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Pathfinders: Capitalism in its Element

Remember how boring chemistry lessons were at school? To most kids there is something deeply unsexy about learning the properties of the elements, especially if, as is not uncommon in school, the deeper logic of it all has somehow passed them by. This is a shame, because elements are very curious things, with quite unique ‘personalities’. Some are snooty and aloof, never deigning to notice anyone else. Some are content, rarely getting worked up over anything, little interested in being a team player or going out on dates. Some are looking for that special someone while others can’t stand being alone and will run off with just about anybody. Some of these will fizz and pop in your sink. Some will take out your sink. One or two could take out your kitchen.

Still, you could easily get through the rest of your life successfully without knowing much about the Periodic Table, even after watching Breaking Bad. You probably know that iron is the only metal that rusts, that copper is the best conductor (actually silver is better), that lead and mercury are bad for you, that helium makes your voice squeak, that aluminium is used for saucepans (and might be associated with Alzheimer's Disease). You probably don’t know that arsenic was once known as ‘inheritance powder’ because it was untraceable and therefore the poison of choice for ruthless heirs in a hurry to collect. Or that chemistry students like playing ‘disappearing coffee spoon’ jokes on each other using spoons made of gallium, which melts instantly in your hand or in your coffee. It’s not toxic, but just for laughs it turns your skin brown (The Periodic Table, Paul Parsons & Gail Dixon, Quercus, 2013).

Elements are able to change into other elements, often by natural processes, a fact which fascinated alchemists. When you combine some elements, you don’t just get the sum of their properties added together, you often get completely new and different properties not present in the originals. This oddity lay behind the prehistoric technological revolution of the Bronze Age. Copper and tin are both soft metals. Neither is any good for making edged weapons. But someone must have discovered, by accident presumably, that melting them together creates an alloy – bronze – which is much harder than either, and makes a good sword. It becomes harder still if you throw in some ‘inheritance powder’.

The dull subject of chemistry is of course behind most of the technological revolutions of the past century, as more properties and combinations have been discovered. It’s also behind a lot of the politics of capitalism. Think gold. Think carbon. Think  cobalt, a ‘conflict element’ used in gas turbines and jet engines, and mined in the ‘Democratic’ Republic of Congo. Think phosphorus, used globally in fertilisers, which aside from causing run-off resulting in dead fish and huge and revolting algal blooms, is virtually monopolised by Morocco, which invaded Western Sahara for more of the stuff, causing a war (BBC Online, 8 November 2013).

Not so long ago we were just using the basic, well-known elements, though even these came with interesting properties that are still being developed. Aluminium oxide produces sapphire crystals, industrially grown to the size of buckets and now made into bullet-proof glass for VIP limousines. And that’s nothing compared to the cornucopia of elements that goes into a smart phone. As Andy Ridgway eloquently puts it, ‘like Michelin-starred chefs, we are combining this material menu in increasingly exotic ways’ (New Scientist, 14 February).

The problem is getting reliable supplies in a world of competing economic blocs hell-bent on screwing each other over. In 2011 there was a global panic when China, producer of around 90 percent of rare-earth metals, decided to cut exports by forty percent. Prices, predictably, went through the roof, and doom-merchants everywhere bewailed the imminent collapse of civilisation.

What actually happened was that the crisis went away by itself – solved by capitalism’s adaptive way of working. Rare-earth elements are only rare in relation to abundant elements, but not in absolute terms. China held a monopoly only because they were the cheapest producers and other countries had shut down their mining operations. Once China cut the supply, new mines, or old ones recommissioned, magically opened up in places like California and Greenland as investors saw a profit to be made. In fact over 200 mining companies got in on the act with the result that rare-earth elements are not only not rare anymore, the price is in danger of collapsing just like it did with oil, and the mining companies are now struggling to extract a decent return.

For socialists this is interesting because it demonstrates something we are always pointing out, that capitalism is not likely to collapse of its own accord, because it has a knack of working around problems. It’s not just supply that adapts. Manufacturers needing rare elements and facing high prices for them soon figured out solutions that designed out those particular elements.

A peculiar aspect of the recycling industry, pointed out by Ridgway, is that as recycling increases, these same rare elements may become rare again. Many elements are found together in the same ores, meaning that when demand for the cost-bearing element declines through recycling, the other ‘freebie’ elements don’t get extracted. Worse, they often can’t be recycled because they are used in such tiny amounts that they are not economic to reclaim. Worse still, they are often blended together in alloys like a baked cake from which the ingredients cannot feasibly be re-extracted.

What is more worrying is that rare elements tend to involve more pollution both at the extraction end and the disposal end than other elements. In the West, most electronic devices are not recycled but left to gather dust as new models come out, or they’re dumped. Even when electronic waste is collected as per regulation, that’s not the end of the story. As New Scientist’s editorial points out, ‘Interpol estimates that one in three shipping containers leaving Europe is packed with e-waste destined for illegal dumping in the developing world. This results in major health hazards to people doing the dirty work of recycling’ (14 February).

It’s easy for anti-capitalists, and socialists too, to get into the habit of seeing the worst in every single thing that goes wrong, forgetting that capitalism is quite good at getting itself out of a lot of scrapes. But at what cost to humans, in the long run? Four million people died in Congo’s civil war, which was largely about control of valuable rare elements destined for use in our must-have gadgets. In wider terms, capitalism’s exploitation of the Periodic Table involves a level of human exploitation that leaves nearly all of us impoverished and enslaved, while making just a handful of ‘Nobles’ the only winners. That’s a problem that capitalism, by its very nature, has no solution for. Whatever short-term supply crises it might adapt its way out of, it can’t transform its own nature and magically, in the way elements are able to do, change itself into a different system. For that you need not natural processes but large-scale human intervention.