The United States defense sector has been almost exclusively relying on the importation of rare earth elements from China, which are critical for the U.S. Armed Forces and their smart weaponry. The U.S. Department of Defense, in their 2021 100 Day Supply Chain Review, has recommended and begun contracting to change this reality, by promoting domestic extraction and production of these critical minerals. However, this claim may not be as benevolent as it seems and has the capacity to create environmental and human health problems within the United States. This podcast aims to deploy an environmental geopolitics framework of analysis, created by Dr. Shannon O’Lear, that seeks answers to three questions: how various human systems and agency are portrayed in this claim, how the environment defined in this claim, and what is the spatial focus of this claim. This analysis will also deep dive into important considerations that are left unsaid by the Department of Defense, in relation to these three questions.
[pickaxe sound effect]
Promethium, Europium, Samarium, Neodymium, and Dysprosium, do these names bring back any ancient memories from your high school chemistry class? If not, buckle up, because these elements run the world, and could run your health as well. I’m Alexi Sommerville and this episode is called Darkness in the Periodic Table.
The claim about the environment that I am examining for this podcast is the recommendation from the Department of Defense 2021 Supply Chain Review, which is published on the U.S. White House website, “now is the time for decisive, comprehensive action by the Biden-Harris administration … to support sustainable production and conservation of strategic and critical materials”.
In simpler words, the Department of Defense is strongly suggesting that the government should start contracting mining companies to mine more rare earth elements domestically, as the U.S. nearly exclusively imports these elements from abroad.
During these next few minutes that we’re sharing, I’ll be examining this claim by deploying an environmental
geopolitics framework of analysis, created by Dr. Shannon O’Lear in her Environmental Geopolitics book, that seeks to find answers to three overarching questions: how is “the environment” defined within the context of this claim; how are various human systems, agency, and influence portrayed in this claim; and finally, what is the geospatial focus of this claim?
Before diving into the three analytical questions, it’s important to identify how exactly the claim is appealing to questions of environmental risk or security. The Department of Defense is clearly relying on the latter, making a direct argument about environmental security in their discourse. The supply chain document depicts a reality in which the United States does not have a stable source of rare earth elements and instead relies on subprime exporters such as China.
The securitization aspect comes into play as the DoD directly states, with an air of extreme urgency, that the current rare earth element situation is in fact a national security threat and that the government must act quickly to secure a domestic source. The Department of Defense identifies a future-based threat where China’s cornering of the rare earth element market could potentially result in the hamstringing of the U.S. defense sector and its military operations.
Let’s continue with the first question, how exactly do various iterations of human agency, visible or hidden, manifest themselves within the Department of Defense’s claim regarding the bolstering of rare earth element production within the borders of the United States?
Given that these minerals are buried deep within the crust of the Earth, and thus fully reside within and are a product of the natural world, this investigation of how certain human influences alter or maintain this mineral narrative is particularly important.
Within the agency’s rare earth narrative, there is clearly a sense of urgency and fear of a continuing status quo where the United States does not have a stable source of critical minerals to fuel its defense sector and smart weaponry; the key term in that claim is stable, and in the case of rare earth elements, a stable supply chain is defined as one that is housed entirely within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States government.
You may already be guessing it, but a particularly flagrant insertion of human influence is in the very motivation for seeking to bolster domestic production. The DoD is not making this an absolute and mathematical question of if there are enough critical minerals within the Earth’s crust, but it is instead raising the question of whether there is enough of a rare earth mineral supply that is not controlled by a geopolitical rival, in this case China. I’ll directly quote the supply chain document, “China [is] estimated to control 55 percent of the global rare earths mining capacity in 2020 and 85 percent of rare earths refining” (U.S. Department of Defense, 2021).
This conflation between a stable mineral supply chain and a domestic mineral supply is most certainly a result of historic and ongoing geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China.
The escalatory and tense nature of the U.S.-Sino relationship is hidden to none and occupies a vast portion of the U.S. foreign policy plate; quoting the Journal of Chinese Political Science, “China is … seen as a strategic competitor that presents a vital threat to U.S. national security”. China and the U.S. are at odds over a mind-boggling number of geopolitical and economic issues, from competing maritime claims within the South China Sea, to questions of Taiwanese sovereignty and the One-China policy, to general anger over a rising power challenging U.S. hegemony, their rivalry knows no bounds and of course does not fail to seep into this rare earth element narrative.
While interstate competition certainly plays the most outsized role in the Department of Defense’s claim, there are others that deserve an honorable mention. Mainly, the supply chain report from which the defense sector stakes its claim is chock full of economic analysis and commodity-based thinking that serves as a guiding methodology for understanding the critical mineral situationin the way that the DoD wants you to.
The DoD reduces the critical element narrative down to simple assessments of accessible supply and demand, where U.S. Armed Forces mineral demand is high and stable mineral supply is low; but pay close attention to the carefully deployed nuance between stable supply and absolute supply, the U.S. does not consider Chinese supply to be stable.
So, if demand is high and supply is low, it just makes sense to take steps to increase that supply, right? Well, I’m not so sure.
By framing the situation in such mathematical terms, the narrative is rendered significantly more abstract and economically normalized; in most other economic scenarios, this makes sense. For example, during the baby formula shortage earlier this year, demand was high, and the supply was hamstrung and drastically decreased. What occurred as a result?
The Biden administration stepped in and personally took steps to investigate baby formula suppliers and try to correct the demand/supply mismatch.
So, by invoking this kind of rational economic logic, the validity of increasing domestic production of critical minerals appears to obvious. However, this kind of economic logic appeal runs the risk of allowing the DoD to bypass very important discussions of the health and life effects that mineral mining causes.
The third iteration of human agency is one that goes unsaid by the DoD, and that is one of human health.
There seems to be a sort of insular focus by the Department of Defense on the end product of critical minerals, and not much public discussion of the impact on nearby communities that opening such an extractive mine could have. The extractive process by which these critical elements are derived is rife with health and ecosystem concerns. There are two different methods of extracting rare earths from the crust, and as evidenced by Harvard International Review, both of those utilize a leaching pond method that can easily cause groundwater contamination and waterway contamination.
If that isn’t problematic enough, for every ton of rare earth element produced, roughly one ton of radioactive thorium waste is produced as a byproduct. The DoD has already contracted an extractive company named Lynas Rare Earth to begin mining and production in Sierra Blanca, Texas as soon as 2025. Unfortunately, this company does not have the best track record, having been accused of not having a waste management plan during its previous operations in Malaysia (this comes from Florence Looi, an investigative journalist in Malaysia).
The defense agency is not discussing these issues and is risking the long-term health of the 832 residents in Sierra Blanca; this shows an alarming de-prioritization of its citizens safety and broader disregard for their political and environmental agency.
Alright, let’s continue with the next question, how exactly the Department of Defense is identifying the role and meaning of the environment within the context of jumpstarting rare earth element production within the continental United States?
Broadly speaking, the driving and underlying purpose of the DoD is to bolster the health and future of the U.S. defense sector, be it for defense of the United States or its allies, or for military interventions globally. This claim about the supply chain security of rare earth elements does not escape this M.O..
The environment is defined as an extension of the U.S. defense sector, almost an auxiliary resource for military’s purposes, where the environment is a source of critical minerals and more broadly an extension of militarism; the DoD’s 2021 100 Day Supply Chain Review directly states the following, “strategic and critical minerals ensure that the U.S. Armed Forces and those of our allies can conduct and sustain operations, while expanding the output and development of military items to maintain technical dominance over adversaries”.
The Department of Defense is thinking about the environment in terms of what it can do or provide for the U.S. defense sector, or in more ethic-based terminology, what the instrumental value of the environment is (a concept popularized during the European enlightenment); in the case of this claim, the environment is reduced to how it can provide a stable and domestic source of critical elements. It doesn’t really seem as if the environment is considered to have any intrinsic worth outside of its ability to help bolster U.S. war-making.
Upon deeper inspection of the claim, however, I’ve found that there is considerably more to be discovered regarding how the defense agency discursively defines the environment. Not only is the Department of Defense directly defining the environment as a resource reserve for the armed forces, but it is also being enmeshed into the international arena as a tool for interstate competition between the U.S. and China.
By effect, the relationship between humanity and the natural world becomes co-opted and weaponized as a flashpoint and microcosm of broader U.S.-Sino tension and escalation. Ultimately, however, this militaristic relationship with the environment is not a new one.
According to Julie Klinger, a political geographer at Boston University, rare earth element access or lack thereof has had an outsized influence on global geopolitics since the early 20th century, where access to these elements became securitized as a result of their newly discovered role in nuclear proliferation. Klinger also points out an amusing irony where a primary reason that China has dominant control of the rare earth supply chain now is because the imperial and interventionist interests of the United States, the British empire, and the Japanese empire of the early 20th century aggressively encouraged mining within China.
The fourth way that the DoD defines the environment is all about selective omission and inclusion. As we investigated when answering the first question about the role of human agency, rare earth extraction and production has the ability to cause a lot damage to the health of humans living near the mine or manufacturing site, by way of radioactive waste creation and groundwater contamination, and those consequences can also have detrimental effects on natural ecosystems more broadly which is a high price to pay for a marginal benefit in geopolitical jockeying.
However, the DoD’s claim does not address this issue. In fact, the agency has released a statement attempting to delegitimize the criticisms of certain anti-mining groups in Malaysia by tying them to the Chinese Communist Party, this is from the agency’s website titled “Reports of Disinformation Campaign against Rare Earth Processing Facilities”.
Finally, we will examine the third analysis question, which attempts to identify the various spatial focuses within the claim.
The primary spatial location that undergirds the DoD’s narrative is one of geopolitical flashpoints. Reason being, the Department of Defense is primarily concerned with being able to continue its military operations and its supply of advanced weaponry that require critical minerals (the 100 Day Supply Chain Review defines this as general military readiness), the exact spatial location is a complicated question because it changes based on current events.
Currently, the DoD’s spatial focus is likely on the Taiwan Strait due to military commitments it made to Taiwan, as well as the Ukrainian region, where the U.S. provides significant amounts of advanced weaponry to aid the war effort. Bottom line, the DoD is mainly concerned with these foreign escalatory locations and the rare earths that end up there.
Unfortunately, this spatial focus on conflict zones and the end products of rare earths allows the defense agency to turn a blind eye to an earlier part of these critical mineral’s life cycle, which is the extracting and processing stage.
As I’ve previously outlined, the DoD has contracted the Lynas corporation to begin extraction processes as soon as 2025 in Sierra Blanca, Texas; this is an incredibly significant, but unstated, spatial relationship in the claim. This prioritization of spatial locations that correlate with foreign policy goals as opposed to Sierra Blanca will allow the DoD to spatially and discursively separate themselves from the negative health impacts of radioactive waste and contaminated ecosystems, reaping foreign policy benefits at the cost of its citizens’ health; or, as the Harvard International Review puts it, “the ethical problem requires deep consideration of who benefits from REE mining … [and] who experiences its negative effects”.
As we wrap up this episode, I’d like to take a step back and try to point out some broader takeaways from this investigation.
I think it’s really important to realize how interconnected these questions of security, spatiality, environment, and human agency are; for example, the boxing out of human agency is in part made possible and legitimized by the securitization of rare earth elements and the invocation of a Chinese threat. The seemingly all-important nature of national security risks serves to overshadow questions of local community health and render it possible for the Department of Defense to avoid this discursive accountability.
Similarly, the defense agency’s tendency to prioritize foreign spatial locations where rare earth-based products would be eventually used allows it to side-step its accountability to the population of Sierra Blanca. This spatial distance almost encourages disproportionate evaluations the costs and benefits of critical mineral mining. Identifying these kinds of relationships between seemingly unrelated concepts is critical in being able to not just see inequity, but to understand how those inequities are allowed to continue and function.
Going forward, I believe that we should keep a watchful eye on how the Lynas corporation actually conducts its extraction and processing in 2025, and closely monitor their radioactive waste management strategies for the health and well-being of the Sierra Blanca residents and their natural ecosystems.
You’ve been listening to Darkness in the Periodic Table with Alexi Sommerville. Thank you for sharing your time with me.
Music and sound effects from the following site, Freesound: “Pickaxe Mining Clank OWI” by WolfOWI is in the Public Domain, CC0.
Klinger, Julie Michelle. 2015. “A Historical Geography of Rare Earth Elements: From Discovery to The Atomic Age.” The Extractive Industries and Society 2 (3): 572-580. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2015.05.006.
Looi, Florence. 2018. “Controversial Rare Earths Plant in Fight for Survival in Malaysia.” Aljazeera, November 26, 2018. https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2018/11/26/controversial-rare-earths-plant-in-fight-for-survival-in-malaysia.
Nayar, Jaya. 2021. “Not So Green Technology: The Complicated Legacy of Rare Earth Mining.” Harvard International Review, August 12, 2021. https://hir.harvard.edu/not-so-green-technology-the-complicated-legacy-of-rare-earth-mining/.
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
U.S. Department of Defense. 2021. “Building Resilient Supply Chains, Revitalizing American Manufacturing and Fostering Broad-Based Growth.” Washington, DC: White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/100-day-supply-chain-review-report.pdf
U.S. Department of Defense. 2022. “Reports of Disinformation Campaign against Rare Earth Processing Facilities.” Washington, DC: Department of Defense. https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3077280/reports-of-disinformation-campaign-against-rare-earth-processing-facilities/.
Zhang, Biao. “The Perils of Hubris? A Tragic Reading of ‘Thucydides Trap’ and China-US Relations.” Chinese Journal of Political Science 24 (1): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11366-019-09608-z