Discover more from Life in the 21st Century
The More Things Change
Life in the 21st Century is a reader-supported publication. Please become a paid subscriber.
What's amusing, you need a good stomach, is in the last decades as environmental issues have begun to rudely intrude on the future, the thinking of how do deal with them remains firmly entrenched in the past. One might even call them reactionary, in the very worst sense of the word.
Of course, when I say environmental problems, really at this point it’s only the climate issue, which is perceived using our established scientific/academic/industrial division of intellect. Carbon is the problem, it come's mostly from burning fossil fuels. Rarely mentioned is this has been an ongoing process for two centuries. Never brought up is the idea that the processes, or lets call it the lifestyles, built on top of the burning of fossil fuels must be changed. Doing so would require not simply an engineering perspective, but a much broader view of what needs to be done.
We are stuck in what one of the 20th century's greatest minds on technology, Norbert Wiener, called “the limbo of badly posed questions.” And folks, the limbo of badly posed questions quickly leads to the hell of bad answers.
So, the FT has done a nice article that should, but won't, throw a wrench into the notion we simply face an engineering problem. This article is almost written tongue in cheek, though the Brits have lost their flair for good irony, along with a lot of other things. Nonetheless, the title, “The new commodity superpowers,” is rich with irony.
The FT sums it up,
“As the world moves from an energy system built on fossil fuels to one powered by electricity and renewables, global demand for materials such as copper, cobalt, nickel and lithium is transforming the fortunes of the countries that produce them.”
And then the rub,
“The mining of certain metals is highly concentrated among just a few countries.”
And the punchline,
“Under current plans, none of these key commodities will have enough operating mines by 2030 to build the infrastructure necessary to limit global warming to 1.5C above preindustrial levels, according to the International Energy Agency.
By the end of this decade, the nascent lithium market needs to triple in size, while copper supply will be short by 2.4mn tonnes, it says.”
Guaranteed the IEA’s numbers don’t include bringing up the world’s consumption to say even a third of the United States. And, if you understand the still unaccounted costs of the extraction, not the burning, of fossil fuels, the simplistic idea the rushed extraction of all these minerals will lead to much good is simpleminded. It all makes Elon's recent berating US utilities for their growing incapacity to provide electricity for his Flash Gordon future all the more ridiculous.
The article notes what has changed is countries, sitting atop this possible future extraction bonanza, have maybe learned they shouldn't simply be exploited for the benefit of far away people or even just a few of their own. “This shift is also transforming some smaller and historically under-developed countries into commodity superpowers. And their governments are now intent on rewriting the rules of mineral extraction.”
The FT, one of the organs of global finance, ensconced in a former capital of empire, then quotes one the established global corporate powers,
“‘Every government will seek a deal with the mining industry that’s a fair one, that is a winner for the country and the winner for the industry,’ says Jakob Stausholm, chief executive of Rio Tinto, which has itself recently been to the negotiating table in Chile and in Mongolia.”
You tell me, irony or not? Let’s put it this way, every country mentioned in this article could exclusively use a massive chunk of whatever they’re digging up domestically. For example, in the old ruling commodity regime, the Nigerians could have burned every barrel of oil domestically and not exported a gallon.
The rest of the article, and it is well worth reading, deals with the minerals growing politics, pointing to the possibility of cartels and the concern, an old one for corporate globalization and its imperial predecessors, of growing nationalism, itself a bankrupt 19th century ideology. Not mentioned, the last decades blowing up of the Middle East and the current criminality taking place in Ukraine as the most recent examples of established ways for controlling “essential” commodities.
We need to get a lot smarter about all this, much more encompassing of the environmental challenges left by two centuries of industrialization. There is no future in this direction. We can have a better one, but it will be different. For Americans it starts with de-automobilizing its infrastructure.