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Minding Our Minerals

By Saleem H. Ali | October 9, 2009

CREDIT: Orbital Joe (CC).

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 importance.

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 technological optimism.

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).

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