La guerre des métaux rares, Guil­laume Pitron, Les Liens qui libèrent, Jan­u­ary 2018.

Noth­ing is more pol­lut­ing than new tech­nolo­gies. By mag­ni­fy­ing the line a lit­tle, that is how we could sum­ma­rize the very impor­tant sur­vey recent­ly pub­lished by Guil­laume Pitron. In La Guerre des métaux rares (Les Liens qui libèrent, Jan­u­ary 2018), he shows that green techs are far from being the panacea we are sold. This “counter-his­to­ry of the com­ing world”, pref­aced by Hubert Védrine, opens our eyes to the “hid­den side” of an ener­gy and dig­i­tal tran­si­tion that we pre­fer to ignore.

Oil of the 21st century?

The pro­po­nents of “sus­tain­able cap­i­tal­ism” promise us a world that is both more tech­no­log­i­cal and clean­er, where human inge­nu­ity would mit­i­gate cli­mate change, resource scarci­ty and ecosys­tem destruc­tion. The ener­gy tran­si­tion claims to replace fos­sil fuels with “green” ener­gies and the dig­i­tal tran­si­tion, by dema­te­ri­al­iz­ing exchanges, would pro­mote a less pol­lut­ing world. The real­i­ty is unfor­tu­nate­ly a lit­tle more complicated.

The first indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion in the 19th cen­tu­ry was based on the steam engine, itself depen­dent on an indis­pens­able fuel: coal. In the 20th cen­tu­ry, it was the com­bus­tion engine that enabled the sec­ond indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion thanks to the extrac­tion of oil. And now, at the begin­ning of the 21st cen­tu­ry, a third indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion has begun, with­out the ener­gy that con­di­tions it being known.

Graphite, cobalt, indi­um, plati­noids, tung­sten, rare earths… does­n’t ring a bell? Yet the con­nect­ed objects we use every day are full of them.” For a long time, peo­ple have exploit­ed the main met­als known to all: iron, gold, sil­ver, cop­per, lead, alu­mini­um… “We no longer know what the new tech­nolo­gies on which we have become depen­dent work. Unknown to the gen­er­al pub­lic, but exploit­ed since the 1970s, this “next oil” is the “fab­u­lous mag­net­ic and chem­i­cal prop­er­ties of a mul­ti­tude of small rare met­als con­tained in earth rocks”. Would this car­bon-free ener­gy, and there­fore much less pol­lut­ing, be the sal­va­tion of humanity?

“A plague become global”

Noth­ing is less cer­tain, because these indis­pens­able “rare met­als” are as dirty as… rare. They are in fact already the object of rival­ries and geopo­lit­i­cal ten­sions that we do not sus­pect: the “war of rare met­als” has only just begun. We already con­sume more than two bil­lion tons of var­i­ous met­als each year[and] stud­ies pre­dict that, by 2030, demand for ger­ma­ni­um will dou­ble, demand for dys­pro­sium and tan­ta­lum will quadru­ple, and demand for pal­la­di­um will quin­tu­ple. The sca­di­um mar­ket could be mul­ti­plied by 9, and the cobalt mar­ket by… 24!” (p. 39).

Guil­laume Pitron first takes us to Chi­na, the world’s lead­ing pro­duc­er of rare met­als, and espe­cial­ly rare earths, the most pre­cious of them, to inves­ti­gate the eco­log­i­cal and social dam­age caused by their extrac­tion. While becom­ing ubiq­ui­tous in the most excit­ing’­green’ and dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies, rare met­als have also per­me­at­ed their high­ly tox­ic slag into the water, earth, atmos­phere and even the flames of blast fur­naces — the four ele­ments nec­es­sary for life” (p. 44). The Chi­nese peo­ple have sac­ri­ficed their envi­ron­ment to feed the entire plan­et with rare earths,” con­cludes a Chi­nese expert with grav­i­ty (p. 48). Guil­laume Pitron shows that, far from being the bless­ing hoped for, the indus­tri­al exploita­tion of rare met­als has become a “scourge”.

But Chi­na is far from being the only coun­try affect­ed by this “curse”. Indeed, “extract­ing min­er­als from the ground is an intrin­si­cal­ly dirty activ­i­ty and so far it has been con­duct­ed in such a man­ner that the vir­tu­ous pur­pose of the ener­gy and dig­i­tal tran­si­tion is nec­es­sar­i­ly called into ques­tion”. While the petro­chem­i­cal indus­try “which every­one is try­ing to get rid of, is not even in the top ten”, “min­ing is the sec­ond most pol­lut­ing indus­try in the world”, “behind lead bat­tery recy­cling and ahead of dye­ing, indus­tri­al land­fills and tan­ner­ies” (p. 54).

“A damning ecological balance sheet”

In short, “even before they are put into ser­vice, a solar pan­el, a wind tur­bine, an elec­tric car or a low-ener­gy lamp bear the orig­i­nal sin of their deplorable ener­gy and envi­ron­men­tal bal­ance” (p. 55). In real­i­ty, if we take into account the entire pro­duc­tion process since the extrac­tion of the man­u­fac­tur­ing ele­ments, and not only the oper­a­tion itself, green tech­nolo­gies have a “damn­ing eco­log­i­cal bal­ance” (p. 58). For exam­ple, “the indus­tri­al­iza­tion of an elec­tric car alone con­sumes three to four times more ener­gy than that of a con­ven­tion­al vehicle.

This does not include all the dis­eases gen­er­at­ed among work­ers and res­i­dents of min­ing infrastructures.

In oth­er words, accord­ing to Guil­laume Pitron, the rem­e­dy (rare met­als) could prove to be worse than the evil (oil) it was sup­posed to cure… Thus pro­duc­tivism, even repaint­ed green, makes us fall from Charyb­dis to Scyl­la, “a bit like a drug addict who, to stop his addic­tion to cocaine, would sink into hero­in”. Basi­cal­ly, we are not address­ing the chal­lenge of the impact of human activ­i­ty on ecosys­tems; we are sim­ply shift­ing it” (p.70).

Always more: the indus­tri­al flight for­ward, and the destruc­tion of the world it gen­er­ates, will only inten­si­fy with the high­ly pol­lut­ing extrac­tion of rare met­als. We will con­sume more min­er­als in the next gen­er­a­tion than in the last 70,000 years, the 500 gen­er­a­tions before us” (p. 214). And it is not COP21, focus­ing on the harm­ful effects of oil, that will lim­it the dam­age caused.

How­ev­er, in addi­tion to envi­ron­men­tal and health dis­as­ters, there are eco­nom­ic and geopo­lit­i­cal strug­gles for con­trol over resources and technologies.

Chinese revenge

The rest of the book shows how the West, and France in par­tic­u­lar, has pre­ferred to “relo­cate pollution”“to poor coun­tries will­ing to sac­ri­fice their environment[and their pop­u­la­tion] to enrich them­selves” rather than to assume the cost of an eco­log­i­cal­ly and social­ly sus­tain­able extrac­tion. It thus details the trans­fer of tech­ni­cal skills from a large indus­try such as Rhône-Poulenc, and the aban­don­ment of pub­lic poli­cies of “min­er­al sov­er­eign­ty”. We have gained in pur­chas­ing pow­er what we have lost in pur­chas­ing knowl­edge,” notes Guil­laume Pitron. But this choice is like­ly to cost us dear­ly: “By orga­niz­ing the trans­fer of rare met­al pro­duc­tion, we have done much more than leave the bur­den of 21st cen­tu­ry oil to the forces of glob­al­iza­tion, we have entrust­ed poten­tial rivals with a pre­cious monop­oly” (p. 116).

And Chi­na, which has tak­en 99% of the world’s rare earth pro­duc­tion for itself, has already begun to take advan­tage of this sit­u­a­tion by plac­ing “the West under embar­go”. And it not only con­fis­cates rare met­als, it trans­forms them to make “low hand on high tech­nolo­gies”. It has set up “a com­plete­ly sov­er­eign and inte­grat­ed sec­tor, which encom­pass­es both smelly mines sur­veyed by black gules and ultra-mod­ern fac­to­ries pop­u­lat­ed by over­grad­u­at­ed engi­neers” (p. 155). Thus, Chi­na has become “the world’s lead­ing pro­duc­er of green ener­gy, the lead­ing man­u­fac­tur­er of pho­to­volta­ic equip­ment, the lead­ing hydro­elec­tric pow­er, the lead­ing investor in wind pow­er and the world’s lead­ing mar­ket for new ener­gy cars” (p. 176), while France has lost 900,000 indus­tri­al jobs in the last fif­teen years (p. 183).

How­ev­er, Guil­laume Pitron recalls, “each time a peo­ple has mas­tered a new met­al, its use has been accom­pa­nied by tremen­dous tech­ni­cal and mil­i­tary progress — and ever more dead­ly con­flicts” (p.192). And he takes as an exam­ple “the race for intel­li­gent mis­siles” and the con­quest of the oceans, which con­tain immense deposits of rare metals.

Relocate and/or decrease?

Faced with this sit­u­a­tion, Guil­laume Pitron rec­om­mend­ed relo­cat­ing our min­ing activ­i­ties. A rein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion of France, then. Not so much to counter Chi­nese impe­ri­al­ism and not to find our­selves com­plete­ly dis­armed in this “war of rare met­als” as to fos­ter the emer­gence of a tru­ly eco­log­i­cal soci­ety. Noth­ing will change rad­i­cal­ly until we expe­ri­ence, under our win­dows, the total cost of our stan­dard hap­pi­ness. The respon­si­ble mine here will always be bet­ter than the irre­spon­si­ble mine elsewhere.”

Guil­laume Pitron’s sur­vey, which evokes “degrowth” with­out advo­cat­ing it, ends with a ques­tion in the form of hope: “Will we know how to draw from our­selves the anti­dote to rare metals?

No mat­ter how much we take the prob­lem, and what we call this “escape route” of sobri­ety or decline, the pro­found sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of our lifestyles appears more and more as a vital neces­si­ty and a con­di­tion for peace.

In any case, after read­ing this excit­ing book, you will no longer see your smart­phone in the same way. And if that makes you want to do with­out it (which is not that dif­fi­cult!), it will be one less weapon in this mer­ci­less war of human­i­ty against itself.


Gaulti­er Bès
Assis­tant Direc­tor of Lim­ite magazine