The Violent Political Economy of Rare Earths

by Chris Borgen

The New York Times has a very interesting article on the mining of rare earths, a group of elements that are particularly important for green technologies.  The Times piece begins like this:

Some of the greenest technologies of the age, from electric cars to efficient light bulbs to very large wind turbines, are made possible by an unusual group of elements called rare earths. The world’s dependence on these substances is rising fast.

Just one problem: These elements come almost entirely from China, from some of the most environmentally damaging mines in the country, in an industry dominated by criminal gangs.

Western capitals have suddenly grown worried over China’s near monopoly, which gives it a potential stranglehold on technologies of the future.

In Washington, Congress is fretting about the United States military’s dependence on Chinese rare earths, and has just ordered a study of potential alternatives.

Here in Guyun Village, a small community in southeastern China fringed by lush bamboo groves and banana trees, the environmental damage can be seen in the red-brown scars of barren clay that run down narrow valleys and the dead lands below, where emerald rice fields once grew.

Criminal gangs, geopolitics, and environmental collapse, make for a dangerous cocktail. This article highlights an important issue that (as far as I can tell) has been under-reported .

http://opiniojuris.org/2009/12/26/the-violent-political-economy-of-rare-earths/

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