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. The revelation in the New York Times
last month that many green technologies, such as hybrid cars, may depend on a group of rare minerals over which China has a dominant monopoly
deserves serious attention by scientists and policymakers.
This news adds to concerns over other minerals with esoteric but
essential uses. Consider the element lithium. It is an essential
ingredient in various batteries and is largely concentrated on
high-altitude salt pans in Bolivia. The Bolivian government will hold a
World Lithium Congress in La Paz on October 24 to consider how best to develop this resource without succumbing to a scramble by multinationals.
For too long, environmentalists and industrialists alike have
trivialized the importance of mineral resources. Businesses tend to be
sanguine about their abundance and environmentalists are contemptuous
toward mineral extraction because of pollution concerns or because the
resources are deemed generically "nonrenewable." Such epithets often
detract the public from understanding the connections between the basic
elements of matter, mineral compounds, and modern life.
As an environmental science educator, it is particularly troubling
for me to observe how few of my students even know the structure of the
periodic table of the elements—our
most indelible guide to the science of all stuff. This table exhibits
the fundamental constraints over how we construct materials to meet our
needs and wants.
Our environmental ambitions are confined by how the elements
interact with one another to form minerals. It is from these minerals
that we can dream of fueling our future. Whether constructing a dam, a
skyscraper, a solar panel, or a silicon wafer, we must contend with
minerals from the earth and their constituent elements. Even a
productive pool of water lilies requires mineral absorption for growth.
Though in the case of vegetative mineral uptake, it is easier to return
the elements to their natural state than when they are used to form
more permanent infrastructure and machinery.
The distribution of the world's mineral resources is an accident of
geography, but it has considerable power to determine the trajectory of
human societies. Beyond our own daily metabolic need for calcium,
magnesium, potassium, and sodium for proper functioning, we are in an
era of unparalleled consumption of all minerals. How we use our mineral
resources, and whether they can eventually be recycled back to
productive or harmless states, is a consideration of increasing
Certain resources are destined for depletion if they become locked
into built infrastructure or recovery costs prove too high. But this
could all change if more attention is paid globally to material cycling
and consumer responsibility. We need a global strategy for efficient
minerals extraction, use, and reclamation.
Such a strategy would require us to redesign our products and
processes, and should be backed up by governance mechanisms that ensure
good standards. A useful template may be Sweden's Ecocycle Policy.
It urges regulators to consider the constraints on mineral availability
as well as the available technologies for reclaiming minerals from
products. Even China, a country often criticized for environmental
factors, has a "circular economy" initiative which aims to incorporate industrial ecology principles in its regulations.
President Obama has proposed various mining reforms as well as
energy efficiency improvements across the country. But America really
needs an integrated strategy on material usage efficiency. We need to
track what our products contain, how it can be recovered after use, and
where the points of wastage are in the system. The term "waste" itself
will become increasingly obsolescent if recovery of useful materials
becomes the goal of regulation. A good first step at the Environmental
Protection Agency is the recent name change from the Office of Solid
Waste to the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery.
In Davos this September a World Resources Forum convened publicly
for the first time. Environmental scholars presented a 9-point Call for Action
urging countries to "seek international agreements on world-wide
per-capita targets for natural resource extraction and consumption to
be effective by 2015." While much of our environmental attention is on
climate change, we seem to forget the root cause of our
predicament—inefficient and inappropriate usage of resources. Along
with our focus on emissions, we need to focus broadly and directly on
resource efficiency. We must also keep looking for more efficiently
extractable sources of minerals in the ground and within our products.
Some environmentalists argue
that efficiency only leads to more consumption—a phenomenon observed by
the nineteenth century British economist William Stanley Jevons in his
1865 book The Coal Question.
Jevons suggested that increased efficiency through technological
advancement was actually leading to greater consumption. The Jevons
paradox is often presented by environmentalists as an antidote to
While the paradox may well hold for materials and energy usage in
cases of growing demand, it is less likely to be valid in mature
markets. For example, in a developing economy energy efficiency and
reduced costs may lead people to buy more products that use more energy
and materials. But in a market with a fairly saturated consumption
profile, efficient recycling and energy conservation efforts are very
valuable. Such an approach could also allow for productive technology
transfer to poor countries. This in turn would reduce environmental
impacts more effectively, even if it necessitates more energy and
material for the sake of development.
Building on the momentum of the World Resources Forum, it is
essential that world leaders consider these connections between
minerals, energy, and the quality of life in our material world.
Saleem H. Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and the author of Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future (Yale University Press, 2009).