While China’s sociopathic neighbor-ward North Korea ratchets up regional tensions by cutting all communication channels with South Korea in preparation for war, other geopolitical conflicts are spreading well beyond the region. World wars have been started over smaller offenses, so politicians have been eagerly trying to blow out various lit fuses.
Amid disputed Chinese ownership claims for various Pacific islands, Japanese scientists have discovered vast reserves of rare earth metals in their territorial seabed. These are the precious metal types which fueled the high-tech personal computing revolution, and are essential for the development of complex weapons systems.
China has enjoyed a long-lasting monopoly on many of these resources for years, but the recently discovered Japanese deposit could be mined cheaply without any environmental harm and almost doubles China’s reserve size.
This discovery carries many economic and political implications as well. China currently supplies over 95% of the rare metals needed for high-tech industries (think iPads, lasers, and plasma screens) as well as military weapons systems (avionics, satellites, and missiles.) In the 1990s, they flooded the market and undercut the value of these metals, forcing several international mining operations to shut down.
China then cultivated this monopoly, and the rest of the world was happy to let them destroy their environment with the dirty, radioactive process of extracting the metals. The unfortunate catch, however, was that companies were forced to move their manufacturing operations to Chinese soil – where their technological designs have often been stolen.
In 2009, China surprised the world by utilizing its monopoly to restrict exports and increase the price of rare earth metals. Most countries were hostage to their environmental policies, and couldn't restart their own mining operations. But Japan’s recent discovery may force the Chinese to reduce prices again, and in turn drastically drop retail prices in the tech industries.
Amazon.com behaves in a similar fashion with companies it wants to acquire. If Amazon wants to buy you and you don’t want to sell, it will just flood the market with your products at a lower cost, and then buy your company when you can no longer compete. Japan’s recent discovery is the equivalent of a whole new Amazon site emerging on the precious metals scene overnight.
If the U.S. really wanted to reopen their mining operations, they could subsidize a program — but it would be better to store our reserves of these critically strategic metals for another time, if we have that option. Rare earth metals are often found with thorium, and the process of removing them can produce a lot of radioactive waste. However, thorium has massive potential as a near limitless energy resource, especially in molten salt reactors. These fuel cycle reactors would be an ideal place to dispose of thorium and provide vast quantities of energy for the country.
The U.S. isn't pursuing this avenue, however, due to misguided public fear over the dangers of nuclear power. China, meanwhile, is developing the world's only respectable nuclear program — and will soon convert their massive thorium stockpiles into near endless carbon-free energy.
But that isn't the only economic investment China is making into its energy future. In Dambisa Moyo’s book Winner Takes All, she examines how China has been purchasing mining rights and resource reserves all over the world from South America to Africa.
Ecuador recently auctioned off more than 3 million hectares of pristine Amazonian rain-forest to Chinese oil companies, or approximately 1/3 of their nation’s rainforest. Ecuador has in the past offered to guarantee the rainforest’s safety in exchange for $3.5 billion dollars (half of the revenue expected to be generated by drilling for oil beneath the jungle floors). But the international communities of the world were not willing to pay the sum, guarantee the preservation of the forests, and avoid more than 400 million metric tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere. Ecuador is desperate to develop its nation, and has now sold it’s only remaining national resource to the hungriest bidder.
And where is America in all these resource and energy developments? We’re still focused on fracking and the Keystone pipeline. The $7 billion pipe will carry oil extracted from the Alberta "tar sands" across six U.S. states to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. An estimated 10,000 new jobs, guaranteed domestic oil supply, and lowered gas prices has most politicians and unions happy. But dumping huge quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and accelerating climate change has most environmentally conscious people worried.
Are we perpetuating our addiction to fossil fuels? Won’t Canada sell the oil to someone else even if we don’t buy it? Perhaps China or Russia? Can our environment continue to survive record breaking heat, devastating hurricanes, and an onslaught of snowstorms?
Environmentalists need to accept that we can’t currently power our economy on renewables. Resisting a reliable oil supply from our neighbors to the north isn't much of a platform. Why not campaign for a carbon tax? More importantly, why not ally with nuclear power — promoting its modernized and impressive safety features?
Obama’s approval of Keystone will seem like a betrayal to a large block of people who voted for him — but we should be pushing for him to invest in energy futures that keep us truly independent and strong in the long run. Environmentalism and nuclear power share a common interest in avoiding the continuation of fossil fuel burning. Their campaigns should be aligned so that the public can be educated away from their knee-jerk fear of nuclear energy’s potential.
That's the best path to guarantee clean, long-lasting energy, American economic stability, and minimal harm to the environment.