The case for domestic exploration and extraction of elements has been documented extensively in the last couple decades. Tragic exploitation of desperately poor people occurs throughout the world for the purpose of providing the "civilized" world with an endless supply of creature comforts. Most of us are aware of the god-awful conditions under which men, women, and children labor to bring us lithium for our iPhone and laptop computer batteries, niobium for super strong magnets in motors and medical imaging machines, phosphor for our curly-Q "green" compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs, mercury for those same bulbs and for processing rock ore to extract the metals. Oh, and don't forget about all the precious metals used in jewelry and high-end decorative artifacts The list of applications is extensive, as is the list of human suffering from death, grotesque physical and mental injury, and pathetic living conditions. A little while back, I wrote about our troops providing cover for private company exploration missions in Afghanistan for rare earth metals.
As usual, the very people who make the most noise about the "evil" corporations responsible for the situation are among those benefitting because they are consumers of all the products that contain those ill-gotten components. The OWS types all seem to have cellphones and many have computers, or avail themselves of somebody else's. They wear clothes and sleep in tents sewn by peasants who have less to eat per day than the free meals the Occupiers scarf down in food lines. It seems the only symbolic commiseration OWS'ers have in common with the world's poor they abet the abuse of is that neither group bathes regularly and neither group cares where they go to the bathroom (although I suspect the people in India burning down electronic waste for base metals are probably a bit more concerned with personal hygiene).
Smithsonian magazine just published a story about an area in Peru, along the Madre de Dios River, where gold mining has devastated the jungles (I don't say "rain forest") and the indigenous people. As the picture to the right shows (click on it for the full story), what was once a fairly narrow river bed surrounded by a dense forest of trees is now mile upon mile of land stripped of trees and filled with huge piles of rocks and man-made pits 40 to 50 feet deep and hundreds of yards long. As in most of the other regions of the world, local governments turn a blind eye to the situation as officials accept bribes and justify their actions by saying that the locals need the work. Slave-like working conditions, prostitution of young girls, separation of families, and roving murderous bandits are tolerated by the governments and mine owners - especially amongst the hundreds of illegal operations.
I have a solution to propose: Bring as much of the mining and processing as possible to the U.S., where our labor and environmental laws can provide protection, while immensely boosting the economic strength of the country. There is little incentive now for developing better methods of extraction and processing when materials can be obtained relatively cheaply abroad, at least not until the commodity price rises to a point where a profit is possible. Even with metals prices skyrocketing, radicals in our government make it nearly impossible for companies to get permits, even though many processes have advanced to where an environmentally friendly operation can be implemented. Rather than having bare-footed men stomping a slurry of sandy ore and mercury to separate out the gold, we have machines that contain the mix and yield metals without exposing workers to dangerous conditions. Unemployment levels would drop precipitously, and idle citizens would finally be able to help pull the economic wagon rather than burden it by just going along for the ride while everybody else pulls.
Of course there is little chance that anything like that will be implemented because our corrupt politicians and judges have too much of a vested interest in maintaining a dependent underclass. It is better for their political and personal fortunes to keep as many people as possible on the dole and demanding more, because that means more votes. As always, the producers are too busy producing to mount effective opposition to the slackers, who are encouraged and organized by notable persons and foundations intent on crippling the country. It does not matter to them that their actions help perpetuate the miserable conditions across the globe. Their offshore bank accounts take top priority.
Gold prices are at $1,722 as I write this.
See also Toxic Air from China, The Real Price of Gold, Afghanistan's Buried Riches - Rare Earths & More, E-Waste... Just Don't Think About It
Posted February 10, 2012