Steve A. Stone
Dear Friends and Patriots,
No good deed ever goes unpunished! That's an axiom of life we should all learn to accept. I accepted it very early in my own life and have been accused of being a skeptic and a cynic since I was in high school. I can live with that, and think others might benefit if they developed healthier senses of skepticism and cynicism as well. Today, I intend to dwell on what I call Eco-Insanity. If this one subject doesn't help you develop those senses of skepticism and cynicism, nothing will.
I've always been suspicious of the so-called "green" movement. But, back when I was young the forefathers of that movement had some significant and legitimate things to complain about. Do you remember when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire several times because of all the volatile chemicals being dumped into it? Do you remember when the roadsides of our nation were lined with seemingly endless miles of trash that had been thoughtlessly tossed from passing cars? Do you remember when trails in our national parks and forests were equally strewn with junk people tossed as they hiked along, enjoying the beauty of nature? Did you ever fly into one of the major U.S. cities in the '60s and '70s and see the grey-brown dome of air pollution that blanketed them on most days? Did you ever go onto the streets of New York City in that same era and endure the constant tearing and stinging of your eyes from all the exhaust fumes that concentrated at ground level? Do you remember how fishing was almost entirely halted in Lake Erie because the numbers of diseased fish in that lake were becoming overwhelming? Do you remember when the entire oyster industry in the Chesapeake Bay collapsed because water quality became so bad the oysters couldn't survive? Yes, I remember all that, and more. If you don't, you either weren't paying attention, or you weren't born yet.
The early environmental movement focused on very real problems. Sometimes we were a bit amused by their tactics. When saving old-growth forests became one of their areas of focus, we saw them chain themselves to trees, trying to save them from the saws of lumberjacks. We saw others climb those old trees and sit in them for days and weeks on end. The term "tree-hugger" was born. Eventually, all those in the "green" movement in America were referred to by that umbrella term—tree-hugger. It became something of a ubiquitous slur against those who were seen as enviro-hippies, anti-technology, anti-modern, and sometimes even anti-American. But when you think about it, those early tree-huggers did a whole lot of good for us all. They raised our consciousness. They campaigned for environmental laws and regulations that even the most ardent supporter of modern life have to admire. Today, many of those problems cited in the previous paragraph are well on their way to being totally eradicated, while others still exist, but at a manageable level. We've all benefitted from having a cleaner environment. But, there is a point where environmentalism goes too far and the result becomes a bit nuts. That's what I want you to think about and appreciate. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. When you pass that point, the punishment for all past good deeds begins.
The environmental movement is not unique. If you understand the history of the world, you know it as replete with tales of movements that were born of great ideas, only to morph into something people eventually got sick of. When I think of that concept, two things come to mind—one ancient and one as modern as the environmental movement itself.
The ancient lesson relates to the Crusades. Today, most people think the Crusades were a centuries-long effort by overzealous European Catholics to drive Muslims out of the Holy Land—a nearly insane notion of restoring Jerusalem to its Biblically historic role as God's City. But that's just not the actual case. The Crusades were a reaction to over 200 years of Muslim presence in Europe. It was partly an effort to pay the Muslim invaders back for the maltreatment of Christians under their rule. It was also a way the Popes in Rome could unite the many greater and lesser kings and princes in Europe in a common effort to the church’s advantage. While we tend to think of kings as powerful beings, we need to keep in mind that the Vicar of Christ in Rome was the one who crowned all those who considered themselves to be royals. He was the true ruler of Europe and he wanted the Muslims to be punished for their invasion. It seemed like a good idea at the beginning, but the successes of the Crusades were eventually overcome by the corruption of the Roman Popes and the disintegration of the notion of the Crusades as a viable holy mission. As with many other things, the Crusades became a revenue stream for the Holy Roman Catholic Church and that corrupting fact alone created the conditions for the expulsion of the Europeans from the Holy Lands by the Muslim leader known as Saladin.
The much more modern parallel to the environmental movement that comes to mind is the Women’s Rights Movement. Begun in the mid-60s, almost at the exact same time as the early environmental movement, the early Women’s Rights Movement seemed a long overdue effort. Women banded together much like latter-day Suffragettes and formed an alliance to demand equal rights in society at large. It was truly an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement that worked for decades to focus the nation on the need for racial equality. Women in general weren't treated as equals to men. All you need to do to understand that is to watch old TV programs from the '50s and '60s or watch movies from that era and earlier, or do something really radical—pick up an old novel and read it. By the mid-60s women had grown tired of improving their lot in incremental fashion. They wanted more than to have Spic-n-Span to wash their kitchen floors and new and improved Tide to do the family laundry. They wanted an equal say in all aspects of American society, and they banded together to demand their right to have that say. But, within only a few years, the original Women’s Rights Movement changed. New leaders emerged who changed the organization’s primary focus. Instead of social equality, the new leadership focused on abortion rights. Abortion remained a primary focus for several years, until the leadership changed once again and a new focus was apparent—lesbian rights. The "third-phase" Women’s Rights Movement pushed lesbian rights as a new crusade, which led to an alliance with male-dominated gay rights groups. That alliance spun off into its own focus area—the LBGT movement. In more recent years, we've seen the rise of a fourth-phase of the Women’s Rights Movement, focused in a sort of negative way. Today, it appears the "Me, Too!" movement is that fourth phase. It's often characterized as anti-male, and if you listen to the rhetoric at a Me,Too! rally it's easy to draw that conclusion. You hear many discussions of the topics of the continuing male domination in the professions and workplace in general, man-splaining, rape, sodomy, abortion rights, incest, spousal abuse, etc. What started out in the mid-60s as an effort to gain true equality and equal social power seems to have devolved into a movement that lobbies for federal protections against every social evil that can be conjured up. Instead of a movement that celebrates the power and value of women, this new iteration of the Women’s Rights Movement forcefully projects weakness in all ways possible. It pushes images of women as victims, not victors.
The environmental movement is much like those two examples above. It started out filled with practical problems it could point to and solve. The enviro-activists of old understood it would take political power to achieve their goals in meaningful ways. They wanted and sought national solutions. They didn't have a goal of just cleaning up the Cuyahoga River, but all polluted rivers in the nation. They didn't want to just pick up the litter along major highways, but all over the nation. They understood air in the cities would never be breathable again unless the air everywhere in the nation was required to be breathable. Enviro-activists found political allies and went to work. They found an unlikely ally in President Richard Nixon, who proposed a new federal agency to be in charge of ensuring everything was cleaned up and stayed that way—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). When the EPA started out it was hailed as a great idea. Finally, Americans were going to see their sullied lands cleaned up and made pristine again. At least, that was the hope. The reality...well, that is always a bit different, isn't it?
The early environmentalists were hugely successful. By the 1980s, it was evident that a new environmental consciousness had set roots in America. People were learning how to recycle. Auto and smokestack emissions standards were cutting air pollution in obvious ways. We saw fewer and fewer smog alerts in the middle of our summers. Our waters were slowly becoming cleaner. A new focus came on the scene—acid rain in the northeast. We saw a brief flurry of concern over styrofoam, which was falsely assumed to be responsible for filling up landfills at an unprecedented rate. Then, there was the discovery of the ozone holes over both polar regions, which was attributed to the overuse of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) refrigerants. Whole new areas of science and industry were created as a result of the continuously shifting environmental concerns. New fortunes were created as well. And somewhere in all that flurry of concern and activity between the 1980s, and today a whole lot of common sense got lost.
I want to focus on one more tale to help you understand the point I'm making. It's a tale that exemplifies how truth is lost whenever common sense is abandoned and politics and profit are allowed to pose as truth.
Recently, the California legislature passed a law that poses as the leading edge in environmental responsibility. Its main intent is to allow only electric-powered vehicles to be sold in California by 2035. As common sense people, you probable already think that's a dumb idea—after all we all know electricity is generated mostly by so-called fossil fuels. Based on scientific and mathematical studies of energy production, we have arrived at a grudgingly accepted truth of energy in America. If all things were to remain, the same regarding our consumption of energy in this country the best possible percentage of our energy needs that solar, wind, tidal, and other minor energy producers could fulfill is around 15%. That's with all the appropriate lands of the nation used to help produce energy. Today, nuclear power accounts for a dwindling share of energy production at about 10%. The other 85% is one form or another of fossil fuel, either coal, petroleum, or natural gas. So, what does the California law imply? Allow me to dwell on that a bit later on.
For a long time now, critics of Eco-Insanity have pointed out the fallacies of the ecologist’s arguments regarding some of their pet projects. Anyone who paid any attention at all knew long ago that adding alcohol to gasoline was economically dumb. Refining corn-based ethanol for fuel additives is only feasibly with healthy and continuous government subsidies. Another truth of ethanol is revealed by the REDOX equations that prove its net energy output is significantly less than the energy used to create it. In short—adding ethanol to gasoline doesn’t make common sense in either the economic or the energy production sense. Besides, adding ethanol to gasoline actually shortens the life of an engine by increasing friction within the engine’s combustion cylinders.
The banning of CFC (primarily Freon) use in the country is another great example to understand. CFCs were blamed for the ozone holes above both polar regions. The U.S. and many industrialized nations passed laws that banned CFC production and use, spurring the creation of new, more eco-friendly refrigerants and technologies, while in the third world there was no ban on CFCs at all. If you study the right data, you’ll find that in the dozen or so years after the ban on CFCs in the First World their manufacture continued in the Third World at ever-increasing rates. The truth is that ten years after the CFC bans, there were more of those refrigerants produced in the world than ever—but the ozone holes had shrunk in a remarkably rapid fashion. Only a couple of years after the ban there was hardly a mention of ozone holes at all. Was the entire CFC episode little but a hoax, or was it yet another example of misapplied and misunderstood science? You decide.
Turning my attention back to the subject of California’s new car legislation, I want to explore a huge deficit in thinking in that state. I’ve already pointed out the truth of electric power generation and how the notion of a purely electrical powered car is largely a myth. There are those who would argue that nuclear power produces that pure power, but that is to ignore the upstream processes that result in the production of nuclear fuel cells and downstream processes that deal with fuel cells once they are expended. The truth of energy production lies in the efficiency of the method under study when the processes used to create the fuel and deal with any resulting residues are considered. There is no perfect fuel. But that’s far from the most revealing truth of energy production.
We all need to consider a very basic need of modern technology that affects cars, aircraft, spacecraft, trains, and some consumer items you might not immediately think of—computers, cell phones, smart watches, and virtually any device that uses a computer chip for any function. All of those products require one thing in common: the use of rare earth metals. The 17 known rare earth metals are: cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Tb), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb), and yttrium (Y). They’re called “rare earth” metals, not because they are rare in nature, but because they are rarely found in commercially exploitable concentrations.
Many products in use today could not be made at all if not for discovering the odd properties of rare earth metals and how to make them work to our advantage. Products we’re familiar with that depend on the use of rare earths include: all televisions, telephones, smart watches, video game consoles, lasers, fiber-optics, portable X-ray machines, lightweight motors, lightweight magnets, nuclear batteries, mercury-vapor lamps, fluorescent lamps, PET scanners, and the aforementioned computer chips, which are manufactured from silicon wafers. Those are all great products that provide enormous benefits to society, and indeed the average modern car depends on the use of rare earth metals to function—but at what cost?
To partially answer that question, I direct your attention to the world’s primary manufacturer of rare earth metals—a Chinese company called Baogang Steel & Rare Earth Co. Baogang is located at the edge of Baotoua, a city of 3 million inhabitants located in Inner Mongolia. It’s said that to visit Baotoua is to descend into a modern imagining of Hell itself. Baotoua is in a mining region where there are several operating coal mines. The city is said to be completely covered by coal dust. It also has severe air pollution issues. Much of the coal mined locally is used to feed local electrical power generating plants. The air is dark from the smoke spewed out from the chimneys of those plants, and coal ash rains down upon the city continuously. But, there’s another mining effort going on near Baotoua that’s the real source of the hellish visage visitors perceive. That effort is the thorium mine run by Baogang. The ore containing thorium also contains significant concentrations of rare earth metals, and that’s the main reason Baogang exists and also the main reason Baotoua is something of a boom town. Again, though, I have to pose the question—but at what cost?
To refine any ore to extract, the valuable minerals and metals is a multi-step process that often requires the use of hazardous chemicals. Sometimes the by-products of refining are waste products that are dangerous in the extreme and pose enormous ecological problems. The refining processes used to create rare earth metals require the use of large quantities of nitric and sulfuric acids and are among the worst when it comes to the creation of dangerous by-products. Some of those by-products cannot be made non-toxic—once created, they are a danger forever. The usual question posed at this point is, “What does Baogang do with all those dangerous and forever-toxic by-products?” The answer—they dump them into a huge retention pond and just leave them. The pond in question is hundreds of acres in size. There are dozens of pipes that pour black sludge into it, 24-7-365. The sludge is toxic beyond imagination. Nothing lives in or near that retention pond—it’s a permanent wasteland. This is a reality of rare earth metal production.
You may ask if there are any rare earth refining operations in the United States. The answer is both "yes" and "no." There is a rare earth mine that operates occasionally in California’s Death Valley. Today, it’s shut down. But, if the nation needs it, it can be started up once again. Why don’t we keep it operating instead of depending on the Chinese for our rare earth metals need? Because the EPA regulations that relate to the toxic by-products make it prohibitively expensive to do so. The Chinese don’t have an equivalent to our EPA. The truth is we allow them to destroy large tracts of their county and put millions of their citizens in harm’s way to keep from doing the same thing here. Is there a moral dilemma in doing that? You decide.
Whenever you consider an electric-powered car, consider this. The car is powered by batteries that depend on rare earth metals, is driven by lightweight motors that cannot be made without rare earth metals, and is controlled by multiple microchips that also cannot be made without rare earth metals. The entertainment system within the car cannot be made without rare earth metals. Even the solar-coating on the window glass of the car is not possible without the use of rare earth metals. What part of an electric-powered car is so eco-friendly?
The last thought I want you to have regarding electric-powered cars relates to the batteries. Almost all modern car batteries used in electric cars are lithium-based. Lithium is not a rare-earth metal, but is a toxic and highly reactive metal. Most lithium is the product of refining a mineral known as spodumene or by mining it from mineral salt deposits. The bigger lithium mines are huge open-pit operations, mostly in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Australia. Consider that a Tesla Model S battery has about 25 pounds of lithium. Now consider that those expended batteries are treated as hazardous materials, regulated by federal and state EPA organizations. Again, the question—what part of an electric-powered car is eco-friendly? When you consider the upstream and downstream environmental effects of the components of any modern car, and especially an electric-powered car, you can easily conclude there’s nothing environmentally friendly about them at all. In truth, you might come to the conclusion that the push for electric-powered cars is something of a fad created by well-meaning but largely ignorant do-gooders, or just perhaps by those far more interested in profits than promoting common sense. It’s obviously not being done for the good of Mother Earth.
Very soon, I’ll be considering my own next car purchase. The one I’m driving has almost 260,000 miles on it. I’m thinking very hard about my decision. I’m leaning very much toward an old fashioned example of Detroit iron. I’ll buy something built from the late 1960s to somewhere just short of 1980. I’ll know when I do that, the car won’t be all that energy efficient, but I’ll also understand its real ecological impacts. As an added benefit, it’ll be EMP-proof. I’m planning ahead.
Steve A. Stone© Steve A. Stone
The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.