The Rare Metals War: The Dark Side of Clean Energy and Digital Technologies by Guillaume Pitron (Translated from French by Bianca Jacobsohn); Wars of the Interior by Joseph Zárate (Translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott) - review by Oliver Balch

Oliver Balch

Where the Streets are Paved with Thulium

The Rare Metals War: The Dark Side of Clean Energy and Digital Technologies

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Wars of the Interior

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Deny it. Bury your head. Stop your ears. It makes no odds: Armageddon is coming. We’re on the cusp. Just look around: melting icecaps, rising sea levels, denuded forests, plastic-choked oceans, a murderous pandemic… and, wrath of all wraths, inexorable climate change.

Should we be afraid? Nah. Homo sapiens is an inventive species. The seas rise; we design buoyant neighbourhoods. Coronavirus hits; we whip up some vaccines. Carbon levels spike; we develop ‘smart’ eco-technologies.

Only, it turns out, it’s not as simple as that. The road to planetary destruction, it would seem, is paved with green intentions. So contends French documentary-maker Guillaume Pitron. All those clever inventions to keep the Arctic ice shelf from melting – solar panels, smart grids, wind turbines – suffer a fatal flaw: the need for rare metals.

Prized for their exceptional magnetic properties, rare metals now appear in a swathe of modern technologies (basically, if it uses electricity and so much as a nanometre of it moves, it’s on the list). In total, seventeen natural elements carry the descriptor ‘rare’, many of which sound like second-rate towns in Roman Britain – erbium, thulium, lutetium, yttrium (the original Kettering?).

Plucked from the more obscure corners of the periodic table, these scarce ‘-iums’ have emerged in recent years to become the ‘fundamental building blocks of the twenty-first century’, Pitron claims. Take the electric car, a graphic of which graces the appendix of The Rare Metals War. Arrows protrude from every surface: the UV cut glass in the windscreen is made with cerium, the headlights with neodymium, the component sensors with yttrium, and so on.

The problem, predictably perhaps, lies in the word ‘rare’. Not only are reserves of these metals limited, but, where deposits do exist, they typically occur in tiny quantities. Notebook in hand, Pitron sets off across the world on an eight-year ‘technological odyssey’ to suss out the implications. His conclusion: things are not looking good.

First, the environmental ramifications. In China’s Jiangxi province, home to the largest supply of rare metals, he finds toxic waste discharged directly into streams and rivers. In Baotou in Inner Mongolia, ‘the biggest rare-earth production site on the planet’, he visits the Weikuang Dam, which holds back ‘10 square kilometres of toxic effluent’. Cancer, strokes, heart conditions: the health effects on the local population are ghastly. In one nearby village, locals talk of children growing up with no teeth.

Everywhere rare metals are mined – be it the Democratic Republic of Congo (where conditions in the mines are ‘straight out of the Middle Ages’), Kazakhstan or Vietnam – pollution and environmental destruction follow. Safety standards aside, it’s hugely inefficient. Know how much lutetium you’ll get from extracting, crushing and refining 1,200 tonnes of rock? One solitary kilogram.

That translates not only into countless mountains being hollowed out but also into colossal amounts of energy being used. Assuming (correctly) that most of this energy comes from fossil fuels, then green tech’s promise of a low-carbon future seems misplaced at best (or, as Pitron prefers, a straightforward ‘ruse’). Never short on stats and facts, The Rare Metals War includes a reference to a US study that suggests that electric vehicles are three to four times as energy-intensive as conventional cars.

And that’s not even the worst of it. For that we need to turn to the geopolitics of rare metals. As well as possessing the largest reserves of rare metals, Pitron notes, China has the optimal conditions for digging them up (read: total state control). Nor does its dominance stop there. By hook or by crook (Pitron offers evidence for both), China has outsmarted the United States, Japan and Europe to become the world’s largest magnet maker by far. Pitron observes, ‘China is erecting a completely independent and integrated industry, starting with the foul mines in which begrimed labourers toil, to state-of-the-art factories employing high-flying engineers.’ The economic and military repercussions of China’s control are potentially huge. Just ask the Pentagon. Bereft of its own magnet producers, the United States now depends on a Chinese manufacturer to keep its latest fighter jets in the air – in clear breach of the country’s national security rules.

* * *

Rare-metal mining may be a new issue, but the perils and politics of resource extraction are most certainly not. Indeed, the history of civilisation could be read as one long scrap for the bounties of land and sea. Enter Peru, a nation whose striking abundance is matched only by its perennial ungovernability. Atahualpa was the first to taste the cursed blessing of its resource wealth. Imprisoned by the conquistadores, the last Inca emperor collected a roomful of gold as a ransom. His reward? An executioner’s garrotte.

Such is the ‘heavy, silent inheritance’ of everyday Peruvians, writes Joseph Zárate in Wars of the Interior. A magazine reporter based in Lima, Zárate is all too aware of how easily we (‘we’ consumers, ‘we’ citizens, ‘we’ readers) normalise the pillaging of the earth’s finite bounties. Why? Because it happens so frequently.

Zárate sets out to tell the stories of three individuals embroiled in Peru’s aggressive extractive economy. As a strategy, it presents a road well-trodden. ‘To reduce history to the human being’ is how Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize-winning Belarusian journalist, describes her goal – an idea Zárate readily embraces.

The skill is in carrying it off. Here, Wars of the Interior succeeds admirably. Over the course of three stand-alone sections, we meet a trio of individuals: Edwin Chota, chief of an Amazonian village who is murdered by illegal loggers; Máxima Acuña Atalaya, a fifty-year-old homesteader in the Andean highlands whom a multinational mining company wants evicted; and Osman Cuñachí, an indigenous boy who grew ill after a broken pipeline filled a local river with crude oil.

Zárate possesses that enviable combination of a researcher’s doggedness, a storyteller’s ear and, most importantly, a genuine empathy for his informants. When he recounts Edwin’s wasted petitioning of officials, you can feel his frustration. Writing about the destruction of Máxima’s house by company-paid guards, you can hear his rage. The anger is unmistakable but never melodramatic.

As different in style and tone as these two books are (Pitron is pushy, combative, assured; Zárate is sensitive, composed, humane), there are many parallels between them. Social injustice, environmental harm, corporate greed, government corruption, economic poverty: all feature heavily in both. Connecting them is the contested notion of ‘progress’. This is the ‘war’ of which both books speak. In the case of rare metals, the Chinese will stop at nothing to make good their strategic advantage. In Zárate’s home nation, the essential story is little different. When oil was first struck, one of the ruling regime’s leading figures confidently declared, ‘Peru’s economic future is assured.’ Would that it were so.

As so often when it comes to wars, resource-based conflicts are easier to start than to stop. Indeed, if there’s a weakness in these books, it’s their scant attention to solutions. Should we eliminate the use of natural commodities altogether? Bad idea, both authors agree. Should we manage their extraction better? Most certainly. Yet to expect detailed answers is perhaps to miss the point. Flagging up the problem, telling it straight and, yes, showing our complicity – these are what’s necessary first. And a commendable job both these powerful books do of it.

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