Wednesday, January 13th, 2010
The corporate capitalist marketing of allegedly “green” products depends on fixing buyers’ attention on the end commodity only. How many bio-diesel users, for instance, understand that bio-diesel not only diverts food to gas tanks, but is a net energy loser that requires more hidden petro-inputs than plain old gasoline-burning? Not many.
And there’s a reason our moguls conceal their processes: Every time a green scheme rings the cash register, a strip mine run by gangsters gets its wings.
That is a photo of a “rare earth” mine in China. The New York Times‘ Keith Bradsher (who wrote an excellent book about the insanity of the car corporations’ SUV push of recent decades) reports today:
GUYUN VILLAGE, China — 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.
Miners scrape off the topsoil and shovel golden-flecked clay into dirt pits, using acids to extract the rare earths. The acids ultimately wash into streams and rivers, destroying rice paddies and fish farms and tainting water supplies.
A close-knit group of mainland Chinese gangs with a capacity for murder dominates much of the mining and has ties to local officials, said Stephen G. Vickers, the former head of criminal intelligence for the Hong Kong police who is now the chief executive of International Risk, a global security company.
The biggest user of heavy rare earths in the years ahead could be large wind turbines, which need much lighter magnets for the five-ton generators at the top of ever-taller towers. Vestas, a Danish company that has become the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturer, said that prototypes for its next generation used dysprosium, and that the company was studying the sustainability of the supply. Goldwind, the biggest Chinese turbine maker, has switched from conventional magnets to rare-earth magnets.
And, of course, the world’s most powerful and sophisticated overclass pleads ignorance to it all:
Western users of heavy rare earths say that they have no way of figuring out what proportion of the minerals they buy from China comes from responsibly operated mines.
“I don’t know if part of that feed, internal in China, came from an illegal mine and went in a legal separator,” said David Kennedy, the president of Great Western Technologies in Troy, Mich., which imports Chinese rare earths and turns them into powders that are sold worldwide.