April 9, 2015

The Hellish Cost of Green & other Technology.

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What do my smart phone, my laptop and my passion for green technology have in common?

The artificial, toxic lake of Baotou in Inner Mongolia.

I thought there was nothing worse than the environmental desperation of the oil fields in the formerly pristine North of my beloved Canada. I was wrong.

The refineries at Baotou, from the pictures I’ve seen and the reports I’ve read, have me grappling with why there is no international investigation or intervention to the activities there.

I’m not so naive as to think that there will be a stop to the massive appetite we have for technology. I’m sure that mining for the rare earth chemicals needed to produce things we use daily and see as vitally important to the green movement will continue. But we have sent a man to the moon…is there no way to mitigate the damage of mining? Is there no government body, no watchtower organization that can assess the depravity of this situation and sanction changes to the whole process?

How have I been so completely unaware of this until now? Blissfully blind to the terminal disease we are producing on the face of our beautiful planet.

The Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou supply the world with 70% of these rare earth minerals. What kinds of things do we need these minerals for?

Magnets for wind turbines
Electric car motors
Flat screen televisions
MP3 players

Baotou is toxic. I cannot imagine the lack of quality of life there, from the water the citizens have to drink to the air they breathe to the working conditions of the mines, factories and refineries.

I just held my smart phone in my hand and realized, feeling quite ill, that this thing I rely on is paid for by the health of other human beings and the planet I call home.

I feel powerless in this moment. I am looking at the keys of my computer and feel nauseous. Where to go from here?

What precious earth minerals are mined here in Mongolia anyway?

Cerium is one. Cerium oxide is used to polish touchscreens on smartphones and tablets. Cerium has many other industrial applications such as in the making of self-cleaning ovens, catalytic converters, flint for lighters and much more that I can barely wrap my non-scientific head around.

Then there is neodymium. It is used to dye glass, to make lasers, and most importantly to make lightweight magnets that have these applications:

in-ear headphones
cellphone microphones
computer hard-drives
wind farm turbines
motors that power electric cars.

Although these minerals are cited as rare they are fairly common within the Earth’s crust but what makes them profitable is the toxic process needed to extract and refine them for industrial use and China, it seems, is willing to take the environmental risk in order to turn a profit.

Who will take China’s government to task? Who will stand at the edge of the tailing’s pond in Baotou (once a farmer’s field) and cry environmental genocide?

I read about this through a BBC report about “Unknown Fields Division,” a group of architects, academics and designers who followed the trail of commercial goods we thrive on in the West, back to their origins. They have opened my eyes. And now my eyes will never see the same way again.

I am hoping that awareness will lead the way to change. I am hoping that the brilliant minds who have discovered so many of our newest technological wonders will also find solutions to the ravages of mining. I’m hoping that political will to do the right thing is not dead. I’m hoping that there are enough of us who crave change to actually be the change.

I’m desperately hoping that greed for political power is not going to be the collapse of us.
I’m hoping you’ll read this and tell someone about Baotou. Perhaps we can start there. Bringing light to a seemingly hopeless situation is the genesis of change. It all starts with saying, “This is unacceptable.”



Renewable Energy isn’t as Hopeless as we Thought.


Author: Monika Carless

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Author’s Own. Featured Image: Flickr/K. Kendall


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