[T]he potential of rare earths to become the next ‘elements of conflict’...is not due to their absolute scarcity or geological concentration in any single place—such as China—but rather to the political life built around them as multiple actors with diverse interests navigate between necessity, cost, and danger. 1
Rare earth minerals are everywhere, yet poorly understood. Rare earths, or lanthanides, are a series of 17 metals with unique magnetic, electrical, and visual properties. They are essential ingredients in digital and renewable energy technology, powering everything from cell phones, to data centers, to electric cars, and wind turbines. They are also used heavily in the fossil fuel industry, as fuel cracking catalysts.
Rare earths are not at all materially rare. The United States Geological Survey has identified over 800 rare earth deposits across six continents. 3 Rather, their alleged rareness is a “semantic confusion” 4 stemming from the first discovery of rare earth ore in Ytterby, Sweden, in 1792. What makes them appear allegedly “rare” is that once out of the ground, rare earths are incredibly difficult to separate. Elaborate, often heavily toxic processes of chemical leaching and flotation are required to separate individual rare earths from their associated ore bodies. As a result, the economics of rare earth mining depends not so much on mining itself, but on the transnational logistics of efficient mineral processing infrastructures. While rare earth deposits exist all over the world, because of processing difficulty, the technical infrastructure and expertise required to effectively process and separate these minerals remains geographically limited. The geographical bottleneck of rare earth processing creates what Klinger (2017) calls structural scarcity (as opposed to actual scarcity), which means that the “rareness” of rare earths stems primarily from political, economic, and infrastructural circumstances, rather than geological ones. Even more, given their wide range of applications, and the formidable grip rare earth elements have on our contemporary technological world, 5 they stubbornly remain mythologized subjects of speculation and fascination. This phenomenon stems in part from a discourse of perpetual newness, in which rare earths are consistently framed as the hidden material infrastructure behind innovative futures.
- 3“Rare earth element mines, deposits, and occurrences,” United States Geological Survey, 2002, https://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2002/of02-189/of02-189.pdf
- 4Itty Abraham, “Rare Earths: The Cold War in the Annals of Travancore,” in Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Cold War, ed. Gabrielle Hecht (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), pp. 101-123.
- 5See Marc Humphries, Rare Earth Elements: The Global Supply Chain, Report No. R41347 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2013), David Abraham, The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metals Age (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).
An honest mapping of the global rare earth situation must focus not just on deposits, but also on proposed projects, operational projects, processing infrastructures, and reclamation infrastructures. These processes will not always translate well to cartographic representations, but it is crucial that we better understand the increasingly dependent relationship between a truly international Green New Deal and the transnational political economy of increased mineral extraction. Rare earths, and their politics, are at the center of this understanding. When the media or politicians invoke rare earths, it is almost always as a lens on contemporary political anxieties, not on the rocks themselves. As one example, in 2020, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz introduced the O.R.E. (Onshoring Rare Earths) Act, in an attempt to draft policy for the expansion of rare earth mining and processing in the United States. 13 However, the text of the bill confuses “rare earths” with “critical minerals”, lumping other metals like lithium, cobalt, graphite, and manganese with the 17 defined rare earths. This communicates a generalized anxiety around mineral supply chains, an anxiety being attached and marketed under the umbrella of rare earth security. Conversely, this map endeavors to communicate how the fears and uncertainties over rare earths as rare are structural fears, not actual ones. How can we expand our political imagination of these future-building minerals? Our ability to build an internationalist Green New Deal depends on our ability to answer that question.
- 13Congress.gov. "Text -S.3694 -116th Congress (2019-2020): ORE Act." May 12, 2020. https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/3694/text.