‘The Rare Metals War’: examining the 21st-century gold rush

The Rare Metals War is Guillaume Pitron’s urgent exposé of the race for resources and an examination of its environmental and human impacts.

The burning of fossil fuels to create energy has had a detrimental impact on the environment. The harnessing of new technologies has often been held up as a beacon of progress in this regard. It does, however, come with a cost, as French journalist and author Guillaume Pitron explains in The Rare Metals War: the Dark Side of Clean Energy and Digital Technologies (Scribe).

These rare metals — extracted from the earth in much smaller quantities than coal or iron ore — are crucial to the development of clean energy technologies. Therefore, they are at the frontier of a battle between the Western establishment and the emerging superpower of China. Pitron’s carefully studied inquiry puts this arms race into historical context and posits a compelling theory for how it will transpire.

Guillaume Pitron The Rare Metals War

The prospect of a future without coal-fired energy spewing tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — and greener modes of transport — is without doubt enticing. This transition depends on the harnessing of rare metals. Pitron lists just a few of their myriad capabilities early on in the book:

They make it possible to trap car-exhaust fumes in catalytic converters, ignite energy-efficient light bulbs, and design new, lighter, and hardier industrial equipment, improving the energy efficiency of cars and planes.

For these and a host of other applications, like conducting electricity in digital devices (your mobile phone or computer for example), rare metals are vital. But just like mining for any other mineral, they have to be extracted from the earth’s crust. Separating these minute quantities of metal from the more abundant elements in which they’re buried is a labour-intensive process, which can have horrific consequences for the surrounding environment.

Pitron cites numerous examples of environmental catastrophe, horrific working conditions and human suffering caused by this new millennium gold rush, especially in developing countries. But while there is money to be had, regulators — not to mention Western countries who have sent operations offshore in order to maximise profits — are inclined to look the other way.

The Rare Metals War book cover

The Rare Metals War also succinctly analyses the history of humankind’s transformation of raw materials and its implications. “Every time a people, civilisation, or state masters a new metal, it leads to exponential technical and military progress — and deadlier conflicts.” Pitron observes.

And while rare metals are able to be physically weaponised on a global scale, through trade embargos, intentional market distortions, as well as companies willingly moving offshore to minimise labour costs, China has been able to monopolise the industry. While there’s no textbook solution to this intractable issue, Pitron points to alternative trading alliances and a future where countries take more active control over their own resources.

This book isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it’s far from a doom and gloom story. Viewed one way, it’s a riveting journey through our recent past, offering readers a new framework with which to view history and understand how we arrived at our current position in relation to minerals.

Through another lens, it’s a critical reminder that humanity can avoid the missteps of the past if we enter the future with eyes wide open, as we become a world fuelled by renewable energy.

The Rare Metals War: the Dark Side of Clean Energy and Digital Technologies is out now via Scribe.