Extracted – How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet: Review

A report to the Club of Rome, Chelsea Green (2014)
Author: Ugo Bardi

Review by Sally Starbuck

This book demonstrates how all minerals are finite, and the energy demand of their extraction and refinement can only continue to increase, as will their uneven distribution and access. Yet metal is money, that is its origin and still the essence of commodity trading, closely allied with power and territorial struggles, aka geopolitics.

Meanwhile minerals are fully part of the living world or ecosphere, in the Gaïan sense, and will limit growth of population and consumption.

In the conclusion, the author tries to put a positive spin on alternative outcomes but, based on his own arguments which precede it, an apocalyptic future seems more & more inevitable. Indeed, this likelihood might almost offer a retreat from everyday manmade horror stories and injustices!

The author includes no specific references to support my understanding to date that the rare earth minerals are just that; found in the USA, Australia, China, Afghanistan. If so, this would explain why Western/ alliance/ NATO forces went into Afghanistan so expeditiously.

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that all mineral resources are finite. Now even Gypsum reserves are dwindling, the by-products of coal-fired plants reducing with production. At current rate of demand, there is 20 years’ supply; at double demand, likely with growth in different areas, even the retrofitting of millions of homes, only 8 years’ supply.

Meanwhile, the threat of Peak Oil implies a need to find alternatives for scarcer fossil fuels, to conserve remaining reserves, for singular uses such as the processing of ores into raw materials. Reliance on petrochemicals, including in manufacturing, is likely to become expensive, prohibitively for the majority and so, shared unequally. This may already be seen by the concentration of Photovoltaic electric installations in wealthy countries of Northern Europe rather than others more suited by climate or need, lacking conventional power infrastructure. Systems and processes develop through research and empirical analysis, testing either traditional or innovative materials and procedures for performance and affordability. This approach should now be directed at abundant resources.

In addition to petrochemicals, rare earth minerals are now also being exploited for use in new technologies in order to perpetuate high-consumption lifestyles: e.g. Neodymium for magnets in electric motors (cars, wind turbines, hard-disc drives), Terbium in low energy light bulbs, Cerium in catalytic converters for diesel engines, Lanthanum for car electric batteries. Mining rare-earth metals has environmental impacts, with radioactive by-products and acids used in processing, resulting in toxic waste as well as geo-political tensions in securing their future supply.

Ecological design balances powerful, often conflicting, elements including but not exclusively energy conservation:
– transfiguration of the functional, to excite and motivate.
– low-energy/ low carbon, robust, resilient, durable systems.
– optimisation in accordance with the intended use & site, occupancy patterns, daylighting, natural ventilation, healthy materials for indoor air quality, colour theory, etc.
– affordability of capital cost and primary energy/ running costs, NETT.
– minimise environmental impact of buildings, transport, water & wastewater treatment (reducing energy consumption).
– transition from petrochemically derived raw materials, rare earth minerals and fossil fuels.

New ideas need to be resourced to allow principles and skills to evolve into practical applications.

The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil, said Sheikh Zaki Yamani, Saudi Arabian oil minister, in 1973.
By 1993, this was more famously reiterated by Paul Hawken, “The Stone Age did not end because we humans ran out of stones. It also follows that the Oil Age will not end because we ran out of oil.”

Which technique will go on to define our epoch?

by Sally Starbuck
Gaïa ecotecture
1 An Corrán, The ecoVillage, Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary. Ireland
e-mail: sallystarbuck@gaia-ecotecture.eu

REFERENCES available on request.
incl. McCarthy, M 2010, The ecological risks of clean energy’s ‘dirty little secret’, The Independent (London) Environment Editor, 30th Dec., p9.
Hawken, P 1993, The Ecology of Commerce, HarperCollins (USA)
Hawken, P, Lovins, A 1999, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Little Brown (USA)
Hickman, M 2010, Hi-tech industries in disarray as China rations vital minerals The Independent (London) Consumer Affairs correspondent, 30th Dec., p9

Featured image: Rare earth oxides. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rareearthoxides.jpg

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.