Normally the sight of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines fills me with hope, but I have my doubts after reading this book. Many politicians, business leaders, and environmental organisations argue that we need to invest in renewables to transition away from fossil fuels and the accompanying carbon dioxide emissions. What is rarely mentioned is that these technologies require the mining of rare metals: chemical elements such as rhenium, lithium, antimony, neodymium, tantalum, and many others that most people have barely heard of. In The Rare Metals War, French investigative journalist Guillaume Pitron sounds the alarm, showing both the environmental impact and China’s chokehold on the market.
I read this book in tandem with David S. Abraham’s slightly older The Elements of Power which I had been meaning to read for ages. Thus, this is the second of a two-part review dealing with these little-known elements that have silently come to dominate our lives.
This book was originally published in French in 2018 as La Guerre des Métaux Rares and was swiftly translated into eight languages. Although the publisher does not mention it, the English version has been updated, referencing events and reports up to 2019. Bianca Jacobsohn‘s excellent translation perfectly captures the urgency of the alarm that Pitron sounds.
After a brief introduction to the nature and numerous applications of rare metals, the first three chapters tackle pollution. Pitron surreptitiously visits major mining sites in China and Mongolia to see first-hand the destruction: the vast toxic sludge ponds that leach metals into the groundwater, the poisoned agricultural land, the villages where people suffer and die from pollution-inflicted diseases. “The Chinese people have sacrificed their environment to supply the entire planet with rare earths” (p. 28), says a Chinese rare-metal expert. And it is not just China, pollution accompanies the mining for cobalt in the Democratic Republic of Congo, chrome in Kazakhstan, and lithium in Latin America.
“It is all too easy to forget that our online world requires a huge infrastructure of data centres, cables, satellites, etc. requiring rare metals: “[…] the age of dematerialisation is nothing more than an outright ruse“”
What makes this so shocking is that this pollution is not spoken of in the West. Pitron is intent on opening your eyes and does not mince his words. “[…] in contrast to the carbon economy, whose pollution is undeniable, the new green economy hides behind virtuous claims of responsibility for the sake of future generations” (p. 54). It is all too easy to forget that our online world requires a huge infrastructure of data centres, cables, satellites, etc. requiring rare metals: “[…] the age of dematerialisation is nothing more than an outright ruse” (p. 44). It is even worse for renewable energy: “Put simply, clean energy is a dirty affair. Yet we feign ignorance because we refuse to take stock of the end-to-end production cycle of wind turbines and solar panels” (p. 53). And then on page 72, his coup de grâce: “Concealing the dubious origins of metals in China has given green and digital technologies the shining reputation they enjoy. This could very well be the most stunning greenwashing operation in history.“
Bowyer already highlighted this hypocritical contradiction in our attitude in The Irresponsible Pursuit of Paradise. Pitron here calls it “delocalised pollution”. While China does “the dirty work of manufacturing green-tech components“, the West happily buys “the pristine product while flaunting its sound ecological practices” (p. 71). He reminds us that: “everything comes at a cost: the globalisation of supply chains gives us consumer goods while taking away knowledge of their origins” (p. 81). For me, this part of the book was worth the price of admission alone, and it might come as a rude but necessary awakening for some readers.
“Concealing the dubious origins of metals in China has given green and digital technologies the shining reputation they enjoy. This could very well be the most stunning greenwashing operation in history”
The next four chapters tackle the second major topic of this book: the near-monopoly China now has on the supply of many rare metals. Pitron traces the history of how Europe and the US shuttered its rare metal mines, off-shored its heavy industries, and focused on high-value manufacturing with imported components and the service economy. China used this opportunity to the fullest and has come to dominate the production of many raw materials, including the rare earth elements so critical for high-tech applications. But that is only their first step towards becoming a global powerhouse, as their 2010 rare earth export quotas made clear. Companies are of course welcome to relocate their production to China, and many have done so to remain competitive. Though the west has cried foul, Pitron avoids anti-China sentiments by providing their perspective. At a conference, a Mongolian official clarifies that “Western businesses that, like the colonisers before them, sought only to mine resources to generate added value back home are no longer welcome” (p. 110). I could not help but think: can you blame them?
Our appetite for rare metals is rapidly growing and Pitron highlights that some could run out within decades. Mention of “peak anything” easily attracts derision, but I agree with him that we are in “collective denial of resource scarcity” (p. 162). Logically, we have used up the most rewarding and easily accessible resources first, so we mine and drill in ever more extreme environments, including plans to mine asteroids and the deep sea. Bonus points for Pitron for mentioning the underappreciated concept of energy returned on energy invested that Ugo Bardi highlighted in Extracted. Producing energy costs energy. As long as there is a net gain, all is well, but ore grades (the concentration of desired material) have been in decline for decades. “[…] As Bardi concludes, ‘The limits to mineral extraction are not limits of quantity; they are limits of energy’” (p. 165).
“it is hard to argue with [Pitron’s] conclusion that “nothing will change so long as we do not experience, in our own backyards, the full cost of attaining our standard of happiness“”
Pitron’s proposed solution is unusual, but I like it. Reopen mines in the West. Not just to compete with China, but to make consumers “realise – to our horror – the true cost of our self-declared modern, connected, and green world” (p. 177). He hopes that this will finally move us to dial down our consumption. And it is hard to argue with his conclusion that “nothing will change so long as we do not experience, in our own backyards, the full cost of attaining our standard of happiness” (p. 178).
The Rare Metals War is a powerful and sobering exposé that will no doubt shatter the green dreams of many readers. However, we cannot continue to ignore the material reality that underlies the green revolution that politicians and environmental organisations want us to pursue. This book is a much-needed conversation starter.
So, how does it compare to Abraham’s The Elements of Power? I considered the former to be remarkably comprehensive: it covers pollution and China’s monopoly, and several other topics besides. And yet, its tone is more neutral and might not set alarm bells ringing. Abraham seems concerned but optimistic about the promise of green technology. Maybe it is something about the French, but Pitron is much more outspoken by calling out our collective hypocrisy in the West and suggesting we act on the root problem of overconsumption. If Abraham informs you widely, Pitron wakes you up – I found both takes on this topic very useful and recommend both books highly.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: