Rare earths are essential to modern life and the future of green technology such as wind turbines and catalytic converters.
95% of rare earths are supplied by China with questionable health and environmental impacts.
Is it ethical to support damaging practices for the sake of modern technology?
The mining and extraction of rare earths from their ores is energy intensive and hazardous, involving leaching with strong acids and alkalis. Considering Baotou (Inner Mongolia), locals inhale acidic fumes, toxic process residues, and particulates from coal power plants fueling the industry. Dozens of pipes discharge a black sludge of chemical waste from surrounding refineries into the lake, transforming its waters into a cocktail of toxic chemicals and radioactive material which, can cause leukemia and other cancers. Due to soil and groundwater saturated with toxins, vegetables no longer grow and farm animals no longer survive in the barren toxic wasteland.
Rare Earths are distributed worldwide, however China dominates production, this market dominance is due to a willingness to dismiss the environmental and safety requirements in order to produce profitable goods. The conditions at Baotou and across China would surely never be allowed to exist in Europe, Australia or the USA, yet the metals are ubiquitous in our society.
Generally, the mining industry has a precedent for taking advantage of developing regions; promising social and economic development but at the expense of local community health and environment – for instance, BHP Billiton in Columbia and Brazil.
Deontological ethics promote the human duty to consider what is morally right through simple reasoning, independent of external norms. Applying this to rare earths, surely it is morally unacceptable support irresponsible mining in other countries to fuel our technology addiction?
Simply Not Sustainable
Global rare earth consumption is currently around 155,000 tons/year, with expected future growth aligned with increasing demands for technology innovations including wind power and electric cars.
Rare earths, like oil and gas reserves, are not infinite resources – Continuous devouring of rare earth resources to continuously produce innovative hi-tech items with little consideration for recycling is not sustainable. Modern upgrade mentality of consumers and manufactures is not respectful of the earth’s resources. Furthermore, most current extraction processes in China such as Baotou are not environmentally sustainable as water and land resources are polluted as a result. As demand grows so will negative environmental impact unless procedures change.
We as consumers, should strive to live virtuously and be aware of the broader impacts of the devices we so readily use and replace without a second thought. Ignorance is not an excuse! In order to sustain current technological advancements, we must demand responsibly sourced metals and encourage the recovery and recycling of resources.
Dirty lake, cleaner world
We will assume the arguments for mitigating climate change, and renewable technologies, are known by readers (NASA have helpful resources if not). But the ethical and physical waters become murky as we implement renewables, electric cars, and catalytic converters. On environmental grounds, why continue to use such technologies? Considering the ethical framework of utilitarianism (where the best option is that which maximises gain, with the minimum amount of suffering), compelling arguments are abundant.
Mining regions may see negative environmental effects, however the effects of climate change are already being experienced for these regions, thus it can be argued that the residents are overall benefiting from the contribution to the development of green technologies.
Extending utilitarianism to a global scale, the argument becomes even more apparent: billions of people benefit from the adoption of green technology – through reductions in air pollution from coal power and a lack of catalytic converters, elimination of future nuclear waste, fewer communities displaced by climate change, and the myriad other effects humanity will face should we fail to tackle climate change. We must ask: would halting production to benefit a few thousand people really be the best option compared to the suffering the alternative would cause the soon to be 10 billion citizens on Earth?
Ingredients for Innovation
Without rare earths, technologies which underpin our lives today, such as computers and mobiles would cease to exist. Press pause and think back to when you had a completely technology free day. Can’t remember? Neither can I… How would you be able to read this article without technology?
The ever-growing demand for technology has allowed China’s economy to grow significantly as it enjoys a monopoly in the rare earth market with mining towns, such as Baotou, seeing the creation of thousands of jobs and large influxes of people.
Not only have rare earth technologies enhanced China’s economic growth, they have improved education of less understood topics on a global scale. For example, Blue Planet II has initiated a buzz of concern for our oceans as an average of 10.3 million viewers turned on their TVs – which, you guessed it, contain rare earths. Furthermore, rare earth technology enables communications and security, such as satellites, which allow us to converse with people around the world and governments to track ‘bad guys’. The fact that modern life relies so heavily on these technologies means global progress could not be sustained were we to stop production – is that the world we want?
Considering a utilitarian perspective, rare earths are necessary for green technology to reduce climate change and pollution worldwide and for vital communications technology. Despite impacts on those near mines, the advantages make it acceptable.
However, moving forward, practices must change such as through:
- Recycling the limited resources.
- Reducing amounts used, for example Toyota cut neodymium in electric-motor magnets by 20%.
- Responsible manufacturing from supply to production: phasing out old model functionality to encourage consumption is unacceptable.
Consumer awareness: discouraging our upgrade mentality.