A Faustian bargain, freely made

Reading The Rare Metals War by Guillaume Pitron for New Scientist, 27 January 2021

We reap seven times as much energy from the wind, and 44 times as much energy from the sun, as we did just a decade ago. Is this is good news? Guillaume Pitron, a journalist and documentary-maker for French television, is not sure.

He’s neither a climate sceptic, nor a fan of inaction. But as the world begins to adopt a common target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Pitron worries that we’re becoming selectively blind to the costs that effort will incur. His figures are stark. Changing our energy model means doubling rare metal production approximately every fifteen years, mostly to satisfy our demand for non-ferrous magnets and lithium-ion batteries. “At this rate,” says Pitron, “over the next thirty years we will need to mine more mineral ores than humans have extracted over the last 70,000 years.”

Before the Renaissance, humans had found a use for just seven metals. Over the course of the industrial revolution, this number increased to just a dozen. Today, we’ve found uses for all 86 of them, and some of them are very rare indeed. For instance, neodymium and gallium are found in iron ore, but there’s 1,200 times less neodymium and up to 2,650 times less gallium than there is iron.

Zipping from an abandoned Mountain Pass mine in the Mojave Desert to the toxic lakes and cancer villages of Baotou in China, Pitron weights the terrible price paid for refining such materials, ably blending his investigative journalism with insights from science, politics and business.

There are two sides to Pitron’s story, woven seamlessly together. First there’s the economic story, of how the Chinese government elected to dominate the global energy and digital transition, so that it now controls 95 per cent of the rare metals market, manufacturing between 80 to 90 per cent of the batteries for electric vehicles, and over half the magnets used in wind turbines and electric motors.

Then there’s the ecological story in which, to ensure success, China took on the West’s own ecological burden. Now 10 per cent of its arable land is contaminated by heavy metals, 80 per cent of its ground water is unfit for consumption and 1.6 million people die every year due to air pollution alone (a recent paper in The Lancet reckons only 1.24 million people die each year — but let’s not quibble.

China’s was a Faustian bargain, freely entered into, but it would not have been possible had Europe and the rest of the Western world not outsourced their own industrial activities, creating a world divided, as Pitron memorably describes it, “between the dirty and those who pretend to be clean”.

The West’s economic comeuppance is now at hand, as its manufacturers, starved of the rare metals they need, are coerced into taking their technologies to China. And we in the West really should have seen this coming: how our reliance on Chinese raw materials would quickly morph into a reliance on China for the very technologies of the energy and digital transition. (Piron tells us that without magnets produced by China’s ChengDu Magnetic Material Science & Technology Company, the United States’ F-35 fifth-generation stealth fighter cannot fly.)

By 2040, in our pursuit of ever-greater connectivity and a cleaner atmosphere, we will need to mine three times more rare earths, five times more tellurium, twelve times more cobalt, and sixteen times more lithium than we do today. China’s ecological ruination and its global technological dominance advance in lockstep, unstoppably — unless we start mining for rare metals ourselves — in the United States, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, and in the “dormant mining giant” of Pitron’s native France.

Better, says Pitron, that we attain some small shred of supply security, and start mining our own land. At least if mining takes place in the backyards of vocal First World consumers, they can agitate for (and pay for) cleaner processes. And nothing will change “so long as we do not experience, in our own backyards, the full cost of attaining our standard of happiness.”

Art that brings meaning to medicine

Visiting Zhang Yanzi’s A Quest for Healing at Surgeons’ Hall Museums, Edinburgh, for New Scientist, 31 May 2018.

Scar is mounted on the wall of a small, brand-new gallery space in Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Museums. Because of the way the room is laid out, this is probably the last piece you will come to. And that’s good, as Scar offers the perfect coda to Zhang Yanzi’s solo show A Quest for Healing.

Scar is modelled on a surgical bed Zhang spotted at the Hong Kong Museum of Medical Sciences. (The building itself was where treatments were developed for the bubonic plague, which raged in Hong Kong even into the 20th century.) It’s a violent and terrible cruciform structure, wrapped in bloody bandages – or at least, that’s my first impression. I step closer: the “blood” is ink made of cinnabar, a vermilion-red pigment traditionally used in Chinese painting. Zhang, one of China’s foremost contemporary artists, is no stranger to traditional techniques; much of her work has its roots in the artistic and poetic depictions of landscape known as Shan shui

And those “bloody” smears and stains turn out to be exquisitely detailed miniature scenes of flowing water, framed by “hillsides” of calligraphy, combining poetry with Zhang’s private thoughts. What at a distance seemed to be a work about violent medical intervention, becomes, closer in, to be something deeply personal, calming – even kind.

The stereotypical view of contemporary art is that it’s too clever for its own good and heartless with it, constantly tripping the unwary viewer into moments of horrified realisation (ever looked closely at a Grayson Perry pot?) Zhang’s work pushes in the opposite direction. In the centre of the gallery, an outsize felt-covered “broken heart”  is pierced with thousands of acupuncture needles. This is shocking enough, but only until the eye adjusts and you realise that those pins – so fine, and so many – are more likely cushioning the heart from further assault.

A Quest for Healing is not a sentimental show. Several pieces convey a powerful sense of human fragility. The most colourful piece here is also the most daunting: a wall-mounted pyramid of medical blister packs, their pills removed and replaced by strips of paper on which schoolchildren – thousands of them – have inscribed their prayers and wishes for the future. The weight of expectation borne by Wishing Capsules (pictured above) feels positively oppressive.

Then there are the linked drawings of Limitless, filling one wall with exquisitely drawn ants – half living things, half calligraphy, massing like clouds of stars. You can’t separate these tiny figures from each other, but then again,  you can’t write the whole lot off as a mere texture, either.

There’s a clever perspectival game being played in this show: our cosmic insignificance is a given, but our complexity demands that we press ourselves against each other, in an effort to understand.

Artists who dabble in medicine are a dime a dozen. Zhang is different. She’s steeped in this imagery, growing up in Jiangsu Province in the 1970s, playing with her doctor father’s stethoscope. While by no means rejecting Western medicine, Zhang makes us aware how much more effectively the Chinese tradition gets us to think about mortality, and time, and the nature of being a material body: yearning, growing, dying. And the work that results from all this? A Quest for Healing is, simply, the most humane art about medicine I have seen in years.