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
Spewing 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.
Should 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 . 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 , 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.