The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

When Green Turns to Poisonous Brown

Mar 1, 2010

“Green” electric cars, wind turbines, iPods and flat screen TVs are all touted as having a small “carbon footprint” – they use less power, saving on fossil fuels. But these and other so-called “environmental” products contain rare earth metals, the extraction of which is an environmental disaster.

The extraction of neodymium, for magnets in electric motors and hydroelectric turbines, or cerium for catalytic converters, or terbium for low watt light bulbs, is shown in its ugly reality in Baiyun Obo, a remote area of Mongolia in China.

There, the rare-earth refineries near towns, rivers and farmland have spewed out so much pollution that villagers can no longer farm nearby. This “environmentally friendly” industry has produced the world’s largest lake of tailings, seven square miles of toxic pollution. Workers in the mines and refineries receive higher wages than others living in this part of Mongolia – along with burns from the acid falling on their clothes and skin or going into their lungs. None expect to live very long.

But whether rare earth metals are extracted in poor countries like China or in richer ones like Australia, the problem is the organization of industry under capitalism. No matter what name is put on a technology, its use goes to further profit, without regard to environmental damage.