26 Apr 2010: Analysis

The Consumption Conundrum:
Driving the Destruction Abroad

Our high-tech products increasingly make use of rare metals, and mining those resources can have devastating environmental consequences. But if we block projects like the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, are we simply forcing mining activity to other parts of the world where protections may be far weaker?

by oswald j. schmitz and thomas e. graedel

Every time someone pushes the on-button on an electronic device, there is an expectation that the unit will power up quickly and display images in vibrant color. There is the further expectation, especially when using electronic devices for communications such as email access, web downloading, and texting that the response time will be immediate. We live in an age of technological arms races in which manufacturers gain market edge by creating products that are faster, have more applications, have a broader network reach, and generally do more.

The processing capacity of digital electronic devices doubles about every two years (Moore’s Law), and this capacity increase is enabled by an expanded use of elements. For example, computer chips made use of 11 major elements in the 1980s but now use about 60 (two-thirds of the periodic table!). And the electronics sector isn’t alone. Engine turbine blades for aircraft are made of alloys of a dozen or so metals; motors and batteries of green-technology hybrid vehicles depend on several of the rare earths; advances in medical imaging have come about by the unique band gaps of elements such as gadolinium. It seems that there are no limits to what the imagination can create except for the fact that many of the metals
We need to understand how our technological demands are linked to the consequences of global extraction.
are globally rare and, given the nature of current technology, non-substitutable.

As we clamor for the latest gadgets and products, our increasing dependency on rare metals to support modern technology carries certain responsibilities and ethical obligations. More than ever, we need to understand how our technological demand for elements from the entire periodic table is linked to the environmental consequences of global extraction. This issue is often overlooked in policy decisions because we fail to appreciate the inextricable connectedness between global locations where technology is manufactured and used and the locations that physically provide the key elements.

A case in point is the “mother lode” deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum in Bristol Bay, Alaska, known as the Pebble Mine, which a consortium of mining companies is seeking to develop. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the current U.S. and global “reserve base” for these metals. This is the quantity of metal in ore deposits that might someday be mineable, even if not economically promising at present. There are various estimates for the mineable contents of the Pebble Mine, but all are very large (as shown in this chart).

The Pebble Mine deposit would dramatically increase the domestic reserves of copper and gold and would vault the United States into the position of being the world’s largest repository of mineable molybdenum. Gold is an investment vehicle and jewelry metal, of course; but it also is close to irreplaceable as an interlayer constituent in printed wiring boards in electronics. Copper is the principal metal used for conducting electricity in power-grid distribution systems, residential wiring, and computers, and in motors that do everything from raise automobile windows to rotate machinery. Molybdenum is an irreplaceable constituent of the stainless steels used in surgical instruments, a variety of other medical equipment, and chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

In most of these applications there are no suitable substitute materials, especially if loss of performance is to be avoided. Reserves such as the Pebble Mine have certain strategic implications for the United States as well, as there is a tendency for countries to hoard their own reserves of rare metals.

The confounding situation for the Pebble Mine is that it is situated in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, and the Bristol Bay region is home to five species of salmon that are among the last unthreatened stocks in the Pacific Northwest. Salmon are known for their mass migrations from the ocean to natal streams where they breed and subsequently die. In this region of the Pacific Northwest, salmon comprise 92 percent of the diet of
Where else will the mining be done, and what damages will be passed on to other parts of the world?
the 300 to 400 resident killer whales, and salmon carcasses are also important food resources for terrestrial species such as grizzly bears and eagles. A large run of 20 million sockeye in the Bristol Bay region can yield as much as 5.4 x 107 kilograms of body tissue to the natal streams and surrounding riparian zones after the fish spawn and die, thus providing 2.4 x 105 kilograms of phosphorus, 18 x 106 kilograms of nitrogen, 2.7 x 106 kilograms of calcium, and other elements that are important nutrients in sustaining the health and functioning of whole watersheds. For comparison, this nutrient input is equivalent to the amount of fertilizer used to support 140,000 acres of intensive corn production in the U.S. Midwest.

It is small wonder then that local and international environmental groups have initiated efforts to halt the development of the mine based on the need to preserve one of the last relatively untouched wilderness areas on the planet. Such efforts have long been regarded as an ethical position of high merit. Yet, geological reserves like those in Bristol Bay are equally rare globally. So if the ethical environmental position forces mining activity elsewhere, then the rationale for wilderness protection in Bristol Bay becomes murkier, especially if the mining occurs in places where the standards of environmental protection are weaker.

For example, unchecked acid drainage from waste rock and mine tailings at the Bougainville copper mine in Papua New Guinea have seriously compromised the Kawerong-Jaba river system there, and governments in northwest Pakistan have pursued a policy of harassment and coercion of the local populace with the intention of developing a very large gold-copper deposit. Beyond the social and ethical implications of these situations, the use of cyanide for gold extraction is a common environmental challenge in regions where mining is not well regulated.

The potential for displaced environmental damages means that a policy favoring ecosystem protection at the expense of mining in Bristol Bay should be obligated to consider the global implications of that decision by
Anyone who relies on modern electronic technology has a shared link to the environmental damages from mining.
answering the question: Where else in the world will the mining be done, and what environmental damages will be passed to other parts of the world? Alternatively, any policy that favors mining must explain how fishing pressure on other, already declining salmon stocks globally will be affected if the Bristol Bay stocks decline, and even whether declining stocks encourage alternative production systems such as salmon aquaculture that could inflict additional and widespread damage to marine ecosystems.

Local political tugs-of-war between wilderness preservation and mining such as those seen in Bristol Bay address the issue at the wrong scale. The consequence is that the true root causes of these problems are not identified. Anyone who relies on modern electronic technology and favors the development of green technology — environmentalists and technocrats


Consumption Dwarfs Population
as Main Environmental Threat

It’s overconsumption, not population growth, that is the fundamental problem, writes Fred Pearce. By almost any measure, a small portion of the world's people — those in the affluent, developed world — use up most of the Earth's resources and produce most of its greenhouse gas emissions.
alike — has a shared link to environmental damages ensuing from mining. An appropriate ethical stance then would be to question whether it is appropriate to protect nature and force resource extraction to other parts of the world where standards of environmental protection may be considerably weaker. Alternatively, if we do not wish to inflict damages elsewhere in the world, are we willing to forego the benefits of modern technology? And ultimately, of course, the livelihoods of local residents who rely on employment in the resource extraction industries — whether fisheries or mining — lie in the balance.

The Pebble Mine project is merely the latest example, but a particularly clear one, of the global linkages that create ethical and social conundrums. If modern society is to achieve sustainability in a resource-limited world, these are issues that must be explicitly addressed and overcome.

POSTED ON 26 Apr 2010 IN Business & Innovation Climate Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health North America North America 


This article is very misleading to this Bristol Bay local. It almost echo's that developing pebble would be better than getting the non-renewable resources from a less ecologically fragile location. Developing Pebble would be better than having environmentally devastating effects in other locations in the world.

Since when did we become "one world order"? Bristol Bay feeds the world, and has over 1,000 square miles of fresh water you can dip your cup into and drink. BB has the largest sockeye salmon run left on the planet. You going to put that at risk with a HUGE sulfuric mineral mine so everyone dictated by industry can have a new cell phone, and computer every 2-4 yrs? Put it at risk so the city eco-warrior can drive his hybrid all by himself with a 100,000 of other vehicles doing the same thing while the car pool lane is open?

Some people, I am sure will never fully understand what sustainability means! What will be our economy when the all the good stuff is gone, every habitable place, where once was sustainable is too polluted to live there? Where will we inhabit? Mars? Put the need before the greed and we'll all be fine!

Posted by Everett Leroy Thompson on 26 Apr 2010

The area adjacent to the mine is home to an incredible array of subarctic species. I encourage
people to visit the region before offering policy advice.

Posted by Edmund Searles on 27 Apr 2010

An additional consideration to this argument is that the relative availability of these extracted materials leads directly to the lower costs of products which in turn creates our "throw away" society. Why not get a new laptop every couple of years when they only cost $500? If there were less extraction taking place products would cost more and consumers would be inclined to use them longer. So mine less, save fragile environments, throw less away, pollute the environment less, everyone wins........except of course the multi-national mining companies!

Posted by Peter Leiterman on 27 Apr 2010

This is a very interesting and thought-provoking piece. We are completely blind to the consequences of consumerism--high tech products are only one example.

But wouldn't responsible recycling help alleviate the scarcity of rare elements? I suspect that requiring or incentivizing companies to take responsibility for their products at the end of their usable lifespan would also help overcome the widespread practice of planned obscelence (designing products so that they will be obsolete in a short period of time--motivating ongoing consumption).

In other words, maybe we should look to the end of the lifecycle for solutions. Of course, curbing our insatiable appetite for "new" "faster" "snazzier" products would help too.

Posted by Greener Every Day on 27 Apr 2010

I have a couple of suggestions:

Pay for recycled electronics. I currently have to pay to dispose of my dead electronics. Why should I bother.

Mine the other places first and only develop Pebble Bay when everything else is used up. Why should we sacrifice an economic resource such as this ecotourism wonder to provide metals for some other country's manufacturing. We can always mine it some time in the future. The ore is not going anywhere and the scarcity might drive prices up to the point everyone will recycle these things. The metals in cell phone is not going away either. It is just being diluted in landfills by really useless garbage.

We must use this place as an example and tell the miming industry and big business that their potential mega profits are not sacred but that preserving this wilderness is.

Posted by Greg Warner on 28 Apr 2010

It’s worth mentioning that Pebble is mostly a copper deposit, and copper is not only essential for electricity conduction, computers and cars, but for virtually all green technology as well. A single wind turbine requires literally tons of copper. The Sweetwater wind farm in Texas uses more than 100 miles of copper cable to operate. And the list goes on. The need for mined minerals is not going away. So why not develop the resources in areas with high levels of protection.

Posted by akresourcesrock on 28 Apr 2010

Wow. A Pebble article based in reality and fact as opposed to fear and misinformation. The US has a model regulatory structure, and Alaska's environmental oversight is the envy of many countries throughout the world. There's no question that minerals will continue to be demanded at increasing rates. I agree with akresources...we may as well develop in areas with strict standards and regulations.

Posted by Jay Aysak on 28 Apr 2010

I enjoyed reading this article. Thank you for the thoughtful analysis. However, I come away questioning whether or not your assumption of increased supply from Pebble will actually decrease the economic incentive to mine other places in the world, especially places with lax environmental laws or enforcement. I wonder what a detailed economic analysis of mining Pebble might yield.

How much would Pebble actually affect the global supply and price of gold, copper, and molybdenum? For example, I don't see highly-toxic artisinal gold mining changing much even if the price of gold goes down due to increased supply from Pebble; Artisinal gold mining is the
only way for people to make a living in many of the areas where this type of mining is practiced. As far as larger-scale mines, won't countries continue to subsidize and promote large-scale mining not just based on current market conditions but also on larger national interest?

Posted by Jon Wagar on 29 Apr 2010

This global consumption/extraction issue w/negative externalities isn't new.

The Pebble mine appears to be a classic example of a resource conflict in a very "charasmatic region" of the globe and w/respect to the Alaskan Wilderness's place in the American psyche.

I'd suggest specialty metal extraction doesn't begin to have the destructive footprint of other types of resource extraction, such as the cutting of the earth's temperate rainforests for timber, oil and agricultural production; or overfishing & degradation of many of our ocean fisheries.

One can question similarly to the mining of specialty minerals whether "over regulation" of our US national forests simply drives US demand for resources abroad.

Maybe like the drive to create local food systems to reduce transportation costs and create positive local externalities, we should be thinking as a global society how to close more loops on resource consumption within nations?

A US energy policy that moves us to greater energy independence would be good place to start. I'd also like to see more discussion of US Forest Service Strategies in light of worldwide timber supply/demand and protection of threatened ecosystems worldwide. Maybe there ought to be a tarrif on imported pulp,paper,timber that comes from non-sanctioned sources. Use that money to purchase and protect threatened lands worldwide.

Posted by John Norwood on 29 Apr 2010

The “sustainability” of mining?

•      If the sustainability theme is to be put in a global context (as it should), then the U.S. should lead the process of establishing and implementing U.S. environmental protection standards as a global standard.

•      If copper, gold and molybdenum are available from other existing mines we should focus on those existing sources, rather than instigate new mining. If the current Pebble Mine scenario is not yet economic, that means the global market is signaling that another market pathway is more economic.

•      We must develop new markets for metals based on recycling. We must improve our current methods of metals disposal, e.g. not exporting metal wastes overseas and exporting the toxics problems that are associated with recycling. U.S. policy should require full life cycle ownership of manufactured products as practiced in Germany. Laptop manufacturers would then be required to take back products for re-use.

•      We must redefine what is “strategic” in terms of a sustainability policy. The U.S. is not on the “gold standard” for the dollar currency. Thus what are the U.S. gold reserves really for? Gold, copper, and molybdenum are not a “rare earths” and we should not elevate their importance by loosely defining “strategic” as if our future national interest in dependent on them in some critical way.

•      The gold market, as the authors point out, is primarily a vanity and investment market, likely has enough gold supply in trade to support the industrial needs on global scale for years to come. Thus, do we really need further gold mining? (This supply issue needs to be researched and verified.)

•      How much of our future technologies do we really need? How much of current and future technology markets are driven by true basic human needs? As Yvon Choinard, founder of Patagonia has said, “we should invest in the things we need, not things we want.”

•      Sustainability is better termed as resilience. What are the environmental, social, and economic consequences of disturbing ecosystems such as Bristol Bay? Have we really demonstrated that mining will not impair the long-term resilience of the watershed ecosystems of the Bay? Would society be better served by focusing on improving existing mines, reducing the negative impacts of current mines, improving the restoration of ecosystems in which there are current mining impacts, and increasing the social and economic benefits of current mines (jobs, wages)?

Posted by Edward Backus on 29 Apr 2010

While there is no such thing as truly clean mining, the conundrum presented ignores a third possibility: that of holding multinational mining companies accountable in their operations overseas. Many countries despoiled by mining have decent legislation on the books, the problem is enforcement - the Philippines is a good example of a country with good environmental legislation that is mostly ignored by enforcement agencies. As enforcement is unlikely to come from government officials who are easily bought off, it must come from engaged shareholders and citizen campaigners. Perhaps, instead of destroying "one of the last relatively untouched wilderness areas on the planet, " we should mobilize the millions of us who rely on these metals to pressure mining companies to mine as responsibly as is physically possible. Faith-based shareholders have been engaging mining companies around these issues for a number of years now, and would greatly benefit from popular pressure for clean mining.

Posted by Christina Herman on 29 Apr 2010

Great piece.

Reminds me of a feature article in a recent issue of The New Yorker, on Bolivia's (and Evo Morales') quest to set up a world-class lithium industry. Lithium -- a key element in lightweight batteries for electric cars -- is in big supply in the region. The article:


What this piece, and the New Yorker piece touch on, but don't attempt much in the way of elaboration, is the major problem with relying on rare materials (that must be mined) to produce "green" products.

If we want to get serious about sustainability, I don't think mining can be part of the program.

Posted by Scott Gast on 09 May 2010

Never mind mining raw metals in far away places. America's unquenchable thirst for oil and gasoline is turning my home province of Alberta into a petro-state, the government of which has little regard for human health, aboriginal rights, and the horrendous impacts caused by the tar sands. It's not half way around the world; it's right next door.

Jeff Gailus

Posted by Jeff Gailus on 11 May 2010

I appreciate this article. It presents a different view to environmental protection. I wish a little more was discussed concerning the eco-backpacking that goes on in other countries with less environmental protection, with regards to consumer products.

I'd like to support the idea in any of the comments of increased recycling, cradle to cradle design, and producer end of life cycle responsibility. These are incredibly important ROOTS that are part of this issue. These are also things that can be changed through technological advances and innovation that seek to make products and design more effective and upcyclable. At the same time, it also takes the other end of the root (the consumer) to recognize their habits and break away from the 'spend-use-throw away' tendency.

Work can be done from both fronts (technology and consumer) and from any other perspective with the same goal: global environmental protection, global social justice.

Posted by Lenny Reisner on 13 May 2010

Searles is correct. This article presupposes that we continue to pay an artificially low cost for these increasingly intricate and powerful gadgets. If the price of these devices reflected
the true COST of its manufacturing - including all the externalities such as environmental devastation and child mining in Africa - then they should cost much more. If these devices contain half the periodic table, why are they still basically giving them away in order to sign a contract?

I was just in the DRC a few months ago and produced this video on illegal child mining taking place all over southern Congo. http://bit.ly/aVJc3t

The children are after copper and cobalt, used in those high-grade airplane and electronics
coatings. Lung disease and cancer clusters are prevalent, and children as young as 6 years old are working in the mines.

I understand the premise of the article is that we should consider supporting Pebble Mine
specifically to avoid situations like the DRC. But it's not a zero sum game. Because Pebble Mine is developed will not mean the end of conflict mining in Africa - it just means those Africans will receive even less for their product since the global glut will drive down prices.

Terrible, horrible issue. Thank you for raising it, however, as it must be dealt with.

Posted by Marshall Maher on 17 Jul 2010

I appreciate this article for spawning dialogue. How do we proceed? Shall we leave patches of wilderness or instant messages? Maybe more reliable wiring because I have a really messed up fixture in my front entry. I really do and I would be willing to trade.

When this mine was initially proposed, I sat in my 12 X16 and calculated the gold to fit in the loft; the tailings a thousand foot hill two miles long. Then I calculated the copper, then the molybdenum. Too large for comprehension. That was a short five years ago and the scope has almost doubled. I am currently up to a master suite of gold, a mountain of tailings, and enough copper and molybdinum to build inumerable iphone 4's and crescent wrenches. I have also moved into our new house with running water thanks to the copper pipes.

I guess I will pull out some salmon and think about it.

Posted by John Muir on 24 Jul 2010

As an engineer, I am confident that mining technology can be made much cleaner and that withholding Pebble from development for environmental reasons provides a powerful and essential incentive for such progress. It is likely that the minerals in the pebble deposit will increase in value while we wait.

Neil Frazer
Professor of Geophysics
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Posted by Neil Frazer on 27 Aug 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
oswald j. schmitz and thomas e. graedelABOUT THE AUTHORS
Oswald J. Schmitz (left) is the Oastler Professor of Population and Community Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, and is director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Science. Thomas E. Graedel is the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Industrial Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and is professor of geology and geophysics. He is also director of the Center for Industrial Ecology.



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