Third rock

My favorite website is Astronomy Picture of the Day. APOD to those in the know. APOD goes all the way back to 1995 and there’s a complete archive of all the images. Here’s today’s. You’ve seen it before. It never gets old. We are all just passengers on this third rock from the sun and it’s good to be reminded of that.

But I don’t want to talk about the blue marble. I want to talk about Africa, which is mostly what we see as far as the land area goes. Africa has by some estimates 30% of the world’s mineral resources. That’s reasonable considering its 30 million square kilometers of land, just a few million less than Asia, the largest of the continents. Africa produces over half of the world’s diamonds, about a fourth of the world’s gold, and is rich in cobalt, platinum, manganese, bauxite, uranium, and copper. It’s major producer of phosphate rocks used in fertilizers. It even has lots of fossil fuels!

Why should we care about Africa? Because we use all of those natural resources. If it isn’t farmed, it’s mined. (I should note that Africa has 65% of the world’s arable land.) The Congo (DRC) has most of the world’s cobalt and most of Africa’s copper. Chinese companies not only dominate Congo’s mining industry they built the toll roads to haul the materials from the mines to the export sites. And paid off the president and his family, too. China has the fastest-growing EV market in the world and they want to secure their supplies of critical minerals.

We here in North America need those same things. We want cleaner power sources like solar panels and wind turbines, and we want EVs, and we will likely have to invest in nuclear power again. All of that takes mining. Lots of mining. Mining is messy and the industry has a lousy track record. People and communities are suspicious of mining companies. In too many places in the world the miners have come, gotten rich, devastated the land, and left. The pollution and economic fallout weren’t part of the business plan.

Here at home we aren’t very enthusiastic about new mining projects. We tend to look elsewhere for our supplies. We are willing to trust much of our future to imports from other places. That’s certainly a viable strategy: develop solid trade relationships with stable jurisdictions. But it’s only one piece. A supply chain has to be more robust—if we’ve learned anything in this pandemic we’ve learned that our supply chains are vulnerable.

For starters, there aren’t enough stable jurisdictions in the world. Mining companies would rather work in countries with law and order. Political instability is not good for things like contracts. Secondly, mineral deposits are not scattered equally over the globe. They tend to be clustered in certain places.

So you have to have a domestic mining industry if you have those precious mineral deposits. The United States of America is a good place to mine because mining companies trust the legal system. Their assets will not be seized by outlaws. Their workers will not be attacked by paramilitaries. That’s an issue in some countries.

Wealthy countries have the luxury of exporting their environmental problems. We can let poorer nations assemble our electronics and make our clothes and not worry about the chemicals polluting their air and water. If those industries were here we’d have stricter regulations and things would cost more.

The challenge is to have domestic industries but to do them better. There’s no reason why we can’t pull stuff out of the ground intelligently. There’s no reason we can’t figure in the cost of protecting ourselves from pollution. We can reduce waste. In fact, we can eliminate the whole notion of waste and build a circular economy.

We have to view the minerals in the ground as precious resources to husband and develop for the good of humanity. In a capitalist economy, that’s hard. It’s more about dollars than citizenship. And it takes a lot of dollars to make a mine and keep it going so miners like to get some return on their investment. That makes for a difficult dynamic.

But it’s one we have to solve since, like I said earlier, we are all just passengers on this third rock from the sun.

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