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The (Sustainable) Energy of Despair: A Review of Guillaume Pitron’s Book

By Olivier Derruine

Over the past decade, the scientific community has been virtually unanimous in acknowledging that the origins of climate change are essentially anthropogenic. At the same time, numerous institutions have recognised the grave threat that this poses, from the International Monetary Fund to the International Labor Organization and the European Commission. There have been countless reports emphasising the need to begin an ecological transition as soon as possible to limit the rise in Earth’s temperature. And these recommendations become ever more urgent as ice caps melt, ecosystems deteriorate, and species disappear at ever faster rates while the inadequacy of action taken by the international community and individual countries is glaringly obvious.

But Guillaume Pitron is not singing from the same hymn sheet. In La guerre des métaux rares (The Rare Metals War, published by Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2018), the journalist and filmmaker warns against the optimistic belief that technology is the solution. He shifts the terms of the debate by questioning the development model of rich countries which, since the industrial revolution, has relied on the burning of fossil fuels and led to unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, he brings sobriety where too often advocates for fighting climate change assume that technology will come to humanity’s rescue, that mankind will use its ingenuity to overcome this planetary crisis while at the same time increasing its standard of living and consumption.

A prime example is world-renowned futurist Jeremy Rifkin, who perfectly summarises the techno-optimist vision of tomorrow’s world. In his 2014 book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, he predicted that the decentralisation and virtualisation enabled by new technologies – IT, 3D printers, intelligent networks, social media, the Internet of things (IoT) etc. – put at the disposal of the “collaborative commons” will reduce the marginal cost of storage, distribution, and even production to zero. This new paradigm “will connect every thing with everyone in an integrated global network. People, machines, natural resources, production lines, logistics networks, consumption habits, recycling flows, and virtually every other aspect of economic and social life will be linked via sensors and software to the IoT platform, continually feeding Big Data to every node—businesses, homes, vehicles—moment to moment, in real time.” Rifkin is persuaded that this paradigm is the key to greening and decarbonating our societies: “The IoT infrastructure offers a realistic hope of quickly replacing fossil fuel energies with renewable energies and slowing climate change.”

The dead-end of consumerism

While Rifkin’s predictions seem to follow the course of history,  Pitron soberly and methodically tempers them: “Digital technology requires considerable amounts of metals: every year, the electronics industry consumes 320 tonnes of gold and 7,500 tonnes of silver; it accounts for 22% of the world’s consumption of mercury (some 514 tonnes) and up to 2.5% of lead. The manufacture of computers and mobile phones alone gobbles up 19% of global output of rare metals like palladium and 23% of cobalt production”. Yet, “at current rates of production, the recoverable reserves of 15 or so base and rare metals will run out in less than 50 years; for five other metals (including iron, which is abundant), this will occur before the end of the century.”

Pitron points out that “the manufacture of a two-gram chip creates two kilograms of waste material, in other words a 1 to 1000 ratio of material produced to waste generated.”

Like Rifkin, those who see the digital revolution as the key to ecological transition are victims of a collective blindness that is leading humanity into a dead end: “They don’t want to know because a connected world is preferable to a clean planet.” Indeed, the book pours scorn on an energy transition that does not call into question our energy needs. “The manufacture of a single solar panel, due in large part to its silicon content, generates more than 70 kilograms of CO2. With PV [photovoltaic] capacity estimated to increase by 23% annually in the coming years, solar power will produce an additional 10 gigawatts of electricity a year. This means 2.7 billion tonnes of carbon released into the atmosphere, equivalent to the annual emissions of 600,000 cars.” The examples keep coming. Overall, “sustaining the change in our energy model will require a doubling in rare-metal production roughly every 15 years, and extracting more minerals in the next 30 years than humanity has extracted in the preceding 70 000 years.”

legislation will have to change, as will individual and collective behaviour to conserve and recycle the resources currently on our continent.

Pitron does not hesitate to raise the question of inequality when it comes to ecological transition. Although the fight against climate change is frequently the subject of public debate, out of ignorance, its potentially redistributive aspects are never discussed. Yet “the energy and digital transition is a transition for the well-off: it cleans up well-to-do city centres to make up for its very real impacts in areas that are poorest and furthest from view.” Globally, “hiding away the dubious origin of metals in China has enabled green and digital technologies to enjoy a good reputation. It’s undoubtedly the most incredible greenwashing operation in history.”

Nuclear power is not spared Pitron’s criticism either, the author pointing out that uranium is also affected by the growing scarcity of resources: “For the same amount of energy expended, today mining groups extract up to ten times less uranium than they did 30 years ago – and this is true for almost all mined resources. The situation is so critical that a deposit with the same mineral content as in the 1980s is now considered as a “rare gem” in the mining world.” What is more, there are also geopolitical risks to supply, because apart from Canada and Australia (the world’s 2nd and 3rd largest producers with a combined market share of 32 per cent), the eight remaining largest producers (accounting for 95 per cent global output) are not politically stable or reliable countries (Kazakhstan, Niger, Namibia, Russia, Uzbekistan, and China).

At a time when many claim to be “citizens of the world” or retreat into naive or hypocritical protectionism, Pitron’s book is an attempt to open people’s eyes to the consequences of their societal choices and lifestyles. “Nothing will radically change unless we experience – in our own back yard – the full cost of our standard of living. It’s always better to have a responsible mine at home than an irresponsible mine abroad. Such a choice is green, altruistic, and courageous – and in keeping with the responsible ethos advocated by many environmental groups. And it is how an alignment of our economic model and the values espoused in, for example, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals will actually be achievable.

A complementary reading of de-industrialisation

While two in three industrial jobs have disappeared since the start of the 1970s, globalisation and technological progress have been fingered as the culprits. Pitron shows how China, under the iron rule of engineers (“out of the six last presidents and prime ministers, with the exception of the current prime minister [Li Keqiang], a lawyer, all have had a background in engineering: electricity, hydroelectricity, geology and chemicals”), has implemented a policy of siphoning off the industries of rich countries. Its trump card? Natural resources. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping said as much: “The Middle East has oil, we have rare-earth metals.” For many years, these minerals had few applications. The invention of rare-earth magnets in 1983 changed everything by significantly improving the performance of products that use electric motors.

A quarter of a century later, “the Middle Kingdom is the leading producer of 28 minerals that are essential for our economies [including those famous rare-earth metals, on which Chinese companies have first dibs], often accounting for over 50% of global production. And it produces at least 15% of all mineral resources except for platinum and nickel.”

“From the 2000s onwards, the [Chinese] began to [set] quotas for rare metals, which quickly destabilised magnet manufacturers [whose importance for new green, digital, medical, and defence technologies, etc. the book highlights], who had no choice but to offshore their factories (and trade secrets). Manufacturers began to run out of rare-earth metals and were left facing a stark choice: keep their industrial operations at home, and risk plants sitting idle due to a lack of raw materials, or move them to China and enjoy unfettered access to commodities. (…) For those determined to resist, Beijing reserved particularly cruel treatment: distortion of mineral prices.”

The issue of raw materials gnaws away at European institutions. But it is viewed in terms of ensuring the availability of the resources that are essential for maintaining competitiveness.

As for the technophiles and other optimists who believe that scarcity creates incentives to dig deeper and more efficiently, two researchers have shown that even doubling mineral reserves would only give us a little more time, about 30 years [1]. And that is not even accounting for the fact that mines do not just magically appear but take between 15 and 20 years to set up (while hoping that, in the meantime, China does not manipulate commodity prices to render competing projects unviable).

The rise of China has many lessons for the West and Japan. Without underestimating the fact that this transformation was helped by the centralisation of power in the hands of a few in Beijing, this project involved a long-term strategy which sharply contrasts with the short-termism that undermines the economies of rich countries as well as, by extension, national/European security and, therefore, sovereignty. It highlights the need for both a coordinated industrial policy in Europe, based on a common goal and free from the demands for returns imposed by markets, as well as trade diplomacy that promotes our common interests and safeguards the supply of critical materials.

A new gold rush?

Pitron tackles further questions that are not on the public’s radar. When it comes to resource depletion, some particularly clear-headed countries and companies have their sights fixed on the oceans. A major issue in the years to come will be controlling the vast expanses of water that cover 71 per cent of the globe but are far from being mineral deserts. That is why China has started creating artificial islands as a pretext for claiming control over territorial waters rich in natural resources. And China is not alone: the United States, under the Obama administration, passed legislation allowing mining… in space! Luxembourg also wants to play a leading role in the conquest of this extra-terrestrial El Dorado and has created a series of tax incentives to attract companies interested in space mining.

But the very same criticism that Pitron levels against mining on earth can be levelled against this futuristic new gold rush. To paraphrase the old adage: out of sight, out of (society’s) mind. In other words, as nobody seems to want to challenge the staggering levels of consumption in our societies and because living standards are rapidly rising in developing countries (the equivalent of almost three planets would be required if all the world’s inhabitants lived like Europeans), it is not more mineral mines that we are digging, but likely the graves of future generations. We cannot say they did not warn us because Pitron’s work echoes the so-called IPAT equation that accounts for environmental impact based on demography, purchasing power, and technology developed by Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich, and John Holdren, not to mention the Club of Rome’s 1972 report The Limits to Growth.

In short, and this is pretty discouraging, Pitron’s work corroborates the results of models created almost 50 years ago. But these were widely ignored when new models were devised which are still used today by economists and governments to justify the productivist and consumerist policies on which our development model is based.

What about the EU?

The issue of raw materials gnaws away at European institutions. But it is viewed in terms of ensuring the availability of the resources that are essential for maintaining competitiveness. This is perfectly understandable when 30 million jobs directly depend on it and the EU relies on the rest of the world for almost all of the resources considered “critical” by experts at the European Commission.

At a time when many claim to be “citizens of the world” or retreat into naive or hypocritical protectionism, Pitron’s book is an attempt to open people’s eyes to the consequences of their societal choices and lifestyles.

In a report adopted in 2017, the European Parliament “urges the Commission to address the issue of free and fair access to raw material markets in the framework of the World Trade Organization, while fully respecting restrictions based on developmental grounds for least developed countries. Concern about the trend to restrict free access to raw materials in third countries by trade distorting measures is underlined. The report asks the Commission to negotiate non-discriminatory access to raw material markets in return for access to energy-saving, renewable and resource-efficient technologies in all bilateral negotiations on free trade agreements.” MEPs also pointed the finger at China, which is looking to appropriate resource-rich territory in African countries.

In addition to trade policy, the EU is focusing on the circular economy and has implemented various pieces of legislation. They set out targets for the recovery and recycling of certain materials but do not cover the most strategic of these. There is substantial room for improvement. A report by the United Nations Environment Programme highlighted that the recycling rate for many resources, particularly those deemed “critical”, was extremely low at less than 1 per cent This can be explained by the complexity of alloys, which makes it impossible (or extremely energy-intensive) to separate their constituents, as well as dispersive uses (titanium is used in paint, for example) and lack of awareness of the importance of recycling. Furthermore, some resources are lost because the waste they are contained in is exported. That is the case with palladium, used in catalytic converters for vehicles, as end-of-life cars are exported.

That said, there are encouraging attempts to promote ecodesign and fight against planned obsolescence. The goal is to use the resources contained in goods, textiles, devices etc. for as long as possible. This will also help reduce the astronomical amount of waste generated each year in the EU, some 2.5 billion tonnes (mainly from the mining and construction sectors) that then has to be stored somewhere…

A raft of legislation will have to change – some of which already has – as will individual and collective behaviour to conserve and recycle the resources currently on our continent. But this effort and progress will not spare us from difficult questions about the way we produce and consume if we continue to believe that owning ever more things, particularly high-tech items, is an absolute must.

 

[1] Valero & Valero (2010)  Physical geonomics : combining the exergy and hubbert peak analysis  for prediction mineral resources depletion. Resources conservation & recycling, Volume 54, Issue 12.

The (Sustainable) Energy of Despair: A Review of Guillaume Pitron’s Book

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