Tuesday, October 5, 2010


I like to think of myself as a prophet.  I foresaw the implosion of the US real estate market several years in advance.  I foresaw the takeover of both the House and Senate in the last general election (though that one didn't require a lot of thought).  And now I see something looming beyond the horizon that is more important and more tragic than anything we have ever experienced.

This is a vision of a general collapse of the world's economy coupled with irreversible destruction of our environment.  I can see it as surely as death.  There will not be enough energy to drive our cars and heat our homes, there will not be enough excess capital to support medical and basic research, there will not be enough food to sustain our population.

I've been feeling uneasy about the future for some time now, but what really put this vision into clear focus was Tom Ashbrook's "On Point" radio show last night, "Rare Earth Elements, Global Power":

Tom's show was about these unusual metals, but the implications are far beyond the periodic table of the elements.  It seems that China has more than 95% of the earth's deposits of these minerals.  China has intentionally cornered the world market on these substances because they can mine and market them at a far cheaper price than any other country or private company.

This "cheap" production of these metals comes at a huge human and environmental cost because the elements are not very concentrated in the ore.  As a result, this surface mining leaves huge swaths of destruction in its wake. Though Tom didn't mention this, I suspect there is also a large component of manual labor involved.  China has typically employed human labor in unimaginable numbers for large projects.

Other countries are mining them with forced labor and raped women.  Cnn.com had a photo essay recently on the human cost of these "conflict minerals" in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which I encourage you to see:

Why is there such a demand for these rare earth metals? Because they are essential for new "supermagnets" to manipulate the fins on guided missiles.  They are also used in many military products and in cell phones, televisions, and other high-tech material goods.

It seems ironic and tragic that parts of our environment as well as human capital are being destroyed so that the fruits of this effort may eventually wind up in some junk pile when they are replaced by something slicker and more tech-y.

This is wrong.

A global economy based on profit, greed, materialism, human destruction and ever-expanding depletion of non-renewable resources is wrong and is fundamentally incompatible with sustainability and peace.

As my guru E.F. Schumacher said in Small Is Beautiful:
"The economics of permanence implies a profound reorientation of science and technology, which have to open their doors to wisdom and, in fact, have to incorporate wisdom into their very structure.  Scientific or technological solutions which poison the environment or degrade the social structure and man himself are of no benefit, no matter how brilliantly conceived or how great their superficial attraction. Ever-bigger machines, entailing ever-bigger concentrations of economic power and exerting ever-bigger violence against the environment, do not represent progress:  they are a denial of wisdom.  Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology toward the organic, the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and beautiful. Peace, as has often been said, is indivisible - how then could peace be built on a foundation of reckless science and violent technology?  We must look for a revolution in technology to give us inventions and machines which reverse the destructive trends now threatening us all."

It should be obvious that a truly sustainable economy and society must be based on peace and compassion for all humanity.

May it be so.

The Appearance of Reality:  Pillar of Fire


1 comment:

  1. Well stated, well researched, very interesting and scary as hell. I, however, do not believe that enough of the earth's human population will care enough to even TRY to do something about it. Greed and self interest prevail over everything else.