Strategic Metals, Rare Earth Elements and the Gravity Well

In all the hub-bub that is our daily human existence on this planet, a little known crisis is building in an area that may have more importance to mankind’s long term survival than anything else:  The growing shortage of Strategic Metals (SM) and Rare Earth Elements (REE).  Most people know little about the vital importance SMs and REEs play in developing and maintaining modern technologic infrastructure.  Compared to SM and REE, it is much easier to solve energy and water shortages.  Most Environmentalists seem to have little idea that most of their dreams for renewable energy lie with metals and elements that are some of the hardest to find and toughest to mine and refine.

About 5 billion of the 7 billion inhabitants of this planet are only alive today because of the availability of cheap petroleum energy.  Without that energy it would be impossible to feed, house and support, logistically and productively, most of the humans on the planet in any fashion.  Today the average middle-class person anywhere in the world consumes the equivalent energy it would take more than 400 persons to otherwise provide for that one individual.

Think about that for a moment.  The energy you and I pay a few dollars a day to do all the things it does for us replaces the labor of more than 400 people who would otherwise have to work for us to live as we do now.  Four-Hundred!  If all 7 billion currently living people of the world all lived at a basic middle-class lever, without having the energy, it would take the efforts of another 2.8 trillion people to allow us to live as we do individually now!  But then we’d have find a way to feed and house all those additional people who are here to labor for us.  As one can quickly see; ain’t gonna happen.

However, even more critical to those 5 billion people being alive is because of the SM and REE that allow the building of an infrastructure that cheap energy supply feeds and keeps running every day.   Deplete or make cost-prohibitive just a few of those metals and elements in that category and that 5 billion people (plus any new ones added) can’t be supported any longer.  We need all the associated technology, also run on cheap energy, that makes it all work.  Those technologies, in turn, are built out of SM and REE.

For most of the SMs and REEs, scattered sparingly around the planet, 80-90% of global production for each comes from just a couple sources.  Those sources are rapidly being depleted or their mining costs are becoming so high as to be unusable at some point.  Not only does the mining become cost prohibitive but so does the harm to the land as mines must be bigger, deeper and more destructive to recover the metals and elements needed.

Interestingly though, we live in a solar system that is literally swimming in SM and REE (energy, too!  A bonus!).  As Carl Sagan, the well-known astronomer, was quoted saying, “It’s raining soup across the solar system, all we need is soup bowls.”  The problem, however, is two-fold in getting to the soup kitchen.  Firstly, we have to contend with earth’s gravity well.  Second, we have to fix the global political system.  However, if we fix the second, the first becomes less problematic.

The amount of waste of resources that goes into the various wars and conflicts is almost half of all military expenditures worldwide for both offensive and defensive spending.  Behind that is the embedded cost and use of resources to maintain military capability in preparation of offensive or defensive conflicts.  Military and defense maintenance are the most expensive things we do as countries with no productive output.  The whole point, as John Carl Roat said: “War is about killing people and breaking things.”  If not engaged in actual war the military is simply a consumer of goods and resources.

Think about the SM and REE expended on the Military, Industrial, Intelligence, Security and State Complex.  It is enormous and, wasteful beyond measure.  There’s very little recycling of SM and REE from military equipment and technology.  For all its rules on us governments are the most wasteful of all.  The first practical measure to insuring our long term survival is to redeploy the SM and REE used in militaristic infrastructure to much more useful and productive enterprise.

Consider the waste present in just one aspect of the militaristic infrastructure.  The NSA alone employs the largest number of Mathematicians and Computer Scientists of any organization in the world.  It has enormous data centers and server complexes, satellite, radio, fiber and switching collection infrastructure entails tens of millions of square feet.  Their computing and storage power is measured in tens of PetaFLOPS and hundreds of PetaBytes.  That technology consumes vast quantities of SM and REE.  For what, exactly?  Wouldn’t it be nice if we at least got to use all those brains and technology solving the problems of developing near-space resource extraction?  Wouldn’t it be so much more beneficial if the private sector had access to those $100s of billion now spent on militaristic and intelligence technology to monitor and track us?

Instead, we get NASA and a decades-long moribund or barely nascent space capability.  The Shuttle and International Space Station look like great achievements, until one weighs the cost and the lack of productive output to be put to use.   We’re now more than two generations and 35 years behind (and falling fast) where we should be in near-space development and launch capability due to NASA control.  If NASA had been fully commercialized, as the Internet was 30 years ago, think where we’d be today!

We must begin to solve the enormous political disadvantages we, and nearly all large nations, suffer under through keeping the world in turmoil through their power-mad nightmare.  If not, it is becoming more and more likely we will consume so much of our strategic resources that not enough will be left over to climb out of the “gravity well” here on earth to obtain more.  Once we pass that point of no return, we are trapped here on the planet with no way off and no way to supplement our resource needs.  There won’t be enough strategic resources left to build the infrastructure off-planet to replace them.  It will be a technologic dead-end.

As people obviously won’t stop having sex, so population control and devolving civilization will become the norm and in much uglier ways than anything seen thus far.  All that will do is likely prolong the time until we completely wink-out as a species and the universe moves on.  Nice try mankind but we failed to make it any better than the Dinosaurs, who were killed off by an incoming asteroid.  Yet, another fate we can avoid by building a large-scale space presence.

The effort to commercialize and develop near-space resources has to be large-scale, productive, profitable and ongoing.  The only way to make it sustainable is to make it profitable.  Some small efforts like Space X,  Xcor, Orbital Sciences and others are trying and re-inventing space tech as they go.  We just have to hope it’s not too little, too late to save our kids and grandkids from a devolving and deteriorating world run by governments and leaders who can’t think past next week or past their own blindingly self-serving agendas, much less 10, 20 or a 100 years into the future.

We may also find along the way we can preserve and conserve this planet in ways much better and long-lasting than any radical environmentalist ever dreamed.


One thought on “Strategic Metals, Rare Earth Elements and the Gravity Well

  1. […] sustainable development of near-space:  Survival of the species.  In two more recent articles, here and here, I posited some of the imperatives surrounding the issue of survival.  We waste an […]

    November 3, 2014 at 3:16 pm

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