A retired U.S. marine sergeant growl: âWe built computers. Robots. Unmanned armies. And no one ever asks what will happen when the enemy steals the keys?â Itâs June 19th, 2025. China cuts off Americaâs rare earths supply after United States take down Chinese stock exchange. The world could be on the brink of war. This could be real life but the truth is that it is Call of Duty, Black Ops II. Since it is a shooting video game (released in November 2012), diplomacy is not an option here. But before starting to kill and annihilate any living being at sight, it would be nice to know the background.
How real is this scenario?
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, China is responsible for over 95 percent of worldwide supply of rare earth metals, REMs. In the recent past they have been using its monopoly of the industry to increase the price of REMs. Their share was reduced to 85 percent in 2012 with the reopening of the Molycorp mine in California and other recent mines. So, the narrative of the game doesnât seem completely implausible.
It is possible that the scriptwriter team heard about the issue with REMs and the Chinese monopolyÂ . It must have sounded as good to them that they decided to use it as a starting point for a first-person shooter videogame. Despite China’s current market dominance, Chinese reserves constitute only half of global rare earth deposits and other countries such as Brazil and Australia are beginning to exploit their deposits and become reliable suppliers in an increasingly diversified rare earth mineral marketplace. In the end, it is just a videogame and there are reasons enough to suppose that it wonât happen:
- By that time, in 2025, the United States as well as many other countries will have developed new processes and opened new mines.
- In history it is very uncommon that wars start because of absolute scarcities. So the price of the materials could rise but a war by that reason is very unlikely.
- Absolute scarcities are not likely to happen, but partial supply disruptions are more likely nowadays.
Rare Earths are not only in videogames However, rare earths are not only a source of inspiration for the videogame industry but also for novelists. Rare Earth is a novel written by Paul Mason in 2009 in which ONE nation holds most of worldâs supply of rare earths. And that country, surprise, happens to be China.
Figure 1: Paul Masonâs novel
The story starts with a group of British journalists trying to film a âpropagandaâ movie about the Chinese governmentâs fight against environmental depredation, which would be displayed in a programme sponsored by that government. The journalists are escorted by their Chinese minder and everything is going as planned, until they arrive, by accident, to a town whose residents complain about the terrible environmental conditions. From there, it all starts to spiral out of control.
Real life or science fiction?
This happens not only in Masonâs novel but also in real life. China began mining rare earths on a mass scale in the 80s and has recently begun to improve their lax environmental regulations. They also restricted their rare earths export quota in order to improve its environmental situation, among other reasonsâŚ Processing rare earths is not a clean business. The ores in which you find them contains radioactive materials such as thorium, and during processing these elements are dissolved in acid, which is then disposed into nature.
To produce 1 ton of rare earths, 2000 tons of toxic waste is also generated. Baotou Steel, the largest rare earth industrial base in China and the biggest in Inner Mongolia, produce 10 million tons of wastewater every year. In 2009, around tailing ponds were relocated to resettlement sites on the cityâs outskirts by Baotou Steel. Additionally, they set up a waste managing warehouse controlled by 400 employees.
The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/rare-earth-mining-china-social-environmental-costs, consulted on 19/05/2014.
Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2013/11/05/call-of-duty-and-the-plot-point-about-the-chinese-rare-earths-monopoly/, consulted on 20/05/2014.
Counter Fire, http://www.counterfire.org/index.php/articles/book-reviews/15516-paul-mason-rare-earth, consulted on 18/05/2014.
News China Tungsten, http://news.chinatungsten.com/en/rare-earth-news/17354-ren-296, consulted on 18/05/2014.