As many times as we think of ourselves as intelligent and sensitive people, we just as often betray that self-image. Our fascination with technology, and our lack of concern with all the harm that technology does to so many people, and to this Earth, are less the signs of intelligent people as signs of a self-absorbed culture. “Whatever we want from our world, we’ll just take it” — that’s how it looks — and we’ll use every cliché and self-justification we can cook up. That’s how it looks.
So if, right up-front, if we say clearly we want to protect our planet and atmosphere, it may sound right, but not wise, to just throw out old methods and old energies by relying (or hoping to rely) upon new technologies and materials. We hear plenty about switching from petroleum vehicles to electrical, as if all that’s needed is to throw a switch (or sign a cheque) — and off we go in another direction.
Most talk (in the news) about switching to electrical power seems very short in estimating the amount of new materials we’ll need, and our ability to source them. Cobalt, lithium, copper, all sorts of “rare earths”, they all seem technically feasible alternatives to refining tar sands for oil, diesel and gasoline. But are these “rare” materials really available in the quantities the world will require? And how will they be accessed?
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the world’s best sources of many of these ores — yet the absolute poverty there, akin to modern slavery — the lack of functioning government, the number and power of armed militias and criminal gangs — many linked to criminal regimes (and militaries) in other countries — plus rampant illegal mining is destroying much of that region’s environment (and their future growth possibilities). Human rights, sexual exploitation, bribery and corruption are all part of the “development” modern technology is offering these poor people..
So far, our use of phones and new automotive technologies rely heavily on these minerals and on these places, many with corrupt, crimminal governments. Bolivia is a big source of lithium — and the ongoing political upheaval there is connected to these vast resources, their strings controlled by world powers.
For analysts to tell us that all we have to do is switch from dirty oil to rare earths is not convincing in the bigger picture. We will trade the wasteland of the tar sands for a new wasteland of human rights and environmental destruction elsewhere?
Such a “switch” to electricity is deceptively simpleminded. Read up a bit on today’s scramble in the Congo (not on your phone!)