EarthRx: Is Green Technology Really Just a Red Herring?

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<i>EarthRx</i>: Is Green Technology Really Just a Red Herring?

Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. – Martin Luther King Jr.

Everyone knows that we need to evolve away from carbon-based energy sources. Their emissions drive global warming and produce toxic air that we have to breathe, and the drilling and transportation of oil and other petroleum products often cause spills that turn pristine areas of the earth into wastelands.

In the last couple of decades or so, all kinds of technological solutions have popped up that claim to solve different facets of our oil and coal addiction. Everything from electric cars that run on hydrogen batteries to wind and solar generators that produce “clean” power are part of the new green technology revolution that is supposed to transform our world into a more ecologically sustainable place without changing the systems themselves but merely the fuel we use to run them.

And that’s where the problem lies.

A special paper published in March 2017 by an international team of researchers spanning five continents claims the green tech revolution may be already dead before it even really takes off. Why? Because most of these so-called “green” technology relies on rare earth minerals and there are simply not enough of these minerals to go around—but nobody has been paying attention.

“People have been so concerned about climate change that it’s created a real movement around it,” said Saleem Ali, the paper’s lead author and Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and Environment at the University of Delaware. “We don’t see this around resource use and recovery, even though it is much closer to us on a daily basis.”

Ali and the other researchers warn of a shortage of these minerals—everything from lithium and platinum to core metals like copper, that are been sucked up at an alarming rate to feed to the rapacious cell phone and laptop market and are also needed to make much of the green gadgets that are supposed to be stepping in and saving the world right now.

“There are treaties on climate change, biodiversity, migratory species and even waste management of organic chemicals, but there is no international mechanism to govern how mineral supply should be coordinated,” said Ali, explaining how we have already reached a point where demand has outpaced supply for these minerals, meaning that betting our future on technology that needs them is like pissing into the wind.

“The hard truth, though, is that if nothing changes shrinking supply naturally will lead to rising prices,” the paper states. “It also could lead to serious global challenges if essential resources that people have been so dependent on collapse.”

Collapse? Nothing sustainable about that. So much for the green tech revolution. But even if these minerals were in abundance, there is very little that is “clean” or “green” about how they are produced anyway. They all need to be extracted from the earth using mining techniques that do just as much harm as any other kind of energy exploitation method.

Take lithium for example, which is used in high-performance batteries. Not only has the rising production of these batteries pushed lithium prices through the roof because the supply is running out, but the mining of this mineral is already doing serious damage to the earth. Bolivia, the largest lithium producer in the world, is already suffering enough contamination to be labeled an “environmental and social disaster” by the Friends of the Earth Europe, and experts warn that the country’s precious Uyuni salt flats are now in danger from lithium mining and exploitation.

Then there is platinum, the essential ingredient in those fuel cells that turn hydrogen into energy that is widely lauded as the best alternative to gasoline-powered cars. Mostly mined in South Africa, platinum is a rare earth metal that needs a tremendous amount of toxic byproducts in order to be extracted. In fact, according the to Water Research Commission in Cape Town, platinum mining has already impacted the water and land in ways that are “severe and have a long-term nature.”

Want more? Take a closer look at tellurium, the rare element needed to manufacture those thin solar panels that are supposed to give us clean energy from that most renewable source of all—the sun. Unfortunately, the mining of tellurium is poisoning the water in countless farms and villages across rural China, where most of the global supply of this mineral comes from.

The hard truth folks, is that most of these green technologies were red herrings to begin with—from an environmental point of view, anyway (investment bankers are going all in).

So how then are we going to switch from a carbon based lifestyle to a sustainable one How are we going to end our oil addiction and start renewing the earth instead of degrading it as a species?

Im not going to pretend I have all the answers. But I do know it’s going to take systemic changes, not just substituting one fuel for another and still trying to push up consumption so that the markets continue to grow. That’s a recipe for a dead planet no matter what ingredients you use.

What we can do is start with changing the way we plan our cities, so that car usage is not a necessity and both food and community are close at hand.

We can also start using real green technology, Mother Nature herself, to begin cleaning up the mess we have made through miraculous processes like mycoremediation. And we can also support the indigenous people that are many times the only thing standing in the way of environmental destruction, and have been living “green” for millennia.

But ultimately, I think we are going to have to change the way we see the world. There is just no way around it. Like environmentalist David Suzuki recently said, “Economics is a form of brain damage.” And if a damaged brain is in charge of things (and what else are humans but the brains of the earth) then the whole world is in peril.

So lets heal that brain damage. Let’s find that “something missing” that MLK was on about. Let’s stop looking at the world like something to be plundered and pillaged but something that sustains us and every living thing. Technology will definitely be part of this, but thinking technology is going to save the day without a radical shift in our consciousness is like driving an electric car off the edge of a cliff while taking a selfie with a lithium-powered cell phone.

Photo by Delaware Cooperative Extension, CC BY 2.0

EarthRx columnist Ocean Malandra divides his time between the redwood forest of Northern California and the Amazon jungle of South America and does realize he used a lithium battery-powered device to write this.