A rare and toxic age

A journey into the complex and parallel mythologies of modern technology and rare earths.
Part of
Issue 4 February 2018

Energy & Environment

One familiar, and semi-fictional, trope of living in an Information Age is the inevitable acceleration of progress. Animated by the dead or dying Moore’s Law chart of development, the gaps between major innovations just keep collapsing: 43 years since the Altair 8800 and the fledgling emergence of personal computing, 35 years since the ARPANET transition to TCP/IP, a decade since the iPhone, three years since the initial release of Amazon’s Alexa, two-odd years since the release of TensorFlow… Networked systems annihilate time and space, and in so doing move us ever faster toward ever greater, ever more singular achievements.

But there’s another, slower way to look at the timeline of computer history: against the geologic time scale responsible for technology’s material components. Millions of years ago, just the right amount of heat, pressure, and time prompted just the right reconfiguration of sandstone into quartzite, an optimal form of silicon and oxygen ideal for refining into the pure silicon crystals used in integrated circuits. Alkaline magmas had to cool in just the right way, with just the right crystallized pockets that would cool into the rare earth elements that—while not a massive percentage of that alchemical mix used to make consumer electronics—are integral to making those electronics smaller, shinier, and more powerful.

One could even step further backwards and consider these developments in cosmic time. The lithium batteries that power more and more consumer electronics and green technologies are not merely a product of massive brining fields in Bolivia, but a miracle of the Big Bang itself. In October 2017, scientists with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Europe’s Virgo interferometer observed the results of two neutron stars colliding. It was the first time that scientists had been able to observe what had previously been theorized: Nuclear reactions from the collision produced elements like gold and lanthanides, crucial to hardware manufacturing. To do a great disservice to the late Carl Sagan, iPhones are as much—if not more—of star stuff as humanity itself.

Synthesizing that star stuff into iPhones (and hard drives, lasers, fiber optic cable, Teslas, and a vast array of other networked or software-defined electronic devices) requires a vastly complex global supply chain and carries significant environmental costs. Contemporary narratives for unraveling that chain and its costs tend to be written within three polemics: outrage at hardware manufacturers’ corporate complicity in abusive labor practices and effective subsidizing of geopolitical conflict (usually written by a policy advocate or investigative journalist); earnest documentation of efforts to mitigate those harms (usually written by a corporate social responsibility team); or anxious and abstract calculations of potential resource scarcity (usually written by politicians or people from the defense community). Exceptions to these narratives are emerging, most notable among them David S. Abraham’s The Elements of Power and Julie Michelle Klinger’s Rare Earth Frontiers. But until recently, outside of academia and fairly niche policy discourse, the contemporary media has proven poorly equipped to unravel the complexity of technology’s ecosystems.

While the aforementioned narratives are strategic in their own worlds, they tend to maintain the premise that the environmental cost of technology is still orthogonal or an externality to the more diffuse, less obviously material societal implications of living in an Information Age. The politics of a modern world increasingly defined by data mining may only exist because of literal open-pit mining, but the open pit is more often treated as a plot pivot than a natural through-line: Sure, you feel bad about a social media site being creepy, but behold, the hidden environmental devastation wrought by your iPhone—doesn’t that make you feel even worse?

The environmental impact of mineral extraction, refinement, and recovery that makes an Information Age possible holds equally salient social implications, and their narratives are both relevant and resonant across the scales at which people build and live with technology today. Abandoning the fiction of externalities might offer a more holistic understanding of living with and building technology; bridging the gap between the toxic runoff made in mineral extraction and the often toxic culture perpetuated in Silicon Valley could be a better path forward. And there’s arguably no material better suited to dismantling myths buried in both geology and technology than rare earth elements.

One challenge of telling the story of living with computers through their minerals is that there are a lot of minerals involved, and each has its own compelling story and environmental significance. In The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, journalist Brian Merchant had a private company create a meticulous metallurgical breakdown of an iPhone 6 by pulverizing the device and extracting its core elements. In all, 30 were identified, with the aluminum used in the phone’s casing making up the greatest percentage by weight. Several other elements known to be used, such as cerium and neodymium, appeared in such trace amounts that they didn’t even register in the analysis.

Much like a step-by-step code review of an algorithmic process tells us little about how that process might systematically reproduce structural bias, a component-by-component breakdown of hardware by its material elements alone doesn’t necessarily convey the element’s importance in the functionality of a device, or how the inclusion of that particular element contributes more or less to environmental harms. For example, those aforementioned barely registering elements in Merchant’s breakdown include some of the misbegotten and inaccurately named rare earth elements, a collection of metals mostly situated at the bottommost row of the periodic table—they’re the closest we’re likely to get to fairy dust. While they’re used in very small amounts in most hardware, their trace presence is game-changing: When combined into alloys with other materials or used in solvents, they can make electronics lighter, better, faster, and stronger.

It’s partly this magic quality that leads to rare earths being subject to certain pernicious mythologies, the persistence of their painfully poetic name chief among them. The perpetual correction prefacing most rare earth elements science writing is that they’re not technically rare in a quantitative sense: As a whole, they’re more plentiful by parts per million in the Earth’s crust than zinc and copper. (Technically, they are not even earths, they’re metals. Wikileaks is not a wiki, the sharing economy involves little actual sharing… Misnomers are a weird recurring currency of technology history.) The “rare” identifier dates back to the late 18th century and has stuck, for reasons of both legacy and political expediency. They also aren’t rarely used, just used in small amounts, diffusely distributed across many consumer and industrial products.

While the elements are relatively abundant, what is rare are regions of the world that governments and companies are willing to subject to the environmental risks of rare earth mining and processing. Being abundant in the Earth’s crust doesn’t mean they are concentrated in the earth in such a way that they’re readily extracted and refined into industry-grade ore (in this case, often as oxides). In mining industry-speak, this rarity is described as a paucity of “economically viable” deposits—which provides a convenient perpetuation of the “rare” mythos in the face of such elements being deemed economically foundational.

One of the primary challenges of mining rare earths is the coincidence of geology leaving them intertwined with some unsavory neighbors. Rare earths tend to be found in proximity to elements like uranium and thorium. The mining process releases these hazardous and radioactive elements into the atmosphere first by simply digging them out of earth deposits (typically bastnaesite or monazite), and then further through the smelting and refining process that separates the rare earths from their rock source. This process looks like grinding rocks into a fine material (magic dust again, though this magic dust makes toxic elements an airborne inhalation risk) and using high-heat acid baths to separate rare earths from rock.

As Klinger meticulously documents in an overview of processes used at the Bayan Obo mining district in Inner Mongolia (where, today, over 90 percent of the world’s rare earths are mined), this process produces dozens of new hazardous materials:

“Because of the chemical similarities between rare earths, uranium, and thorium, separation is extremely difficult and requires roasting at temperatures above 300 degrees Celsius. The high temperatures convert thorium to a mobile and water-insoluble form, which accumulates in the mine tailings and is difficult to recover or reuse… There are few incentives to invest in the development of more efficient techniques to recapture radioactive waste material.”

In Bayan Obo, these tailings filled with radioactive waste and sulfuric acid end up in enormous dams—lakes of toxic waste where farmland used to be—and then in the Yellow River, which provides the local drinking water supply. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in Bayan Obo, and chronic health problems associated with other poisonous elements used in the mining process are unnervingly common. In satellite imagery of the site, the mines and tailings lakes spread across the landscape like a bruise. While the Chinese government is actively working to clean up the site (in part through a consolidation of the mining industry), this largely seems to look like moving the waste someplace else—and repairs to the environment will take a very, very long time.

The short, convenient, mostly Western version of modern rare earth history presents Bayan Obo as the inevitable aftereffect of globalization, with the rare earth industry shifting to China after the closure of California’s Mountain Pass mine (which previously produced around 70 percent of the world’s rare earths) in 2000, due in part to China’s lower prices and in part to the cost of fines from dozens of initially unreported toxic waste spills that released uranium and lead into the area around the mine, close to the Mojave National Preserve. It’s a version of history that makes the environmental devastation of rare earth mining both an unavoidable cost of building a future of technological progress—as though the industry’s only options were contamination of the Mojave or contamination of Inner Mongolia, rather than, say, tighter regulations or different behaviors—and uniquely a Chinese problem. It lends itself to a narrative image of China not as a place with its own complex policy decisions, history, regional activism, and environmental cleanup efforts, but more like a verb: an anomaly that happens to Western market imperatives, and that mostly exists to threaten rather than complement them.

This version of history also benefits from misunderstanding that “rare” misnomer and its “economic viability” reframing as anxious scarcity: Given the strategic importance of rare earths to the global economy, prospecting for and destroying other landscapes to protect the United States from dependency on Chinese metals is an acceptable trade-off. This is the argument that defense contractor Erik Prince used in a now-infamous pitch to the U.S. Department of Defense to essentially privatize the war in Afghanistan by funding it through rare earth mining, as reported by Buzzfeed. Despite the fact that Prince’s company Frontier Services Group is majority Chinese-owned, Prince’s pitch deck emphasized the privatized mining scheme as a safeguard against Chinese market manipulation. The pitch apparently didn’t get very far (and, while it likely played little role in the DoD’s calculus, it’s not as though they aren’t interested in finding new sources for the elements—the U.S. Department of Energy and Defense Logistics Agency both have funded research into domestic rare earth element recovery from waste material produced from mining and burning coal).

As public understanding of tech’s material supply chains has grown, disclosure by companies of those supply chains remains relatively limited. While some companies (most notably and visibly Apple) have seized upon supply chain transparency and environmental responsibility as a crucial aspect of their corporate social responsibility initiatives, the only federal requirements for mineral supply chain disclosure emerge from an obscure Securities and Exchange Commission rule buried in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. Known as Section 1502 or the “conflict minerals” rule, it requires companies registered with the SEC using a select number of minerals often mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where violent militias control many of the resources, to report whether or not they sourced these minerals from DRC and adjoining countries. If they did source minerals from DRC or those other countries, companies are expected to publish a due diligence report on their supply chain sourcing. To be clear, there isn’t a financial penalty for using “conflict minerals”; companies just have to disclose whether their supply chain is “conflict-free” or “conflict undetermined.” Technically, it’s a violation of the Securities Exchange Act for a company to file a false or misleading report.

“Conflict minerals” are not part of the rare earths family, but they are as pernicious if not as anachronistic a myth as their rare counterparts. The minerals in question (gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten) were christened “conflicted” due in part to early-aughts advocacy campaigns by groups like the Enough Project, an organization originally founded by the Center for American Progress to “build leverage for peace and justice in Africa.” In 2009, the Enough Project released “Can You Hear Congo Now?,” a report that articulated a concise (if simplistic) call to action: Make hardware companies commit to sourcing minerals from verified “conflict-free” mines, and in the process, cut off financial resources to the militias who use targeted violence and sexual violence to subjugate and displace civilians in the areas they control. After some unsuccessful efforts to get conflict mineral legislation through Congress, the regulations ended up buried within Dodd-Frank.

Whether Section 1502 has achieved that theory of change remains hotly debated among advocates, and in practice, the rule leaves easily exploited gaps. Smuggling persists. Minerals that didn’t make the final list continue to be mined in dire conditions, as in the case of the cobalt used in lithium ion batteries. Additionally, because of the rule’s very specific geographic scope, the definition of “conflict-free” is somewhat specious—are metals mined by child labor “conflict-free” if that mine is in Colombia instead?

Landscapes associated with any of the so-called rare or conflicted materials deemed necessary for hardware and electronics tend to provide justification—or at least some excuse—for poorly regulated and unsafe practices that damage the environment and public health. Places like the hinterlands of Inner Mongolia, Helmand province in Afghanistan, the Lake Kivu region in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or, in its time, the Mojave Desert are framed by governments and industry alike as no man’s lands, devoid of things like property rights (usually through the displacement of a native population) and primarily valuable to the project of nation-building as much as they can be controlled via extraction and destruction. The pursuit of what Klinger frames as “the frontier” over more tightly environmentally regulated or even potentially environmentally friendly approaches (such as recent research into using bioengineered bacteria, algae, and fungi to recover rare earths) persists in part because the existing political economy of rare earths serves a power dynamic of colonial domination and convenient political fictions of globalized capitalism.

This, perhaps, is where the most heavy-handed of threads runs from the open-pit mines of Inner Mongolia to the content mines of Silicon Valley, and why it is worthwhile to think about them as part of the same continuum: At the end of the day, the dominant business models of networked platforms benefit from the same externalizing of harms as something that happens somewhere else, to someone else, and in service of a greater social good. (Silicon Valley’s namesake is a legacy of this business model: The chip manufacture that defined the San Francisco Peninsula region well into the 1980s bore dozens of toxic environmental harms for a mostly immigrant workforce, and while manufacturing has moved offshore, its toxic waste persists in 19 of the region’s Superfund sites.)

This is not to say that the tailings dams of Inner Mongolia and the smartphone surveillance made possible in some part by those tailings dams have identical adverse effects on society or landscapes. But they are both models of a particular paradigm of extractive control and power. Death threats are a seemingly uncontrollable and unavoidable reality of maintaining free speech online. Misinformation and fake news, while they may be more aggressively challenged by moving away from an economy of virality, are mediated by a perpetually barely-keeping-up cohort of content moderators. Regulation and oversight—particularly anything that might give the armies of third-party contractors that keep platforms’ moderation tools and fulfillment centers running greater agency to challenge their employers’ labor practices—are often deemed threats to continued prosperity and innovation. Where the toxic compromises of extractive regimes maintain a steady supply of magic dust, the toxic compromises of Silicon Valley maintain a stable of unruly VC unicorns.

Ultimately, the resonances running through the politics of rare earths, and the politics of tech further up their supply chain, force a hard rethinking of the various stories that Silicon Valley tells itself in order to live. Systems promised as emancipatory for everyone often have an exploitative, extractive cost borne by someone. While the visible harms and geographies are vastly different, addressing toxic harms requires similar ideological shifts toward viewing those harms as interconnected with their unevenly distributed benefits—a shift toward viewing their repair as a fuller, more holistic pursuit of that promised emancipation.

It also requires a longer historical timeline and analysis than the one afforded by the shallow time scale of our so-called Information Age—a phrase as misleading as the one applied to the rare earths that underpin it. It would be convenient, and poetic, to cast aside the moniker of Information Age for a Rare Age, calling back to the extractive eras of Bronze and Iron to define this relatively brief one. But abandoning the comfort that comes with displacing damage into distant landscapes also means reckoning with the convenient poetry of magic dust and the idea that there is anything unique or rare about an age fueled by colonialist fictions and extractive regimes. If anything about this age is rare, perhaps it is the possibility that our fraught networked systems have finally reached such a unique point, with their environmental and social consequences so visibly intertwined, that they have become impossible to ignore.

Further reading

  • The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone by Brian Merchant

  • The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age by David S. Abraham

  • Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes by Julie Michelle Klinger

About the author

Ingrid Burrington is the author of Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure.


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