6. Rare Earth Minerals
What do cell phones, computers, airplane engines, and wind turbines have in common? They all require rare earth minerals, and while these minerals can be mined and processed sustainably, they currently are not, leading to environmental, health, and national security issues. Today, we discuss these issues, and consider ways to clean up the supply chain, scale back on our rare earth mineral consumption, and make our phones and computers more eco-friendly. We’re joined by Joe Perrotta (Marist College), Melani Zuckerman (Boston University), and special guest Dr. Julie Klinger: Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Delaware and author of the award-winning book Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes.
I first learned about rare earth minerals in high school debate when our topic revolved around potential U.S. military action in the South China Sea. While arguing about the potential loss of a source for rare earth minerals was quite effective in rounds, the issue seemed quite trivial to me in the real world. When we live in an age of huge problems like climate change, deforestation, and toxic pollution, what difference could rare earth minerals possibly make in our environment and our way of life? They are called RARE earth minerals after all, so they can’t be that significant, right?
Of course, I was incorrect on this matter. When I began to learn more about rare earths in college and throughout researching for this episode, I learned that I had many misconceptions. For one, rare earths aren’t really that rare, but rather they are just hard for us to exploit profitably. I also learned that rare earths mining and processing can cause large scale environmental harms and seriously impact those exposed to these processes. Also, I learned that rare earths are absolutely crucial to our current way of life, and that they hold the key to many future technological innovations, including renewable energy sources!
I am excited to share my new found knowledge with our audience, and I hope this episode inspires listeners to continue the discussion on this undervalued issue!
I knew a little bit about e-waste and the Right to Repair movement going in, but that’s about it. So this episode was a really fun opportunity for me to learn about something new. And who knew how interesting this subject was?! Rare earths are in so many products we use on a daily basis, and the only reason they’re an issue is from lack of political will.
This episode was our first time covering foreign policy extensively, which was a fun change of pace. Dr. Klinger’s first hand experience meeting with mining communities, executives, and policymakers in Inner Mongolia in China paved the way for such an interesting conversation, and Joe and Melani spoke so eloquently and shared such great perspectives. It’s amazing that they were completely new to the issue—they were talking like experts!
The title “Rare Earth Minerals” may not be as catchy as some of our other ones, but I definitely encourage you to check out this episode. Rare earth minerals affect our lives way more than we realize, and I’m so glad that I now know a little bit about them. While the health and environmental impacts are mostly isolated to China, the United States has a huge opportunity to make a difference in our manufacturing and consumption patterns. And if that’s not enough of a draw, then I’ll add that Dr. Klinger talks a little bit about mining for rare earth minerals in outer space, and come on, that’s just objectively cool.
Thanks for listening, and enjoy!