[Marxism] A Different Environmental Threat: Peak Rare Minerals, China, and Green Technology

Jeff meisner at xs4all.nl
Sun Sep 6 12:39:16 MDT 2009


At 09:04 06/09/09 -0700, Michael Perelman wrote:
>Jeff, I agree with everything you said except your point about the 
>word, peak. Mathematically, as long as a fixed supply exists, there 
>will necessarily be a peak point in extraction.
Well you've obviously studied the economics of this, but what I have seen
about "peak oil" seems oversimplified in several ways. For instance, it is
often said that the "peak" occurs when half of the "fixed supply" has been
depleted, but there is no reason to assume that that should even be
approximately true. The production might well just increase to meet demand
right up to the exact end of the supply, if it were simply like emptying a
big can of oil that suppliers had. I would imagine that a "peak" in
production will occur at the point where the cost of producing energy using
oil exceeds the costs of energy from other sources (which are coming down)
so it would have as much to do with other forms of production (and energy
demand), not just how much oil is left in the ground.

But my main point was that there might NOT be a "fixed supply" to speak of,
but rather a supply which just becomes more and more expensive to tap, so
that the ultimate amount available doesn't really enter into it. That is
even more true for minerals, since I believe the supply is virtually
endless if you're willing to dig deeper and bigger mines (not that I want
them to!).

>Here are another problem arises because the extraction, as I understand 
>it, requires removing an immense quantity of earth, then using solvents 
>of some kind 
Yes, that's not nice, but I thought you were originally addressing the
economics of the matter. And in particular the implication that the Chinese
might obtain a stranglehold on minerals needed for technological progress
(in this case neodymium used for making the strongest permanent magnets for
the most efficient and lightest motors and generators). If that were really
a threat, then they would just gear up for mining it elsewhere. If they
aren't doing that, it's because they trust the Chinese to continue
supplying it at a better price.

I think the discussion of such "shortages" has to do with the short-term
price fluctuations that may concern industry and speculators, but the
specter of any one country (or even a few countries) having long-term
control of one essential resource doesn't seem like a real problem. They
would find alternatives if and when they had to.

>to separate out the minerals.
>In the case of gold, 1 ounce requires 30 tons of rock to be moved and 
>then treated with cyanide.
Yes that's disgusting, especially when you consider how much of that gold
will be used only for its symbolic value (rather than the utilitarian value
gold has in plating contacts for electrical connectors etc.). Note that the
proportion you just gave of 1 ppm of gold in the ore they mine, is much
lower than the 38 ppm of neodymium over the entire earth (not to mention
its abundance where they actually mine it), and the yearly production
(again according to Wikipedia) is only 7000 tons (but surely rising rapidly).

Also, there may be a semantic confusion involved. Neodymium is classified
as a "rare earth" according to its position on the periodic chart, but that
is just the name for elements of atomic number 57 to 71. It isn't nearly as
rare as gold or platinum. Its production being dominated by China doesn't
seem to be of long-term significance, as far as I can tell, and it
certainly isn't facing any "peak" in production due to depletion.

- Jeff






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