Editorial: Hewers of wood, drawers of water, renewers of energy

Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune, published almost 60 years ago, has achieved the status of a culture cornerstone because of how successfully it tapped into fundamental features of the human condition. More specifically, it applied the tropes of a classic space opera to the thorny relationship between the economy and the environment, a challenge that still vexes us.

Herbert imagined a star-spanning civilization, some 10,000 years from now, when technology had banished all manner of material wants, yet remained tied to a strategic, non-renewable resource, a psychoactive spice that was essential to interstellar travel. And this resource was exclusively and inconveniently located on a planet with especially unwelcoming conditions, including a local population with their own axe to grind.

In contrast to so many visionaries, therefore, Herbert saw fit to remind us that even in an unthinkably distant future, the most advanced societies will continue to have physical needs. Decades after he crafted this message, we still need reminding, as we set targets for cyclical economies and zero emissions, concepts that entice us to contemplate some utopian end-point where we can all live comfortably without paying a steep luxury tax.

This summer witnessed the 50th anniversary of another reminder that arrived on the heels of Dune, the controversial Limits to Growth report. The brainchild of an international industrial consortium called the Club of Rome, this project was an unprecedented examination of the environmental foundations of the rapidly expanding global economy of the 1970s. Using the best computer modelling of the day, the resulting report pointed to potential problems as key commodities such as copper or petroleum would come into short supply, possibly leading to social and economic upheaval, or even war.

Optimism meets realism

That message made little sense to optimists of the day, who were still celebrating the Apollo moon landings and confident that technological innovation would resolve any difficulties described in the report. And indeed, the global economy continued to grow by leaps and bounds and never look back, even as intermittent shortages forced industries to adopt new methods and set ever higher standards of efficiency. Even in the poorest parts of the world, most human beings now enjoy a better quality of material life than their parents and grandparents, which is enough for many to dismiss the Limits to Growth as a pessimistic, wrong-headed venture.

Nevertheless, even as policy-makers map out an ambitious “post-petroleum” future, they must confront a new set of potential limits to that prospect. Advocates of renewable energy rightly point to the fact that wind turbines or solar panels generate electricity without directly using fossil fuels. But such infrastructure remains highly dependent on specialized materials, such as rare earth metals. Like the spice of Herbert’s story, these resources may be inconveniently located and become a source of regional conflict, such as the competition to control cobalt mines in Congo.

Nor are these resources easily managed even when they are readily available. Rare earth production was chased out of North America in the late 20th century by regulatory regimes designed to reduce the environmental impact of major mining operations. In contrast, China regulators have elected to tolerate the damage caused by the extraction and processing of these elements, which has in turn allowed that country to essentially corner the market on essential inputs of renewable energy.

Similarly, the growing market for electric vehicles promises to eliminate the pollution and climate-altering emissions from internal combustion engine exhausts. Yet these same vehicles incur a new demand for lithium, the key element in their batteries. Scaling up our use of electric vehicles means scaling up the production and use of lithium.

Realism meets rhetoric

While advocates lobby to wean our economy from supply chains built around petroleum, therefore, they must grapple with the evolution of other, increasingly important supply chains, which come with their own set of challenges. In late 2021, Neo Lithium, an Ontario-incorporated lithium mining operating in Argentina, was acquired by a Chinese firm, Zijn Mining Group. As recently as five years ago, such an exchange would have attracted little public interest. But the profile of lithium as the foundation for a battery-driven future made this diversion of ownership more contentious.

Government opposition complaints brought the matter to the attention of the Standing Committee on Industry and Technology, which in March submitted a report with a telling title: “The Neo Lithium Acquisition: Canada’s National Security Review Process in Action”. This was followed in June with another report from the same committee with another telling title: “Positioning Canada as a Leader in the Supply and Processing of Critical Minerals”.

Rhetoric such as “critical minerals” and “national security review” reveals just how far we have come since the Limits to Growth, whose own rhetoric was previous dismissed as being too alarmist. Lithium, rare earths, and a litany of other specialized commodities — complete with their respective geopolitical, economic, and environmental implications — are now joining the list of items necessary to provide a high tech lifestyle to an ever-expanding cohort of the global population.

Nor is that a bad thing, if we want everyone to live better than their parents and grandparents. But these circumstances should be acknowledged as a challenge no less daunting than providing a petroleum-based economy has been for more than a century. And by the way, petroleum is not going anywhere soon, as we are only now starting to figure out how it can be removed from our most crucial transportation networks.

Above all, it will be important to recognize that we are not swapping out an archaic, unsatisfactory petroleum supply chain for one that will be cleaner, more efficient, and less troubled. We are actually making the whole system more complex, and potentially even more troubled. The only right way to deal with that will be to appreciate what is coming, rather than what we hope will come.

Spoiler alert: all of this could still be happening 10,000 years from now, if we’re lucky.