It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The fall of the Berlin Wall was to bring about one, integrated world market where goods and services freely traversed borders without the interference of meddling ideologues—where the agricultural, mineral and man-made treasures of one country would be available to anyone, anywhere who was willing to pay for them: oil, gold, diamonds, soybeans, palm oil, wheat, computers, software and myriad other products of the earth and of human endeavor.
It’s not working out that way. Not every country completely bought into this idea of an almost frictionless international capitalist order overseen benignly by global organizations created by treaties adhered to by all the world’s nations.
Among the most obvious is China. China has started to treat rare earth elements—which are critical to practically everything electronic these days—the way the Atreides family, a ruling family in the Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune, treats “melange,” a substance that extends life and increases mental ability and only comes from one planet, one that the Atreides happen to control.
The Chinese dominate the rare earth elements market because most of what is mined worldwide comes from China. The country produces 80 percent of global output. But it also controls 85 percent of the processing capacity. The second figure means that some rare earths mined outside of China are sent to China for processing.
The Chinese, of late, have started to reorganize the industry, presumably to have better control of it. And events in the last year have shown that small disruptions and Chinese desires to make use of more and more of its rare earths in products it makes itself can have big effects on rare earth prices. When the Chinese have used their leverage in the past, prices skyrocketed.
Rare earths aren’t the only commodities for which resource nationalism has come back in vogue. Some 90 percent of palm oil is produced by just two countries, Malaysia and Indonesia. A kerfuffle between the Malaysian and Indian governments regarding India’s invasion of Kashmir led to a ban on palm oil imports from Malaysia. Resource nationalism can work both ways.
But, it turned out that the Indian import ban was followed by increasing imports of palm oil into China which was trying to make up for the loss of soybean imports (another oil crop) from the United States due to trade frictions. The price of palm oil sailed upward.
Indonesia controls a substantial part of the another commodity market, nickel. The country’s decision to ban nickel ore exports and move to develop its own refining industry gave a severe bump to world prices last year.
Resource nationalism is a counterpoint to the cornucopian dreams of the world’s resource optimists. Resource nationalism would not be possible in the world where everything we need is plentiful or if not plentiful, can quickly be supplanted by a substitute of equal capability. It turns out that rare earths are hard to find a substitute for. It turns out that even nickel is hard to find a substitute for in the short run.
It’s possible that all the flat screens, cellphones, industrial magnets, wind turbines, computers and other electrical devices that depend on rare earths could eventually be re-engineered to do without them. But the cost to do such re-engineering and the materials needed might make many devices that today are ubiquitous unaffordable to many.
The uneven distribution of resources makes resource nationalism possible. But what makes it likely to become a broader phenomenon in the future is the rate at which global society is consuming practically everything.
One example for which I could readily find historical estimates is oil. From the beginning of the oil age through 2007, global society is estimated to have consumed approximately 733 billion barrels. From 2008 through 2018, the world has consumed 371.2 billion additional barrels. Thus, in the space of just 11 years humans have burned through about one-third of all the oil ever consumed. Put another way, we have consumed half again as much oil in 11 years as was consumed by humanity in the first 148 years of the oil age since 1859 when Edwin Drake kicked off the modern oil age with his well in Titusville, Pennsylvania.
The U.S. Geological Survey reports world production of rare earths in 1994 as 64,500 metric tons. In 2017 production reached a little more than twice that number at 132,000 metric tons. But production has started to accelerate abruptly in response to increasing demand, jumping to 190,000 metric tons in 2018 and 210,000 metric tons in 2019.
Our consumption of many critical resources is accelerating at similar rates. Such growth cannot go on forever. I am reminded of economist Herbert Stein’s truism that if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.
The trouble is, we don’t know where the stopping point is for production growth of most of the resources we need. And, we are doing precious little to prepare for that day.
Photo: The chemical element bismuth as a synthetic made crystal. The iridescent surface is a very thin layer of oxidation. Beside it is a high purity (99.99 %) 1 cm3 bismuth cube for comparison. By Alchemist-hp via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wismut_Kristall_und_1cm3_Wuerfel.jpg