“Theeeeeeeeere’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium,…” While this (Tom Lehrer’s) adorable children’s tune lists the chemical elements of the periodic table, the Trade War with China, that Donald J. Trump’s administration has unleashed, makes a particular group of elements sound with greater force than others.
“Theeeeere’s lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium, europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium, holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, and lutetium”. The Chinese are singing it in their ‘adorable’ American-English accent. It is a group of seventeen chemical elements that occur together in the periodic table (see image) and are better (commercially) known as Rare Earth elements. The reason the Tom Lehrer’s song suddenly sounds with a strong Chinese accent is that this country holds 55% of world reserves of Rare Earth elements.
Most of this elements have practical use and are almost indispensable ‘things’ in our daily lives. Mainly due to their use in electronic devices, but also within the renewable energies sector and the energetic efficiencies solutions. From computer memory, smartphones to rechargeable batteries and low energy consumption bulbs, the entire industries and their production chain relies on Chinese Rare Earth. And right now they hold their breath waiting for to see what happens once the “Theeeeere’s lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium, neodymium,….” tune ends. What measures will the Chinese government take in response to the latest sanctions against their flagship company, Huawei?
But this tense pause, I see it as an opportunity to reflect on issues that go beyond the trade and production. And it starts with a simple question: do we need more ‘things’?
Expecting that the finite world of natural resources can infinitely provide material for the economic growth is a dangerous utopia that will eventually lead to the extinction of one very fragile natural resource: human beings.
It is time to STOP.
It’s time to acknowledge that “The reality of the social worlds hangs on the thin thread of conversation” (Peter Berger) and that it is us who shape them. ‘Things’ don’t have meaning. It is us who give meaning to the ‘things’. Unfortunately, the things that surround us “provide a symbolic language in which we communicate continually with each other, not just about raw stuff, but about what really matters to us: family, sense of belonging, community, identity, social status, meaning and purpose in life”. (Tim Jackson).
In the last century we have made more ‘stuff’ than we could possibly ever use. And we keep on fighting wars in order to produce new stuff. But, it is the wars ‘We’ can’t possibly win. No matter the outcome, we as a specie will lose. The only way to win is not to fight it. To acknowledge, once and for all, that the natural resources are not Chinese, American, Russian, German, Vietnamese, Argentinian, Australian, Swedish, Nigerian, or any other nation.
They are NATURAL.
It is why, those voices that shape new conversation must outloud the drumming of the national-economic profit driven short term interests and favor the long term vision of intergenerational justice and equity. The remaining natural resources are not ours to be wasted in the benefit of something as artificial as national GDP. The wellbeing of generations to come does not rely upon how much money we leave them. It relies upon having the same or better conditions as we do to enjoy the benefits of the natural resources that are needed to sustain human life. It is why the conversations that outloud the drums must reshape our vision of wellbeing and prosperity.
This conversations need to acknowledge the finite conditions of natural resources and force decision making to promote policies that focus on development (same amount of the better ‘stuff’) and not growth (more of the same stuff) (Herman Daly). We must seek development within the limits of the equation of maximum amounts that we can consume in a year, while still being able to produce and consume the same amount next year (based on Hicks concept of income). The solutions are within our reach. Renewable energies, circular economy, steady state, human development, de-growth, zero waste, etc…. should not be seen as sectarian approaches and limited to their (potential) ideological aspects. They are tools whose use is determined by the aim we are set to achieve.
It is why this suspense paus, while waiting for the Chinese to answer, should be used to make our voices heard and engage in new conversations about “What can prosperity look like in future?” (Tim Jackson)