What if the green revolution stopped?
January 8, 2010 10:36 AM   Subscribe

China produces 95% of the rare earth minerals needed for modern high-tech devices. "What would happen if the production of laptops, cellphones, and MP3 players suddenly halted? Oh, and no more hybrid electric vehicles and MRI machines?" Because China may soon stop exporting these minerals.

Neodymium is also used in high-strength magnets which are an essential part of wind turbines' generators.
posted by GuyZero (115 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
-> Unobtainium Avatar joke here <-
posted by Babblesort at 10:44 AM on January 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


Why export raw wood when you can export processed lumber at a higher margin? Looks like we'll be seeing more consumer electronics, medical devices, and green technology being sold whole out of China.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:45 AM on January 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


Um. War?
posted by chimaera at 10:47 AM on January 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Canada's got your back.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:47 AM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, we've gone from oil to rare earths. Unfortunately, we'll find it a bit harder to foment discord for trade purposes there - it's not the Middle East.

The next two decades should prove interesting.
posted by FormlessOne at 10:47 AM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Funny. A colleague and I were just discussing this infographic -- including apparent limits to some not-very rare, but important, metals.

Methinks we're going to have to get much better at mining... landfills.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:49 AM on January 8, 2010 [13 favorites]


China... is trying to ensure that all raw REE materials are processed within its borders.

Not sure why this is considered particularly threatening to the world order. China wants to build the things that use those rare earths, not hoard them for their own use. If they put too high a premium on that building, they effectively fund the development of alternatives to those rare earths. This isn't a gun to the head of the global economy, it's a predictable luck-of-the-draw specialization.
posted by fatbird at 10:50 AM on January 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


What would happen if the production of laptops, cellphones, and MP3 players suddenly halted? Oh, and no more hybrid electric vehicles and MRI machines

Shitty "journalism" at its best. There are other materials readily available that can be used to make magnets, capacitors, and other electronic components - they'll just be less efficient or larger. China could do this and the world would not end.
posted by MillMan at 10:51 AM on January 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


Excellent infographic Durn. Too bad it omits lanthanum, neodymium, et al.
posted by GuyZero at 10:52 AM on January 8, 2010


This isn't a gun to the head of the global economy, it's a predictable luck-of-the-draw specialization.

* Stops polishing firearm . . . hits F5*
posted by Think_Long at 10:52 AM on January 8, 2010


Um. War?

Good luck with that. China can field a standing army larger than our entire population, has most of what used to be our manufacturing base, and, oddly enough, has a stranglehold on the raw materials needed to fight a tech-centric war.

Overt action would become disastrous. A subtle approach, however, may well be beyond our means - we've exhausted our global political capital with nearly a decade of constant military action and saber-rattling, screwing some of our allies in the process. We're stuck recovering from the Bush administration's folly for at least the next five years or so.

When the fox gnaws, smile.
posted by FormlessOne at 10:54 AM on January 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


Phosphorous, “is the biggest problem you’ve never heard of.”
Almost all of the world’s mined phosphate rock lies in five countries—China, Morocco, the United States, Jordan, and South Africa. At projected rates of consumption, there might be enough to last a century, or perhaps only for two more decades.
posted by stbalbach at 10:58 AM on January 8, 2010


The graphic Durn linked to is a good way to think about resource limits. Hitting limits on agricultural components - phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium for fertilizer, oil for pesticides / herbicides along with much of the nitrogen production and of course water - are my chief concern and likely to cause starvation and political instability in the near future.
posted by MillMan at 10:58 AM on January 8, 2010


If the next FPP is also about China, I'm going to start stockpiling canned food.
posted by brundlefly at 10:59 AM on January 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


Does this mean we get to start asteroid mining now? Cool!
posted by 1adam12 at 11:00 AM on January 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


On the plus side, my refrigerator magnets are now more valuable.
posted by justkevin at 11:00 AM on January 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


If the next FPP is also about China, I'm going to start stockpiling canned food.

Sorry about that. I got my copy of Spectrum in the mail yesterday and I finally had a second decent link on the topic for a post. And then, bam, someone else beats me to some other China headline. Thankfully I'm not made of fragile porcelain.
posted by GuyZero at 11:02 AM on January 8, 2010


So my habit of tearing apart old hard drives and saving hundreds of neodymium magnets isn't as silly as I thought.

It's mine, you understand? Mine, mine! All mine! Go, go, go! Mine, do you hear me? Out, out, out! Mine, mine, mine! Go away! There's only enough for me! I'm rich. I'm a happy miser!
posted by Splunge at 11:05 AM on January 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


When the fox gnaws, smile.

LET CHINA REIGN
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:08 AM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


"What would happen if the production of laptops, cellphones, and MP3 players suddenly halted? Oh, and no more hybrid electric vehicles and MRI machines?"

We'd be Cuba, and clever machinists and tinkerers would make new parts and canabalize other old machines.
posted by fixedgear at 11:10 AM on January 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Forgive me if I misunderstood, but the first article suggested that China only produces such a large percentage of these minerals because its lax regulations and low costs allows mine operators to undercut their competitors. If they restrict the amount they export, the price goes up, and mining in the rest of the world becomes economical and restarts. I'm hardly an arch-capitalist, but the markets have uses, and this seems to be one of them. If the governments of other countries can subsidize/bridge non-Chinese mines restarting now, we'll be cool by the time restrictions come into effect. Am I missing something that makes this actually more scary than it sounds? Consumer goods might become a little more expensive, but that's hardly a huge downside.
posted by Sova at 11:10 AM on January 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


with regards to laptops, cellphones and mp3 players: perhaps people would stop being so fucking gotta-have-the-next-new-electronic gadget orientated.

It's not a high horse I trot out often, but good christ, I have the same, 40 Gb non Ipod mp3 player I did in 2003, and it works a treat (same damned battery too, although that is going to be replaced sometime in the next few months).

Cell phones are particularly nasty, on average Americans replace their cell phone every year and a half, in Europe ever 15 months. Why? Why the hell do we do this? It is just a shade insane.
posted by edgeways at 11:10 AM on January 8, 2010 [6 favorites]


sorta previously-er :P

cheers!
posted by kliuless at 11:11 AM on January 8, 2010


I actually read the wikipedia article on these a while ago. Here's an important point:
The term "rare earth" arises from the rare earth minerals from which they were first isolated, which were uncommon oxide-type minerals found in Gadolinite extracted from one mine in the village of Ytterby, Sweden. However, with the exception of the highly-unstable promethium, rare earth elements are found in relatively high concentrations in the earth's crust, with cerium being the 25th most abundant element in the earth's crust at 68 parts per million.
They're not really rare they're just called that for historical reasons. They can be mined anywhere. The fact that China currently produces 95% doesn't mean they are the only place that can mine them.

Here is the section on production and an excerpt:
All of the world's heavy rare earths (such as dysprosium) are sourced from Chinese rare earth sources such as the polymetallic Bayan Obo deposit.[10] Illegal rare earth mines are common in rural China and are often known to release toxic wastes into the general water supply.[11] A rare earth element mine in California is set to reopen by 2012. A site at Thor Lake in the Northwest Territories is also under development. Locations in Vietnam have also been considered.[9]

Chinese export quotas have also resulted in a dramatic shift in the world's rare earth knowledge base. For example, the division of General Motors which deals with miniaturized magnet research shut down its US office and moved all of its staff to China in 2006.[12]

On Sept. 1, 2009, China announced plans to reduce its quota to 35,000 tons per year in 2010-2015, supposedly to conserve scarce resources and protect the environment.[13] Other sources of rare earth has been searched to avoid shortages and China's monopoly, mainly in South Africa, Brazil and the United States.[14]
And here's a bit from the "Geologic distribtion" section for some reason:
A few sites are under development outside of China, the most significant of which are the Nolans Project in Central Australia, the remote Hoidas Lake project in northern Canada and the Mt. Weld project in Australia.[15] The Hoidas Lake project has the potential to supply about 10% of the $1 billion of REE consumption that occurs in North America every year.[16]
posted by delmoi at 11:15 AM on January 8, 2010 [8 favorites]


George Monbiot says it best. Even if we solved global warming, there would be a whole series of crisis one after the next: peak oil, peak phosphorous, rare metals, peak water, soil depletion, etc.. The problem is bigger. "Ultimately it's about recognizing that economic growth, as measured by ever-increasing ecological throughput and consumption of natural resources, cannot go on indefinitely on a finite planet."
posted by stbalbach at 11:17 AM on January 8, 2010 [30 favorites]


China can field a standing army larger than our entire population, has most of what used to be our manufacturing base, and, oddly enough, has a stranglehold on the raw materials needed to fight a tech-centric war.

China's Hollow Military
Two million of China's soldiers serve in the ground forces, where their primary responsibilities are to ensure domestic order and protect borders—not to project power. Then, too, the Pentagon estimates that only about 20 percent of those ground forces are even equipped to move about within China. A still smaller number possess the trucks, repair facilities, construction and engineering units, and other mobile assets needed to project power abroad.
posted by electroboy at 11:18 AM on January 8, 2010 [4 favorites]


If anybody needs promethium, I've got 10kg for sale here.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:19 AM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Excuse me, 5kg.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:19 AM on January 8, 2010


Shit.
posted by Wolfdog at 11:19 AM on January 8, 2010 [22 favorites]


It's great if the political issues gain us funding for research into cleaner mining processes. Otoh, it's not so great if the mining corporations are trying to scare us into lax environmental standards.
posted by jeffburdges at 11:24 AM on January 8, 2010


Hitting limits on agricultural components - ... nitrogen ...

Oh for pete's sake. Nitrogen is the most abundant element in the atmosphere. The most common synthetic nitrogen fixing process involves no rare elements, and the catalysts it does use are not consumed by the process but rather can be used time and again.

Literally every other problem in the entire world is more pressing than the fear that we would hit any sort of "limit" on nitrogen.
posted by rkent at 11:25 AM on January 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


Hitting limits on agricultural components - phosphorous, nitrogen and potassium for fertilizer, oil for pesticides / herbicides along with much of the nitrogen production and of course water - are my chief concern and likely to cause starvation and political instability in the near future.

Cue sustainable agriculture parade. The level of production may drop (significantly?) but I doubt there'd be scarcity to the point of political instability. Agriculture subsidies might change dramatically, and farming might become a growth market again.

Also, I'm looking forward to entrepreneurs who improve landfill mining, which could be used not only to extract valuable metals but can also provide fertilizer (apparently this was done in Tel Aviv, where fertilizer was limited to citrus orchards due to the high percentage of broken glass).
posted by filthy light thief at 11:25 AM on January 8, 2010


I've been wondering about this since hybrids became so popular...how long till li-on stuff becomes hard to find.
posted by toekneebullard at 11:26 AM on January 8, 2010


Rare earths are not really rare.

What is rare is finding places that are willing to drill toxic holes into the ground for pennies an hour.
posted by aramaic at 11:30 AM on January 8, 2010 [14 favorites]


What would happen if the production of laptops, cellphones, and MP3 players suddenly halted?

You say this like it's a bad thing.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:30 AM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not sure why this is considered particularly threatening to the world order.

fatbird, the reason is that China is expected to start consuming a significantly larger percentage of its own production as time goes on. Most of China still lives on subsistence farms, but they're trying to urbanize a few hundred million people in the next decade or three. As their GDP per capita--and per capita consumption--goes up, they'll start using more and more of what they make, leaving less and less exports.

I agree with the comments upthread that suggest that this may not be as destabilizing as it sounds, but it's because there are other potential sources of these metals, not because China is going to continue to export its products in the same way that it has been for the past two or three decades.
posted by valkyryn at 11:30 AM on January 8, 2010


The problem with nitrogen.
posted by Bangaioh at 11:31 AM on January 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Thankfully I'm not made of fragile porcelain.

Do you mean .. china?
posted by filthy light thief at 11:31 AM on January 8, 2010


Hybrid cars typically use NiMH batteries which require a lot of lanthanum. I don't think there are any production models using Lithium-ion chemistry yet.
posted by GuyZero at 11:32 AM on January 8, 2010


Why export raw wood when you can export processed lumber at a higher margin?

That's what a lot of people in BC ask, yet we allow our logging companies to ship raw logs overseas, where they're processed into things that are shipped back to us. Talk about a losing plan.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:32 AM on January 8, 2010




Why export raw wood when you can export processed lumber at a higher margin?

Never understimate the greed and desire for certainty modern big-business has.

If you export raw materials, you cut your expenses and exposure to pesky things like supporting another labor force, and their benefits and complaints, etc.

An example: For years, our timber industry sold raw timber from the west coast to the Japanese, who collected the timber, processed it right offshore on floating lumbermill ships, and sold it right back to us as finished lumber.

American management found it quite acceptable to give up the value-added profit, to avoid the hassle, uncertainty and expense of paying American workers. Multiply this kind of philosophy by many industries and you get the fucked-up, dysfunctional, lopsided economy we've evolved into.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:38 AM on January 8, 2010 [7 favorites]


So let me get this straight: The rare earth elements used to make electronics are largely sourced in China. China is considering limiting exports of these elements. This means that in the future all the electronics I buy will probably end up being made in China.

Forgive me for asking, but... isn't that the case already?
posted by caution live frogs at 11:44 AM on January 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Chinese are not as committed to Communism as you may be lead to believe. They stop the flow of rare earths and their economy is going to take a hit. They sour our economy and their economy is going to take a hit.

They might play hardball from time to time in order to bolster their own manufacturing, but let's remember that they are the ones who are going to be left holding the vaults full of worthless paper if they screw this up.

I'm not sure if you've also heard the malicious and oh-so-totally false rumors that there might occasionally be some skimming done in Chinese businesses. I'm sure that none of the materials would ever ever "fall off a truck" (and onto a shipping container headed to Long Beach) for the right price to the right people.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:44 AM on January 8, 2010


Wolfdog -- the halflife of promethium is typically 17 years (unless you have some 141Pm, in which case it is only a few nanoseconds). For your sake, I hope you have a more stable isotope.

Regarding peak Lithium, it is a serious concern. Another problem is that nearly all of it comes from Bolivia and they are setting themselves up to be the Al-Saud family of the modern world.
posted by autopilot at 11:45 AM on January 8, 2010


"Does this mean we get to start asteroid mining now? Cool!"

I wouldn't get too excited. I think the potential for asteroid mining has been greatly oversold. I know the plural of anecdote isn't data, but I've been running some fairly sophisticated simulations of this lately, and it's just not working out. Everything started well enough, but then the miners brought some kind of artifact aboard, and suddenly the whole crew went mad and started killing each other. Then the bodies mutated into vicious predators made of reanimated dead flesh. Now they're running through the ducts, smashing through windows, scribbling some weird graffiti all over the bulkheads... let me tell you, productivity's in the tank.

Honestly, it seems that now I spend more time running around the ship destroying them, collecting ammo, and trying to get the engines restarted or the asteroid defense system back on line or some other damn thing than I do actually mining.

I can't imagine the balance sheet's going to look very good at the end of all this.
posted by Naberius at 11:46 AM on January 8, 2010 [23 favorites]


What would happen if the production of laptops, cellphones, and MP3 players suddenly halted?

I might actually get some practical fucking work done?
posted by nanojath at 11:46 AM on January 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


If you make something, somebody has to buy your something. These somebodies are known as "customers." It's a good idea to keep them happy or else they'll go somewhere else for the something, learn how to make their own something or figure out how to do without something altogether.

Thus, China will make things, the U.S. will buy them, and everyone will be happy. This is called "life."

Now, everyone chill the fuck out.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:12 PM on January 8, 2010


Except a) the U.S. has less and less wealth all the time with to buy them, largely because all the jobs are in China now. And b) if they keep paying the Chinese to make all the stuff, eventually the Chinese will have enough money to buy the stuff, and they won't need us at all.
posted by Naberius at 12:23 PM on January 8, 2010


with which. damn it. We really need some kind of edit button.
posted by Naberius at 12:24 PM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


How thoroughly has the Earth been surveyed with respect to these various minerals in question?
posted by Anything at 12:28 PM on January 8, 2010


Does this mean we get to start asteroid mining now? Cool!
posted by 1adam12 at 2:00 PM on January 8 [2 favorites -] Favorite added! [!]


God, I hope so. All the best sci-fi takes place in the asteroid belt. Therefore I know that asteroid mining would be an exciting and fantastical adventure, full of intrigue, mystery, and glory. Just like the gold rush.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 12:34 PM on January 8, 2010


I might actually get some practical fucking work done?
posted by nanojath


Hey now easy there cowboy. Let's not get all carried away. Event without laptops, cellphones, and MP3 players I could sustain a near perfect state of procrastination and laziness. There is no do, there is only not trying.
posted by Babblesort at 12:35 PM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


From TFA:
That’s not to say that China has all the deposits. In fact, most of the 17 elements in this group aren’t rare at all. They got their name because the ores in which they’re found are notoriously difficult to extract from Earth’s crust. It’s expensive to mine them in the United States, Europe, and other places with relatively strict environmental laws. China, with fewer such scruples, has been able to flood the market. In 1992, the price of ore containing these elements plummeted, and Molycorp Minerals, in Greenwood, Colo., the owner of the largest U.S. repository of rare earth metals, stopped digging.
So if China stops exporting, then mining in the U.S. and Europe will probably resume, and the price of manufactured goods will increase slightly. Either that, or the whole manufacturing process will move into China, provided we keep the same trade policies and China keeps the same lax environmental and labor regulations.

One would hope that the U.S. and Europe will grow some sort of backbone and implement a trade policy that penalizes, or at least doesn't help, China for its lax environmental laws. That would keep some domestic high-tech industry rather than let it all go offshore, and would just mean the minerals have to come from outside China (where they cost more, because most sane countries don't allow mining of the sort the Chinese do) if they don't want to export them.

It's starting to seem like U.S. voters are realizing that "cheap consumer goods at any cost" isn't a sustainable economic strategy, but maybe that's just wishful thinking on my part.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:39 PM on January 8, 2010


eventually the Chinese will have enough money to buy the stuff, and they won't need us at all.

Yes, because the ultimate goal of global economic domination is perfect isolationism.

HAMBURGER

Money just doesn't work that way, dude.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:41 PM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cell phones are particularly nasty, on average Americans replace their cell phone every year and a half, in Europe ever 15 months. Why? Why the hell do we do this? It is just a shade insane.

I'm with you re not throwing away perfectly functional electronics (hell, I'm such a cheapskate that I take unused/semi-used paper napkins home with me when I eat out) but I've consistently replaced my free-with-contract cell phone every two years, because every cell phone I've owned has fallen apart in too many ways to count a good six months before the end of the contract period. Planned obsolescence as a business strategy is probably as much to blame for dwindling resources as rabid over-consumption is.
posted by invitapriore at 12:49 PM on January 8, 2010


Autopilot-Thirty-six radioisotopes of promethium have been characterized, with the most stable being 145Pm with a half-life of 17.7 years, 146Pm with a half-life of 5.53 years, and 147Pm with a half-life of 2.6234 years. All of the remaining radioactive isotopes have half-lives that are less than 364 days, and the majority of these have half lives that are less than 27 seconds. This element also has 11 meta states with the most stable being 148Pmm (T½ 41.29 days), 152Pmm2 (T½ 13.8 minutes) and 152Pmm (T½ 7.52 minutes).

He had a less stable isotope, it seems.
posted by Splunge at 12:49 PM on January 8, 2010


Who cares? Let China have the rare metals? Who needs that experimental crap, when we've got the evilest, meanest, hardest, HEAVY METALS Screaming GAY!!!
posted by Skygazer at 12:50 PM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


What is rare is finding places that are willing to drill toxic holes into the ground for pennies an hour.

But that is the thing, isn't it? When minerals get rare they get expensive, when they get expensive there is more incentive to mine them, and when that happens supplies (eventually) increase.

It's like the peak oil/shale oil thing. It isn't that we're running out, it's that we're running out at the current system for producing them. That system is the least expensive, but some part (not all) of that is because it is the most commonly-used, and so economies of scale and intensive research have contributed to bring the price down. Change the source and prices go up, but life goes on, maybe as life in which people don't throw out their old technojunk quite so often.

There are certainly things wrong with capitalism as a system, but finding sources for minerals is not one of them. (The fact that those holes in the ground are toxic is one of those problems.)
posted by JHarris at 1:01 PM on January 8, 2010


Um. War?

What formless one said. The US can't even pacify a bunch of stoneage tribesmen who've been given firearms in Afghanistan, and a country that's been a run-down dump by third-world standards since the mid 90s, with combined populations less than a big US state.

Good luck invading China. Especially when they stop funding the government debt the US uses to pay its soldiers, mercenaries, and millitary-industrial complex.
posted by rodgerd at 1:02 PM on January 8, 2010


rodgerd, I don't think your comparison holds up well. The U.S. is lousy at fighting guerrilla wars, but after WWII we built up the best conventional war machine the world has ever scene. A conventional war with China would be ugly, and I don't know enough about the issue to predict a winner, but I don't think it would be a landslide. We're a lot better prepared for conventional warfare than this new agey stuff that we suck at.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:11 PM on January 8, 2010


eventually the Chinese will have enough money to buy the stuff, and they won't need us at all.

Yes, because the ultimate goal of global economic domination is perfect isolationism.


I'm not saying they'll close the borders and never sell anything to anyone else ever again. (Although if anyone were to do that, it would be the Chinese. In the 15th century, they were poised to become the great seafaring colonial power that Europe would eventually become, until they literally just said, fuck it, and let their fleet - generations ahead of European ships technologically - just rot away.)

But if you look at the very next post down here, you'll see that they're now the largest car market in the world. As in more and more of those raw materials they're sucking up from all over the world are getting consumed over there once they've been turned into stuff instead of getting shipped over here.

That will begin to shape the goods we have access to. For one thing, there's a reason why GM got rid of Saab, Pontiac, and Saturn, but kept Buick up and running. That reason is because, thanks to a weird historical quirk that I think I discovered here actually, but can't track down right now, Chinese like Buicks. They actually make higher quality Buicks for the Chinese market than they make for the U.S. market.

There'll always be rich people here, sure. There's rich people in Uganda who I'm sure live wonderful lives of cutting edge consumer fantasticness. But the U.S. in general is sliding fast, and it will sooner or later become impossible to not notice that in your daily life.
posted by Naberius at 1:22 PM on January 8, 2010


Another problem is that nearly all of it comes from Bolivia and they are setting themselves up to be the Al-Saud family of the modern world.

Huh?

Boliva? The country with a resoundingly popular democratically elected President?

Oh, it's because they're quasi-socialist, right? I get it now.
posted by knapah at 1:45 PM on January 8, 2010


Boliva? The country with a resoundingly popular democratically elected President?

The Saud comparison isn't a good one, I suspect it's because a lot of people are calling Bolivia "the Saudi Arabia of green energy" or somesuch nonsense. I'd say it's pretty likely that they'll nationalize the lithium mines though.
posted by electroboy at 1:58 PM on January 8, 2010


Perhaps the Al-Saud comparison isn't 100% accurate. It came from a NYT article that I read on the subject: Bolivia has lithium, and the president intends to make world pay for it. Morales has already nationalized the oil and natural gas industries.
posted by autopilot at 2:15 PM on January 8, 2010


Good luck invading China. Especially when they stop funding the government debt the US uses to pay its soldiers, mercenaries, and millitary-industrial complex.

I certainly don't advocate rolling over, though. Patience is key here - increasingly, we're going to have to move more slowly, and more deliberately, to manage the situation.

One of my pet examples - we gave up handwriting for typing. We gave up typing for texting. We didn't have time for penmanship, or even language - "you are" became "ur". Sentences became fragments, which then became acronyms (NTTAWWT). Deliberacy died when backspacing, spellchecking, and cutting & pasting became common. The primary hurdle encountered when going "all the way back" to handwriting is that the fast, frenetic thought associated with texting must also match pace. However, that slowing of pace encourages the time for reflection and rumination. I used to teach other writers that, if you can't figure out how a piece works, they should write it out by hand, then read it out loud - forced reflection, forced rumination, forced review.

I find a parallel here. Our political culture has reflected the fast, frenetic pace of life without reflection or rumination, where the measure of response time has become more important than the measure of response quality. The old "we never have time to do it right, but we always have time to do it over" saw doesn't play well in politics, though, and in the last three decades or so, we've busily stomped all over precedent, procedure, process for promise, power, and progress.

My rant aside, all I'm saying is that it may be time to accept a lean period while we rebuild our domestic capabilities. Yes, applying pressure to China is a good idea, but it would behoove us, I think, to realize that things are going to cost more, that industrial and manufacturing jobs are just as important, if not more so, than desk and marketing jobs, and that we need to rebuild what we so blithely handed over in the name of quick money and easy living.

Monbiot has a point, one worth heeding.
posted by FormlessOne at 2:19 PM on January 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'd say it's pretty likely that they'll nationalize the lithium mines though.

Morales has already nationalized the oil and natural gas industries.


And in my opinion that's a seriously good idea for a poor country in a continent that has had along history of being screwed by multinational capital to the severe detriment of its people.

Anyway, enough with the derail from me.
posted by knapah at 2:26 PM on January 8, 2010


We should dig a big tunnel through the earth's crust all the way over to China and mine the stuff right out from under their feet and truck it over here. Then when we got everything we need we'll collapse the tunnel and they'll never know where it all went.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:29 PM on January 8, 2010


What do you have against neo-colonialists taking all the natural resources from poor countries? You say that as if it is a bad thing.
posted by autopilot at 2:29 PM on January 8, 2010


electroboy, the last line says it best:

Why it would wish to do so, even with a strong military, remains an open question.

The Brookings Institute is still thinking about conventional theater, about projection of power, about nuclear deterrence. The article basically says that China's military is domestically oriented. The article repeatedly cites deficiences associated with power projection - supply lines, technology, mobile assets - that, while accurate, have little to do with this situation.

We'd have to invade them. That's where things fall down. You're talking about a country culturally willing to build a friggin' wall 5,500 miles long, about 2,800 years ago, to ensure that they were left alone. They're not as interested in dominating the world as they are in ensuring that the world doesn't dominate them.
posted by FormlessOne at 2:31 PM on January 8, 2010


What do you have against neo-colonialists taking all the natural resources from poor countries? You say that as if it is a bad thing.

You know, when you put it like that...... Where's my bowler hat? And someone find me a cigar!
posted by knapah at 2:47 PM on January 8, 2010


Oh yeah, I have no particular problem with nationalizing resources like that, as long as it actually benefits the people, rather than just flowing into the government coffers.
posted by electroboy at 2:47 PM on January 8, 2010


They're not as interested in dominating the world.

The existing Chinese power structures, commercial, governmental, etc. seem to be quite interested in exploiting their existing physical resources and technology resources to the extent that is physically possible.

I imagine if this results in world domination they have no problems with this. I agree with you that they're not interested in projecting military force (it's hard to buy from or sell stuff to a dead man), just in keeping their mil. stuff working as deterrent.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:52 PM on January 8, 2010


Cell phones are particularly nasty, on average Americans replace their cell phone every year and a half, in Europe ever 15 months. Why? Why the hell do we do this? It is just a shade insane.

They added an S at the end. Duh!
posted by MikeMc at 2:59 PM on January 8, 2010


An example: For years, our timber industry sold raw timber from the west coast to the Japanese, who collected the timber, processed it right offshore on floating lumbermill ships, and sold it right back to us as finished lumber.
Citation? I believe you, but google was thin on it.
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:00 PM on January 8, 2010


No, that article says that China military is nominally large and domestically oriented, but is severely underequipped and doesn't have the means to transport its troops domestically, let alone outside of China. I'm not saying we could occupy China and I find it extremely unlikely that we'd invade China to exploit resources that we have in the US, but China isn't the dominant military force in the world. They're a huge country that has the potential for a large standing army, but they don't invest in their military, so it's relatively weak despite its size.

You're talking about a country culturally willing to build a friggin' wall 5,500 miles long, about 2,800 years ago

Plenty of empires have great works in the past.
posted by electroboy at 3:06 PM on January 8, 2010


The existing Chinese power structures, commercial, governmental, etc. seem to be quite interested in exploiting their existing physical resources and technology resources to the extent that is physically possible.

I imagine if this results in world domination they have no problems with this. I agree with you that they're not interested in projecting military force (it's hard to buy from or sell stuff to a dead man), just in keeping their mil. stuff working as deterrent.


Absolutely in agreement with you there. In my opinion, China's not interested in using military force to dominate the world, not when economic force can instead be brought to bear more easily and with less risk.
posted by FormlessOne at 3:06 PM on January 8, 2010


GuyZero, very few utility-scale wind turbines use permanent magnet generators.
posted by scruss at 3:06 PM on January 8, 2010


The U.S. is lousy at fighting guerrilla wars, but after WWII we built up the best conventional war machine the world has ever scene. A conventional war with China would be ugly

Yes, I'm sure China would agree to fight a conventional war on US terms. I'm sure China would have no way of preventing US troops landing, no way of downing US carrier groups, no nuclear retaliation options, and the Chinese have no experience of fighting guerilla wars *cough, long March, cough* and emerging victorious.
posted by rodgerd at 3:16 PM on January 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


GuyZero, very few utility-scale wind turbines use permanent magnet generators.

Really? This guy claims otherwise: "One of the most efficient and reliable of wind generators is based on the use of a permanent magnet type generator, which is most effectively made using a neodymium-iron-boron permanent magnet. Each megawatt of electricity produced by such a wind turbine type requires between 0.7 and 1 ton of neodymium-iron-boron"

but I'll be the first to admit that it's hardly a definitive reference.

This GE 2.5 MW Wind Turbine uses a permanent magnet generator as specified the the PDF brochure linked from that page.

What's the scale for a "utility-class" generator? More than 2.5 MW?

I really have no clue about the details of wind generators in practice, but certainly some wind turbines use permanent magnets.
posted by GuyZero at 3:23 PM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


China can field a standing army larger than our entire population, has most of what used to be our manufacturing base, and, oddly enough, has a stranglehold on the raw materials needed to fight a tech-centric war.
So what? Despite the neo-cons wet dreams we're not going to fight them.
A conventional war with China would be ugly, and I don't know enough about the issue to predict a winner, but I don't think it would be a landslide.
How can you have a conventional war between two nuclear powers? It just won't happen. The U.S could nuke China into glass in an hour and they could take out all our major cities. And then the earth would be plunged into nuclear winter. Sounds like fun. There's nothing the U.S. and china could fight over that would be worth the destruction for either side.
posted by delmoi at 4:54 PM on January 8, 2010


Thank you , GuyZero. That link to "On the Rare Earth Crisis of 2009" by Jack Lifton was much more useful than the ieee article.

That independent article has some wonky over-unity numbers:
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/concern-as-china-clamps-down-on-rare-earth-exports-1855387.html
China has gone from exporting 75 per cent of the raw ore it produces to shipping just 25 per cent ... Global demand has tripled from 40,000 tonnes to 120,000 tonnes over the past 10 years, during which time China has steadily cut annual exports from 48,500 tonnes to 31,310 tonnes.

Umm, how much rare earth raw ore did China ship last year, and how much did it ship 10 years ago, and how much much will it ship next year? Does anyone have the real numbers for that and for global demand?
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:57 PM on January 8, 2010


"China can field a standing army larger than our entire population, has most of what used to be our manufacturing base, and, oddly enough, has a stranglehold on the raw materials needed to fight a tech-centric war."

So what? Despite the neo-cons wet dreams we're not going to fight them.

They'll generate and believe xenophobic rhetoric about this and about manufacturing: "American Self Sufficiency". This help motivate their 'base'. This won't result in soldiers firing guns, but it will be spun to have happened "on Obama's watch".

And the economic position will be encourage extracting and burning carbon in North America.

-------------------------------

If we hadn't killed North American manufacturing, and let the MBAs go pure financial shuffling funny money around this might not have happened.
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:08 PM on January 8, 2010


This GE 2.5 MW Wind Turbine uses a permanent magnet generator.

Once a generator is producing current, it can use this to generate a magnetic field and be self-sufficient. But if you start by spinning a cold generator with no internal magnetic field, the wires are moving through a space that has no magnetic field. Which means there is no induced force on an electron in those wires, and zero voltage out.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorentz_force_law
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:23 PM on January 8, 2010


I may have only got a B in "Rotating Devices" (with Rrrrrrrrrraymond Rrrrrrramshaw) but yes, generators, yes. Some have magnets, some have field coils. All wind turbines are connected to the power grid by definition (except for ones in private use) so you could go either way. My understanding is that they use magnets but I am sincere and not begin disingenuous when I say I really know nothing about the industry in depth and if I'm wrong I would love to learn more about the breakdown of technologies used in the field.
posted by GuyZero at 5:33 PM on January 8, 2010


If we hadn't killed North American manufacturing, and let the MBAs go pure financial shuffling funny money around this might not have happened.

US manufacturing output by year, in real dollars, UN data.

You were saying?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:58 PM on January 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


(I should note that that's the entire UN-data time series, not my own editing)
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:59 PM on January 8, 2010


US manufacturing output by year, in real dollars, UN data.

I was referring to the highly publicized auto plant closings, "Roger & Me" type stuff, and this:
http://www.metafilter.com/87702/Two-words-business-school#2874738

I think I may have a weak argument. But it seems like for a while all the high schools torched their shop classes, and kids grew up to be computer geeks instead of lathe operators.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:55 PM on January 8, 2010


Invest in Greenland, that's my advice. Big mining bucks to be had there.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:59 PM on January 8, 2010


I think I may have a weak argument. But it seems like for a while all the high schools torched their shop classes, and kids grew up to be computer geeks instead of lathe operators.

The reason outsourcing and 'Roger and Me type stuff' is happening is not due to there being enough lathe operators and machinists in the US, it's because those same roles can be filled for a fraction of the cost elsewhere.
posted by Think_Long at 8:05 PM on January 8, 2010


Wow, this thread has been quite illuminating to me regarding how much (little) many Americans know about China and CCP motivations.

As already pointed out by others, there will be no war between the US and China, at least not in any sense that the word 'war' could be applied to. My god, what a preposterous notion.

However, if - somehow, magically - there was a war, make no mistake, the US would crush China. A quick breakdown of just _some_ of the reasons why:

1. US military budget
2. US military technology (still the world leading, by a large margin)
3. US military weapons
3. US military skills and deployability
4. US military alliances - NATO, ANZUS, just to name two.
5. The domestic political situations in China.
6. The location of the United States itself.
7. Taiwan.
8. India.
9. Japan.

As I said, a war would never, ever, ever happen between to the two. Christ we had the cold war without direct confrontation for 50-odd years and the stakes and ignorance were much higher, and the Russians hadn't bloody meshed their currency and economy into the west's like, at all. It's directly opposite to China's interests, and the US's for that matter. Your country would economically collapse in a way that makes the GFC look like dropping some change, followed shortly thereafter by the rest of the world's - including China's.

But if - somehow - it did happen. China would be toast. Oh yes, they'd make some damage going down, but it would only be a matter of when, not if.

ROU_Xenophobe probably has something to add to this discussion, if he so chooses.
posted by smoke at 8:22 PM on January 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, ha ha. ROU_Xenophobe made an appearance whilst I typed that up. Good show, sir.
posted by smoke at 8:23 PM on January 8, 2010


Rare earth minerals? Feh. Look out for peak helium.
posted by mendel at 9:03 PM on January 8, 2010


"I just want to celebrate, yeah yeah!"
quonsar told me to post this.
posted by frecklefaerie at 9:03 PM on January 8, 2010


smoke: However, if - somehow, magically - there was a war, make no mistake, the US would crush China.

It's a mistake to look at the relative power of two adversaries and assume that the stronger one will crush the weaker one. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq all demonstrate that the interests of the two sides also matter.

As I said, a war would never, ever, ever happen between the two.

I think you've forgotten about the Korean War. Which, I have to say, is a pretty big omission.

I agree that China has a very strong interest in the status quo, and so is unlikely to end up going to war with the US. That said, there's a significant risk that the Taiwan situation might lead to a future conflict between the US and China. On the US right, the China Lobby (i.e. backing Taiwan against China, pushing for the overthrow of China's government) appears to be alive and well. See this debate between Chas Freeman (Nixon's translator) and Arthur Waldron (of the AEI).
posted by russilwvong at 9:09 PM on January 8, 2010


I think it's about time that a few of us start to consider getting off of this mudball. There are too many suckers that want to fight here.

Damn, can't you just get along long enough for us to build the fucking starship?
posted by Splunge at 9:24 PM on January 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


fatbird has it:

Not sure why this is considered particularly threatening to the world order. China wants to build the things that use those rare earths, not hoard them for their own use. If they put too high a premium on that building, they effectively fund the development of alternatives to those rare earths. This isn't a gun to the head of the global economy, it's a predictable luck-of-the-draw specialization.

For those who want to dream of war between China and the US, or China and The West, just consider the Three Gorges Dam. A very small quantity of strategically placed high explosives would do incredible damage to China's population, infrastructure and economy. In a modern world war, no one wins.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:24 PM on January 8, 2010


I'd be interested for you to expand on what you see as the domestic political situations in China that would disadvantage the country in the event of conflict with the US, smoke - my view is that there are internal divisions that do threaten the present regime, but the one thing sure to see them set aside in favour of unity would be aggression from an external power, or indeed quite likely aggression on China's own part. I'm not even sure the ineffectiveness of the venal bureaucracy or fraying at the margins in national minority border areas would be enough to hamper a 'protracted war' effort.
posted by Abiezer at 9:26 PM on January 8, 2010


The US wins over China only when using imaginary numbers. Nuked to glass is nuked to glass. If there's a winner, it's only by a count of survivors because neither country would be anything remotely the same afterward: I don't think anyone outside of the conflict zone could look at Bosnia and Herzegovina and say one or the other was a winner.

Besides, wars only happen to little populations.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:32 PM on January 8, 2010


Russilwvong, I have not forgotten about the Korean War, but I don't really see much relevance in examining a war that happen sixty-odd years ago, when both countries - and their respective economies and militaries - where totally different, in virtually every single metric you care to name, and before the globally integrated finance markets we now have.

Abiezer, got it in one. I'm not talking about what those border issues (specifically Uighur, and the Indian/China border shenanigans) could do by themselves (i.e. not much more than they're doing now), but what they would do with millions of dollars of US weaponry and cash pouring into them. I'm thinking , for example - what Hezbollah did with US weapons and cash in Afghanistan in the eighties.

It would be a real issue for China because on the India side, it's a good entry point into the country for one set of forces (and don't think for a moment that Cambodia and Vietnam in particular wouldn't love to get involved from the south), whilst Taiwan, Japan and South Korea in the east would be the other side of a giant pincer.

In Xinjiang, it would be a huge problem because China pulls most of its resources - specifically oil, gas, coal (mainly in shale form) and iron ore - out of there, and, in the advent of a war that disrupts resource imports, anything that affected supply lines from the west would have a massive roll-on effect. Coal would be okay for a bit because they've stockpiled so much, but the absence of the others - particularly iron, which they can't get from Burma - would be felt pretty quickly.
posted by smoke at 10:09 PM on January 8, 2010


That makes sense - I think they're on it themselves mind, diversification with the recent development of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (Russia obviously the key there; wonder what way they'd go?) and the links through Pakistan - that big port facility that China invested so much in. Is Pakistan firmly in the US sphere to the point of collaborating in such a war? Will it stay that way? Not pretending it's something I have much of a clue about I hasten to add.
As a bit of further very idle and somewhat grim speculation, I also think that as a society China would stand up to the massive disruption this unlikely conflict would entail far better than the US - since people are getting less from the national infrastructure, it's absence would be that wee bit less keenly felt than even less calamitous shocks to America - i.e. even if any Chinese retaliation were of a far more limited scope, the impact would exponentially greater.
posted by Abiezer at 10:31 PM on January 8, 2010


Agreed on all counts Abiezer. Re: Pakistan I would say, that's pretty dependent on:

a) The nature of India's involvement in our hypothetical war, to wit how much Pakistan could get away with vis Kashmir etc, war on two fronts yada yada?

b) Whoever is running the bloody show there at that point in time. Place is about as stable as the San Andreas fault.

Russia, man, I have no idea. That's not an area I know much about; my gut is that they'd stick with the enemy they know (US+west) than one they don't, and happens to be next door to them. And happens to have triple the population.

Mind you, this is all ignoring the big nuclear elephant in the room - doubly so if Russia and Pakistan are involved - which is one of the reasons this could never happen in the first place.
posted by smoke at 10:49 PM on January 8, 2010


There will be no war between the US and China, mostly because, as others have said before, there has never been a 'hot' shooting war between two countries with nuclear weapons.

While China is, yes, trying to modernize its military (and part of that has been to actually make it smaller), much of China's military equipment is generally in disrepair and is one or two generations behind current American military equipment. Recognizing this, China's modernizations focuses on one or two 'areas of excellence' where they think that they can match the Americans; for example, 'cyber warfare'.

My concern with a lot of 'naturally we're going to have to go to war with China' is that it does not seem to be a natural state for a country to always be preparing for war. This has bankrupted countries in the past, leaving them to go to war with obsolete equipment (Italy's military spending peaked in the 30's; when WWII started they went to war with the finest biplanes in the world. Unfortunately everybody else had moved to monoplanes.)

It seemed to me that after the fall of the Soviet Union, some people were casting about for a reason for the USA to continue to be on a war footing, and China was the thing that came closest. Then this pesky 'war on terror' thing came up which didn't require lots of highly advanced jet fighters.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:56 AM on January 9, 2010


I think I may have a weak argument. But it seems like for a while all the high schools torched their shop classes, and kids grew up to be computer geeks instead of lathe operators.

What you're thinking of is that US manufacturing employment has been dropping like a rock for decades, and shows little sign of stopping. You can put the two together by realizing that US (North American) manufacturing is massively automated.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:43 AM on January 9, 2010


The US wins over China only when using imaginary numbers. Nuked to glass is nuked to glass. If there's a winner, it's only by a count of survivors because neither country would be anything remotely the same afterward

China doesn't have a MAD deterrent force.

If you believe FAS numbers, less than 40 ICBMs and no operational SSBMs. Not enough for a credible deterrent to be likely to survive a US (or Russian) first strike, but enough to invite that first strike if hostilities seem imminent. Always struck me as an odd strategy, but they do have enough IRBMs and bombs to glaze Japan, Taiwan, India and other things the US probably doesn't want broken.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:12 AM on January 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


Could China take out important national infrastructure, like power production or water supply? Could they make a major American city uninhabitable? Could they hurt the food basket?

"Nuked to glass" is a hyperbolic expression. If in reality China could put the major hurt on America, I think it's fair to say that there'd be no "win" in the war. When it comes to losing the niceties of Western life that we're all used to, like safe water and heated homes and easy food, the Chinese are going to bear that a lot better than most American citizens.

If it's true that China couldn't touch the USA within the US's own borders, then yes, the US can plausibly "win."
posted by five fresh fish at 11:30 AM on January 9, 2010


Map of PLA Ballistic Missile Ranges

It is generally held that the PRC lacks the ability to launch an amphibious invasion of the ROC (Taiwan), which is an island off its shore. Keep that in mind when you are watching the remake of Red Dawn, where somehow they invade the USA.
posted by Comrade_robot at 1:12 PM on January 9, 2010


"Nuked to glass" is a hyperbolic expression.

Then perhaps you ought not to have used it.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:43 PM on January 9, 2010


GuyZero, the GE-2.5xl is a very new machine. The very great majority of utility-scale wind turbines use doubly-fed induction generators. Utility scale for me is anything that goes into a grid, so it's pretty much anything over 150kW or so.

Small turbines have traditionally used permanent magnets, as they must be able to self-excite and start generation whenever possible. Grid-connected machines use induction generators for safety: there's no way they can spin up if the grid is down, so line workers are guaranted that an isolated, de-energized line will stay that way.
posted by scruss at 3:00 PM on January 9, 2010


"What would happen if the production of laptops, cellphones, and MP3 players suddenly halted? Oh, and no more hybrid electric vehicles and MRI machines?"


They're making most of that shit anyways. Why would they want to stop when they have the rare earths market cornered?
posted by c13 at 7:18 PM on January 9, 2010


c13 is right. Costs will go up, because the Chinese will be able to demand higher prices. This will mean the upgrade treadmill slows down; people keep their cellphone and laptops longer. MS will sell fewer copies of Office, and so on. Sony won't roll out a PS4 as early, etc.

All this are pretty obvious knock-on effects. I wonder if consumer electronics will get more durable, though, since people will be keeping them longer?
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:46 PM on January 9, 2010


(Italy's military spending peaked in the 30's; when WWII started they went to war with the finest biplanes in the world.

That's not really accurate, you know. They had modern designs pumping out by the start of the war.

Now the British, on the other hand - they were tethered to biplanes in areas they shouldn't have been, thanks to the Air Force focus on stratgic bombers (which they hand't built, either).
posted by rodgerd at 9:12 PM on January 9, 2010



That's not really accurate, you know. They had modern designs pumping out by the start of the war.


Well, I guess I should clarify -- the Italians had some very modern designs, but most of their air force was comprised of obsolete aircraft, because they'd spent all their money when those were new.
posted by Comrade_robot at 5:49 AM on January 10, 2010


Having concentrated on producing outmoded models for Ethiopia, Spain, and the export market, Italian industry was in no position to effect a massive shift from the production of biplanes of metal, wood, and fabric to low-wing monoplanes of primarily metal construction, particularly given the higher cost of monoplanes. As late as 1939, Italian industry thus produced 708 biplanes to 989 monoplanes, with the latter valued six times higher than the former. Moreover, the examiners in 1939 were aware that Italian industry had taken up to 21 months to deliver an aircraft after the first orders, while the best that industry had managed was delivery in ten months from first order -- and in September 1939 the Italians did not have that much time. They thus elected to order inferior models and continue limited production of better models in the hope that all models could be improved with the more powerflu DB.601, which was already on license to Alfa Romeo in 1939, but not fitted to tbe MC.200

James J. Sadkovich, The Development of the Italian Air Force Prior to World War II, Military Affairs, Vol. 51, No. 3, Fiftieth Year--1937-1987 (Jul., 1987), pp. 128-136
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:15 AM on January 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


(As all the major wind turbine manufacturers have come to me in the last week with new or updated models using permanent magnet generators, I'd like to retract my statement and replace it with something more helpful, like OH SHIT!!!11!!.)
posted by scruss at 11:45 AM on January 13, 2010


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