being taken by those who stand to gain from these mines are doing to reduce the environmental impact that they are causing.

    This was an interesting piece to read. I agree with the other commenter that at some point along the chain that Confucian ethics have failed have been observed and possibly failed to be enforced(?) by onlookers.

  3. It’s an interesting point to see the conflict of what’s right or wrong. Is it necessary, you’d say so. However, I think there’s still important questions to be asked. Was the oil industry a necessary evil when it began? Did we see the wider implications on the whole earth of its effects from the outset? Along with this I think an important question is does the industry need dispose of its waste by tipping into a ‘lake’? Could we find sustainable ways of doing this, or even utilising it for something? Potentially nuclear if it’s radioactive. It’s an interesting topic, and article and one which we shouldn’t just ignore. Thought provoking.

  4. It is easy to take a step back when it comes to such a complex global topic, but a very similar blog article discusses the same topic:
    https://www.ethicsforge.cc/shiny-metals-dirty-consequences-the-toxic-truth-behind-rare-earth-elements-in-the-palm-of-your-hands/

    and argues that we as consumers should take more responsibility, which I agree with.

    Such processes exist and thrive near Batou and across China because we tolerate them in order to fund our addiction to constant upgrades at as low as price possible

    Yes other companies in Australia and the USA are trying to produce a more sustainable alternative but can they really compete? China still dominates hugely.

    If western society using technology are ignorant to the truth or simply do not care and are enjoying the benefits of the cheaper/environmentally questionable processes can things really change at a rate at which they need to, to keep up with growing demand?

  5. Thought-provoking piece, thank you. Humans have exploited natural resources, without a thought for their impact, for generations… The oil and gas industry have been big polluters, but one could argue the whaling industry – and indeed factory fishing in general- has been just as heedless of its impact on the world. Whatever is next we need to stop repeating the mistakes of the past.

  6. It’s crazy to think how dependent our luxury life style is on these mined resources. Where’s the line between necessity and greed here? What is the immediacy of this issue? Are we going to cause significant adverse effects to the environment as a result of increased demand in the products these minerals produce? What’s the solution?

  7. Lots of food for thought- are we able to reach a balance where we consider the perspective of both local and global ethics and can reach a happy medium? It sounds like more environmentally conscious mines are a good idea yet as you’ve suggested the practicality of creating a good solution is both politically and ethically complex.

  8. A well-written piece, it would be interesting to see what can be done for awareness of this issue. As banning would not be possible, it is possible to give the consumer options, such as organic or vegan produce. Once it is traceable people can hold companies and manufacturers to account, which will increase investment in cleaner mines and R&D in the area.

  9. I really like your ‘digression’ into Confucianism. It makes perfect sense to examine the ethical school that would have (or could/should have) informed the original decision making. Nice!

    Your discussion of Confucianism suggests that it’s a form of Care Ethics (or vice versa since it is older).

    “Known as rare earth metals, or simply ‘rare earths’ these elements are driving the greener energy revolution” – this sets up a neat answer. If we tolerate this destruction in order to prevent wider scale destruction isn’t that ethical. Lose a little to save a lot? In essence, this is a utilitarianism argument since we are minimising harm, i.e. localised environmental damage is acceptable since it is helping us to prevent global environmental damage.

    Hopefully, there is an impetus to discover ways to clean up the lake, and to recapture some of the waste rare earths too.

  10. Very interesting read, not sure I would have known about this otherwise – awareness definitely needs to be increased. How has something not been done about this already? I suppose because of the profit these mines make, hard to believe that lake has been filled continuously for the last 53 years with toxicity thought.

  11. Thought provoking article on a subject I would have otherwise been unaware of. Is it not important to now devise solutions from the ethical questions? Is there a way to contain the damage and prevent further humanitarian etc issues? Is there a way of supporting those within a community that have suffered because of this, without reverting to the other extreme?

    1. These are exactly the sort of questions we should be asking, especially the last one. A balance needs to be identified at least in the short-term, while we look for sustainable alternatives that can be adopted and integrated into processes into the future.

  12. It seems quite apparent that these materials are pretty much essential in most of our modern technology, but they’re also being used very irresponsibly if I say so myself! – We do not need as many flatscreen TV’s and yearly replacement smartphones as we are using, and whilst they’re the main exporter by far, the PRC does not have a complete monopoly on rare earth metals. Maybe we should stop buying them from the PRC until their mines improve, and make do with the limited supply by being a lot more responsible with the way we use our materials. Then again actually getting that to happen is probably a pipe dream but who knows what could happen!

  13. An extremely interesting article. I’m not sure I had ever heard about our current dependence on rare earth metals or what is done in the name of acquiring them before. It definitely calls into question how superior, energy sources that we view as sustainable and ‘clean’ really are. Not to question their superiority over fossil fuels of course. This realisation prompts reflection on how moral and ethical the use of these metals is. I believe that the ‘ends justify the means’ standpoint is unconscionable, especially since the ‘means’ are destroying life and ecosystems, and the ‘ends’ are simply improving quality of life for those fortunate enough to be able to afford products with these metals in. The new environmentally conscious mines mentioned are clearly the way forward, and I applaud the authors for making this argument. The old mines should be converted to the same standard as the new or shut down. However this speaks to a wider issue that is touched on in the article, the excessively profit-focused motives of the corporations who mine these elements. Until the mindset of the industry changes from caring about profit above all else, something like this will always occur, and the best thing that can be done is to put a spotlight on it, as this article does.

  14. This was an interesting discussion. I wasn’t aware that this kind of operation was permitted to exist in a modernised country. It definitely appears that the Confucian duties have been cast aside in the interest of profits in this case. As consumers of such products we should move to having more traceability in the materials used in our technology and then use this to make our choices known.

    I believe the UK government should also take responsibility for this issue in encouraging the growth of this sector in the PRC.

  15. An interesting article. While it is unfortunate that such practices are commonplace, it would seem they are a necessary evil to advance technology. Looking forward it would be nice to see implementation of the more environmentally friendly techniques being more widespread.

  16. A very interesting article highlighting the dangers of mining. However, the reasons for levels of degradation as discussed in the article are ultimately an unintended consequence of the capitalist process. Capitalism creates a sense of individuality in society, which directly contradicts with Confucian ideologies and has lead to producers seeking a profit maximising level of output. In this case of mining we can see that that this level of output is far greater than the socially optimum level, which environmental economics tells us is where the Marginal Net Private Benefit is equal to the Marginal External Cost of Production. Any output above this level will generate external pollution costs greater than the benefits production will reap. The article makes a very good point that although the exportation of capitalism by the west across the world has produced large benefits globally, it can be seen that environmental degradation has become necessary to hold up the large economies. It is necessary to enforce a polluters pays principle by where the firms producing the pollution internalise the cost, but this can be difficult to enforce globally as a Nash Equilibrium is likely to occur where all countries allow firms to pollute.

  17. Very insightful I must say. Whilst the strong ethical concerns posed by this article ring very true to today’s society we cannot ignore the social impact rare earth’s have had, and will have, to us as a whole

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