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Forum Post: Common Minerals: Lifeblood of the Economic System, Disappearing Along With Fossil Fuels

Posted 3 years ago on July 18, 2014, 8:46 p.m. EST by LeoYo (5909)
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Common Minerals: Lifeblood of the Economic System, Disappearing Along With Fossil Fuels

Friday, 18 July 2014 09:29
By Shay Totten, Truthout | Interview / Cheslea Green Publishing


Minerals and fossil fuels that are rapidly being exhausted are described by professor and author Ugo Bardi as "Gaia's Gift": "It is a gift that was made only once in human history and that will not be made again in the future. From now on, we are on our own, and we must learn how to live with less."

From our current depletable and polluting energy sources to the rare minerals that are vital to modern technology, the earth's nonrenewable resources are not far from disappearing. Once they are gone, they won't be returning.

The age of fossil fuels and abundant mineral mining is nearing an end. Make a contribution to Truthout and obtain Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet by clicking here.

The following is an interview with Ugo Bardi, professor at the University of Florence and the author of Extracted.

Shay Totten: Which of the rare earth minerals that fuel our industrial system are most likely to be depleted first (at current mining levels)? Are there any resources that we’ve already depleted beyond acceptable levels?

Ugo Bardi: We need to understand that "depletion" is a relative term. Nothing ever disappears from the Earth's crust: everything we extract still exists, but once extracted it is widely dispersed - in products, in waste streams, and even in our land, air, and water. The problem that we are facing is that most minerals become gradually more expensive to extract because high-grade ores are progressively depleted. The final result is that we are entering an age of diminishing returns in the production of mineral commodities. So, within some limits, running out or not running out of something is a problem that has to do with what we choose to extract. When we deal with "critical" minerals, such as rare earths for magnets, platinum group metals for catalysts in chemistry, gallium for LED and other applications in electronics, and others; they are so important that we'll probably choose to pay almost any price for continuing to produce them - as long as it will be possible (and even that won't be forever).

So, a more pressing problem is with relatively common minerals, which are the lifeblood of the economic system: for instance metals such as copper, chromium, nickel, zinc, and more. They must be cheap to extract to be affordable, but they are not cheap any more and will never be cheap again. The problem is especially critical for the minerals that are the true "Achilles' heel" of the industrial society: oil and gas. They are relatively common minerals in the Earth's crust, but their extraction is becoming more and more expensive and that's setting up a vicious circle of diminishing returns. That is placing a heavy stress on the world's economic system, and it is likely that, in the future, we won't be able to produce fossil fuels at the same rates as we are today. This is the essence of the concept of "peak oil."

Speaking of "Peak Oil," will we experience such a thing as "peak metals" or "peak minerals"?

Yes, absolutely, there is such a thing as "peak metals" and, in general, "peak minerals." As with peak oil, the production peak of any mineral commodity is generated by the increasing costs of exploiting resources that are becoming less and less concentrated and more expensive to extract. Right now, the main factor in these costs is energy; The more dispersed the metal, the more energy it takes to extract it. So, the prices of most mineral commodities follow the trend of increasing oil and gas prices. So far, we can still afford to keep production stable for most (but not all) minerals. But all the fossil fuels are peaking. That's driving energy costs higher and, as a consequence, we are facing a general problem of diminishing returns for the extractive industry.

If the trend continues (and it may be exacerbated because of political factors), we won't be able afford stable metals production any longer. At that point, we'll see the production of some of all mineral commodities peaking and declining. We could call this phenomenon "peak minerals." Specific metals may peak at different times depending on financial and geological factors. Some commodities may be especially vulnerable to peaking, in particular some of the metals that carry heavy weight in our economy, for instance copper - vital for transporting electrical current - or the platinum-group metals so crucial to catalytic converters are already expensive to extract. Also, the accessible reserves of nickel and zinc, key ingredients in stainless steel and a host of other products - all of these metals could be tapped out in just a few decades, within a generation. In some cases peaking would have truly disastrous consequences for humankind, such as for phosphates, a vital nutrient for agriculture.

Is it possible for a rare mineral shortage to exist and for one or two countries to hold more stock of these minerals and metals? If so, which countries are they?

The world's mineral resources are unevenly distributed, and some countries have a higher share of specific resources. For instance, 97 percent of the active rare earth mines are in China. Platinum group metals are mostly produced in Russia, cobalt in Congo, chromium in South Africa, copper in Chile, and so on. No country holds the monopoly of any resource, but in many cases if a government were to decide to use mineral resources as a political or strategic weapon, the result would be a considerable disruption of the world's economic system. But such a strategy would first and foremost damage the producing country and this is the probable reason why resource wars have been threatened many times but rarely put into practice.

China has already used rare earths strategically in its dispute with Japan over fishing rights. It halted all rare earths shipments in 2010 after the Japanese Coast Guard arrested a Chinese fishing boat captain. This event revealed two things: The Chinese know exactly where to hit foreign industries, and a country that owns strategic resources can decide to use them as strategic weapons. Only a few weeks with no supply of rare earths would bring Western production to a standstill. Many nations lack even a modest emergency stock of strategic materials as rare earths, though the risky dependence on a single supplier has spurred various governments and industries to research solutions to the problem. The present Ukrainian crisis, indeed, is another interesting test of whether one of the sides involved is willing to play the "resource card." The risk of the card being played for one or another resource only becomes stronger with the progress of depletion.



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[-] 1 points by DebtNEUTRALITYpetition (647) 3 years ago

This gets back to my debt neutrality petition. When we don't allow debtors to declare debt neutrality, in which their debt is frozen and no more interest rate charges, penalties or fees are imposed, then we force people to do more and more work for what is actually an invisible result since all they are doing is servicing an existing debt, not actually paying it down.

However, this debt treading is using up raw resources in the pursuit of questionable jobs that simply sustain an existing debt. I'm really shocked that environmentalists have been indifferent to consumer debt since it is the number one or number two way (military weaponry and military infrastructure is probably number one) way we are forcing an overconsumption of the world's resources.

www.debtneutralitypetition.com Have you signed?

[-] 2 points by DebtNEUTRALITYpetition (647) 3 years ago

There may be a coming correction similar to the illuminati goal of reducing the world's population by 90%. Apparently 600 million people on the planet could live well and keep things running as is, this would actually be the most efficient way to cull the use of resources and extend the human race's survival for another century or two.

I don't agree with it but I feel that is the plan. At some point the electricity is turned off, there is massive death, and then the planet goes on with a lot less people on it.

[-] 1 points by LeoYo (5909) 3 years ago

Shale gas, tar sands oil - don’t we seem to be able to find new, or replacement, resources when we need them most? If we run out of rare minerals, can’t we just substitute rare minerals with more common ones?

Human beings are smart, resourceful and adaptable; their main limit is that they have trouble doing long-term planning. So, we are adapting to mineral shortages by finding new solutions: Some are very smart but most are stopgap solutions that ease the problem in the short run but worsen it in the long run. Most people, in particular political leaders, do not seem to understand the simple fact that the "drill more" strategy is not a solution. The more you drill, the faster you run out.

This is a general problem with substitution. Very often, it involves substituting a resource that was once relatively clean and cheap - as long as it was available - with a more expensive and dirtier one. This is the case of shale gas, which has seen a remarkable production boom in the United States, easing the gas depletion problem in the short run. But it will not last forever, and when the boom is over, we are back to square one, having just squandered a lot of resources and created a lot of pollution. So, one day we'll look back at what we did with shale gas and ask ourselves: What the heck was that whole idea about?

Also substituting is expensive; it has to be, otherwise it would have been done already. For instance, we can substitute a rare mineral resource such as copper with a common one such as aluminum, which has a similar ability to conduct electric current. But if we look at the costs involved, we see that for the same performance, aluminum will cost about twice as much as copper in terms of the energy needed to extract, refine and produce it. In the end, it may be cheaper to recycle copper than substitute it with aluminum.

That doesn't mean that substitution is a bad strategy; not at all. It is just that we can't expect miracles from it. In particular, we can't expect technology to pull a rabbit out of the hat every time we need it. In some cases, it has been possible to considerably reduce - or even eliminate - the need for a certain mineral resource by a technological breakthrough. A good example is the substitution of silver-based photographic film with electronic image storage. But some mineral commodities cannot possibly be substituted. It is not a question of technology. Consider the use of phosphates as fertilizers, something discussed at length in Extracted. Unless we replace human beings with silicon-based droids, there is no way that we can replace phosphorous as a fundamental component of living creatures.

If we want to keep our industrial system functioning, we need to use renewable energy to recycle the materials we use, just as plants do. To do this we need to create a "closed cycle" or "circular" economy. It is expensive, of course, and it cannot be obtained without profound modifications in the way our economy is run. So, we need to focus on a set of strategies that include substitution and recycling, as well as learning to use a lot less.

What role do global mining operations have on climate change?

When we tunnel deep within the earth, all sorts of substances that have been locked deep in the ground for eons - and that never would have seen the light of day had we not unearthed them - are suddenly in our midst. And many of these substances can cause a lot of problems, either because they are toxic to us or because they alter the ecosystem's cycles, as in the case of greenhouse gases that create global warming. In Extracted I try to make it clear that climate change and resource depletion are two sides of the same coin. The climate change problem is getting worse and worse as we continue extracting fossil fuels and doing that with less and less efficiency, as we are literally scraping the bottom of the barrel. In this way, we are increasing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere and getting closer and closer to the point of non-return, where the state of the atmosphere will be changed forever, at least from the human viewpoint. Other mining operations have generated different kinds of damage, especially in terms of toxic metals dispersed into the ecosystem, but in many cases we know little about their long-term effects.

What about the toxic legacy that the global mining industry has left for future generations to clean up? What toxins are likely to remain having a long-lasting impact on the health of ecosystems and humans?

Our descendants will inherit from us a planet much different from the one we had from our ancestors. The problems with the leftovers from our mining operations will be with them for a long, long time. Their major problem will be with climate change, as some of the carbon dioxide we are emitting today in the atmosphere will remain there for hundreds of thousands of years. Another problem will be with radioactive materials, often substances that have never existed in the Earth's above-ground ecosystem and for which biological systems have no defense. Plutonium is the main one. But there will be plenty more toxic materials, in particular heavy metals such as mercury, which will remain dispersed in the ecosystem for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. For instance, we don't really know what human health consequences will result from having dispersed large amounts of heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, chromium and so on, in the ecosystem. The ecosystem can surely adapt to these substances, in the long run, but it will not be without pain, and our near future descendants will be the ones suffering most for the adaptation.

What about recycling, cutting consumption, or using substitutes for some of these key minerals and metals - could that help us delay, if not stave off completely, depletion?

Everything is renewable if we decide to recycle it and if we efficiently recycle a mineral resource we'll never run out of it. It is possible: After all, the first miners of planet Earth, land plants, have been efficiently recycling the minerals they use for hundreds of millions of years, and they never ran out of anything. However, recycling suffers with the problem of diminishing returns, just like mineral extraction: The more you want to recycle, the more it costs. That makes it extremely difficult for us to increase the recycling rate over the present levels (around 50 percent or less for most mineral commodities) and creates the problem of "downcycling;" that is the degradation of the quality of recycled materials. So, how do plants manage to do something that looks impossible for us to do, that is recycling at nearly 100 percent? Well, they do that by being very thrifty: They use only what is strictly necessary; they use minerals with the maximum possible efficiency; and they use only minerals that are relatively abundant in the Earth's crust. In this way they maintain the energy cost of recycling to an affordable level.

We can do the same if we use the same strategy. We need to cut consumption, increase efficiency, step up the production of renewable energy, and focus on resources that are easier to recycle (that is, relatively abundant minerals which can substitute rare ones). If we do that, we can recycle our way out of the mess we placed ourselves in, but that will be neither easy nor cheap. In Extracted, the cheap and abundant mineral resources that have created our industrial society are described as "Gaia's gift." It is a gift that was made only once in human history and that will not be made again in the future. From now on, we are on our own and we must learn how to live with less.

Whenever space probes are launched, and land, on the moon, or Mars, or even view other planets and their moons - we often hear a lot about the minerals that comprise these objects. Are we scouting for interstellar mining operations?

Mining space bodies is part of the techno-magic fluff of the news. We hear of wonderful breakthroughs - solutions for this and that problem - but if we read carefully, we normally find that the breakthrough is something that a scientist defined as "promising," after having tried it in her lab. And we should know that the cemetery of failed high-tech companies is littered with tombstones with the inscription "Worked fine in the lab."

Mining space is one of many techno-magic illusions, an old science fiction idea that, unfortunately, doesn't survive contact with the real world. Humans have been mining ores, but ores are formed by processes linked to plate tectonics, and, as far as we know, the Earth is the only body of the solar system that shows active plate tectonics (Mars may have been another one, but only for a brief period in the remote geological past). So, no plate tectonics, no ores. And, no ores, no mining. Mining, as we know it, is possible only on planet Earth. It is as simple as that.

Copyright 2014 by Chelsea Green Publishing. Cannot be be reproduced without permission of the publisher.

[-] 1 points by LeoYo (5909) 3 years ago

Five States Gunning to Make Their Kids as Scientifically Illiterate as Possible by Teaching Creationism

Friday, 18 July 2014 10:51
By Dan Arel, AlterNet | News Analysis


The British government dealt a strong blow to creationists last week when they clarified and extended their laws banning creationism in the classroom to not only free schools, but to academies as well.

Academies, including free schools, are the UK's version of the charter schools in the US, and there were concerns that, since academies are often run by religious organizations who taught and endorsed creationism in the classroom, kids who attend them were not being taught actual science.

The scientific community put heavy pressure on the British government to extend a similar law passed in 2012, which did not apply to free schools nor all academies and allowed some older schools already teaching creationism to grandfather their questionable curriculum in.

With this new ruling, "[...] The Government has extended such an explicit rule to all new Academies and Free Schools and made it clear that it believes that existing rules mean that no Academy or Free School can teach pseudoscience," said Pavan Dhaliwal, The British Humanist Association's Head of Public Affairs explained in the press release.

In the US however, the battle to bring creationism and intelligent design into the classroom is alive and well. It has been ever since the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, in which the teaching of evolution was found to be a violation of Tennessee law. The trial banned the teaching of human evolution in any publicly funded school.

The battle finally came to a head in 1987 when the Supreme Court heard Edwards v. Aguillard, in which Don Aguilard took the state of Louisiana to court over a law that required that creationism be taught in public schools.

The case, which made it all the way to the Supreme Court dealt a massive blow to the religious right when the court ruled that teaching creationism in publicly funded schools was unconstitutional because the original law was specifically intended to promote a particular religion.

A similar blow was dealt decades later when in 2005 when a US District Court ruled that intelligent design was not scientific and even encompassed creationism and teaching either to be unconstitutional.

So one would think that since both creation myths that are endorsed by the religious right have been struck down in the highest courts in the country that this debate would be settled. How on earth could we still be fighting the creationist proponents when they have been dealt solid deathblows?

According to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), an organization that tracks anti-science bills around the US that deal with evolution and global warming, almost every southern and bible-belt state in the US has at the very least attempted to pass education bills that either remove evolution from the curriculum or make it legal for teachers to offer alternative theories to human origins.

The states fighting to pass these laws are predictable if you pay attention to any national politics, the more red a state votes, the more it fights to remove science education from its schools or at the very least, replace science classes with a form of Bible study.

So what states and bills have been the worst to science education? Here are five examples of states either enacted or relentlessly fighting to pass anti-evolution and or anti-science bills to change their educational standards to appease the Christian Right.

[-] 1 points by LeoYo (5909) 3 years ago
  1. Louisiana

Louisiana seems to be trying harder than any other state to produce the most scientifically illiterate students it possibly can. Governor Bobby Jindal has overseen most of these bills and has endorsed them all.

Jindal even pushed and won to get a voucher program installed in the state that would allow public funding to be used for private education, including religious schools that taught creationism.

A 2008 proposal that was approved in the state allows teachers to, "[...] Supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner," according the language drafted in the law.

The law clearly had evolution and climate science in its sights when allowing teachers to use other sources of information to critique scientific theories.

A repeal effort has been made under Senate Bill 175, in April 2014 it went in front of the Louisiana Senate Education Committee and the repeal was voted down 3-1, meaning that teachers could still skirt the federal law and use their own materials in the classroom against well understood scientific theories.

The failure to get SB 175 passed has continued to ensure those with religious power in the state control science education.

  1. Missouri

Missouri recently advanced a bill, House Bill 1472, to its House that would allow parents to opt their children out of class during lessons about evolution.

According to NCSE the bill's sponsor Rick Brattin (R-District 55) told the Kansas City Star (February 6, 2014) that requiring students to study evolution is "an absolute infringement on people's rights" and that evolution is "just as much faith and, you know, just as much pulled out of the air as, say, any religion."

Bills being written by politicians who know less about the scientific theory of evolution as the students they believe they are protecting, cannot be a good thing. States like Missouri are turning to politicians and not scientists when drafting this type of legislation.

Missouri even looks to take this one step further and has another bill, House Bill 1587, that is currently with the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education that would remove the ability of school administrators to prevent teachers from miseducating students about "scientific controversies" around evolution. No date has been set for the committee to discuss this proposed legislation.

  1. South Carolina

South Carolina republicans want to "teach the controversy." This creationist gem, a much laughed at and discarded argument was brought back into the limelight when Senator Mike Fair (R-District 6), a member of the states Education Oversight Committee (EOC) and long time opponent of evolution told the Charleston Post and Courier that, We must teach the controversy ... There's another side. I'm not afraid of the controversy."

The proposal he was advocating at the time was supposed to revise the states science standards and require that students, "Construct scientific arguments that seem to support and scientific arguments that seem to discredit Darwinian natural selection"

The proposal passed the EOC with a 7-4 vote and went to the states board of education, which held a meeting on June 11, 2014. A number of scientists came to oppose the proposal and the only advocates who came to speak in the proposals defense were two speakers affiliated with the Discovery Institute, an anti-evolution organization that supports intelligent design as an explanation for life.

Thankfully the state board of education saw through the religious fog and rejected the proposal.

  1. Oklahoma

Oklahoma faced not one, but two anti-evolution bills this year. The first brought forth in February, Senate Bill 1765, would have made it impossible for school administrators to mislead students about "scientific controversies". The first bill died in the hands of the Senate Education Committee.

Shortly after, a second and similar bill, House Bill 1674, was proposed and even passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 70-6, sending the bill to the state senate. This new bill specifically mentioned "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" as subjects which "some teachers may be unsure" about how to teach, according to NCSE.

HB 1674 however never made it to vote in the senate and expired. One can only assume a third attempt will not be far off.

  1. Virginia

Another bill put forward to tie the hands of school administrators is House Bill 207. Like the bills in Oklahoma and Missouri HB 207 would allow teachers to challenge scientific theories and offer other alternatives and not face any punishment for violating educational laws that prohibit religious alternatives.

The bills only sponsor, Richard P. Bell (R-District 20), acknowledged to the Washington Post (January 29, 2014) that HB 207 would apply to such scientific theories such as evolution and climate change. Bell also admitted to another local paper The Recorder that he himself was a creationist.

The Recorder later publicly came out against the bill and said they believed it was a threat to the states scientific educational standards.

The bill however died when the House Educational Committee did not vote on the issue before the bill expired.

These five states are some of the top examples but they are not the only five, and in the US were evolution is not widely accepted this hurts the country's scientific future.

A recent poll conducted by Gallup showed that 42% of Americans believe in the creation myth as to the origins of life on earth. There is glimmer of hope though, because the same poll conducted in 2012 showed that 46% of Americans believed in the creation myth.

The biggest threat to the US education is the Republican Party's refusal to accept scientific evidence as fact and turn every scientific claim into some form of liberal conspiracy.

While 42% is an improvement over two years ago it still shows just how far behind the US is to the rest of the developed world. Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and France all poll in over 80% acceptance of the theory. In fact, when a poll was conducted of European countries that included Turkey, the US fell behind every country except Turkey that happened to poll at 25% acceptance.

Both Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have spoken out about the dangers of not teaching evolution, seeing as how evolution is one of the foundations of science, especially life science.

Nye's video criticizing creationism and scolding those who refuse to teach their children about evolution led to a nationally publicized debate between himself and Ken Ham of the creationist organization Answers in Genesis.

So while federal laws make it clear that the teaching of creationism and intelligent design are unconstitutional and are clear religious endorsements, it is obvious that the struggle to teach actual science across the US is an ongoing battle.

National science standards such as the Next Generation Science Standards need to be adopted across all fifty states and put an end to GOP controlled states creating their own religious based science curriculums.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.