From space, the Bayan Obo mine in China, where 70 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals are extracted and refined, almost looks like a painting. The paisleys of the radioactive tailings ponds, miles long, concentrate the hidden colors of the earth: mineral aquamarines and ochres of the sort a painter might employ to flatter the rulers of a dying empire.
To meet the demands of the Green New Deal, which proposes to convert the US economy to zero emissions, renewable power by 2030, there will be a lot more of these mines gouged into the crust of the earth. That’s because nearly every renewable energy source depends upon non-renewable and frequently hard-to-access minerals: solar panels use indium, turbines use neodymium, batteries use lithium, and all require kilotons of steel, tin, silver, and copper. The renewable-energy supply chain is a complicated hopscotch around the periodic table and around the world. To make a high-capacity solar panel, one might need copper (atomic number 29) from Chile, indium (49) from Australia, gallium (31) from China, and selenium (34) from Germany. Many of the most efficient, direct-drive wind turbines require a couple pounds of the rare-earth metal neodymium, and there’s 140 pounds of lithium in each Tesla.
It’s not for nothing that coal miners were, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the very image of capitalist immiseration—it’s exhausting, dangerous, ugly work. Le Voreux, “the voracious one”—that’s what Émile Zola names the coal mine in Germinal, his novel of class struggle in a French company town.