If someone mentioned mining to you, what would be the first images to come to mind? Probably dirty faces, barren landscapes and polluted waterways. Technologies such as iPods, cell phones, wind turbines, laptops, hybrid cars and solar arrays would be the last things on your mind. But without metals, and the mining industry that recovers them from the Earth, none of these modern items would exist.
There's a common assumption that advances in technology, especially green technology, will reduce our reliance on the world's natural resources. But mining metals is essential as we look toward furthering our technologically advanced society and building a sustainable future. Cell phones rely on tungsten to vibrate. Nickel is used to make the blades of wind turbines. Tellurium is used in cell phones and solar arrays. Solder used on circuit boards comes from tin. A variety of electronic devices require tantalum to store electricity. Platinum and palladium are important components of catalytic converters and air purification equipment.
Then there are the rare earth elements (REEs). Without them, hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as maglev trains, wouldn't be possible. Rare earth metals are poised to become the "foreign oil" of the 21st century. More than 95 percent of today's rare earth mining occurs in China and China is exporting less as demand within their country increases.
And with demand for these metals growing, a new black market in REEs and other metals is taking shape. According to a 60 Minutes report, gold, tin, tungsten and tellurium are funding a deadly war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a war whose casualties rival those of World War II. Many mines in the DRC are run by rebel militia, who use violence to terrorize and intimidate civilians into compliance. Rape is used as a weapon; over 200,000 women and girls are estimated to have been raped. In fact, this area has the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. At the root of all the violence are the mineral resources of the region. Profits earned from smuggling the metals out of the country and selling them (primarily to Uganda) are used to buy weapons and to fund the war. There seems to be no end in sight -- copper, nickel, platinum and palladium are the next regional resources poised to become "conflict minerals".
It's not that we don't have these metal deposits in the U.S. -- we do -- but market forces have made mining some of these metals unfeasible, particularly the REEs. Critics of mining have legitimate environmental concerns; some would have us halt all mining in the U.S. Adopting such a NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) mentality leaves us with the option of importing metals mined in other coutries where human rights atrocities abound and destruction of the environment is just part of doing business.
So what's the solution? Giving up our electronic devices isn't likely to happen. Abandoning green technologies would be unwise, especially as we act to combat global climate change and develop clean energy sources and vehicles with zero emissions.
A sustainable future requires the use of raw materials -- metals -- to buid the components of green technologies and green energy. We need to stress the reuse and proper recycling of these metals, which would reduce the amount that needed to be mined in the first place. We also need to build a market in metals recycling (beyond that currently in place for more traditional metals such as aluminum), which would hopefully stop the illegal exportation of e-waste and reduce the need to open more mines. Government officials and state agencies must hold mining companies to the highest standards of environmentally responsible mining practices to protect our land and water resources. As a nation we need to stop the trading of conflict minerals and require companies to report where raw materials for their products originate. Several bills have already been introduced in Congress to combat conflict minerals.
We can't live as a sustainable industrialized society without relying on the Earth's resources. The key to achieving true sustainability is realizing the Earth has a finite supply of resources, and using -- and reusing-- these resources wisely.
For more information on the world's supply of mineral resources, check out Earth's Natural Resources: An Audit, which appeared in New Scientist. For more information (and a short video) on the DRC's conflict minerals, click here or here.