Thursday, 11 August 2016

The Elements of Power - David S Abraham

Title: The Elements of Power
Author: David S Abraham
ISBN: 978-0-300-19679-5
Publisher: Yale UP
Year: 2015
Pages: 319
Photos/maps: 0

The term ‘Rare Earth Metals’ is not widely known. Indeed, for such a significant component of our everyday lives, it is shocking how these metals have continued to be overlooked except by a very few. The seventeen metals that make up the earth metals ‘family’ are perhaps some of the technologically and strategically most critical resources of today. If one owns a cell phone, drives a car, flies in an aircraft, lives in a structure or uses a computer, then you are reliant upon these earth metals. Without them, technology as we understand it would simply vanish.

Abraham’s book looks at the preponderance of rare earth metals from a variety of perspectives; in each case analyzing the potential risks and challenges associated with this facet. Drawing upon a broad range of interviews, primary source material and secondary sources, he clearly lays out his argument for greater attention and forecasting on the part of governments.

The first third of the book discusses the background behind the rise of earth metals, the challenges in finding and mining them and the international ramifications of the scarcity of these production facilities. He outlines the how foreign ownership of some mines (in many cases as a monopoly) increases the risk to national economies reliant upon these metals for many of their production lines. As an example Abraham cites the incident where China cut off exportation of a rare earth metal to Japan in order to pressure Japan into releasing a Chinese fishing captain awaiting trial for illegal fishing.  

He then branches into the environmental  quandary that rare earth metals pose for activists and governments. Rare earth metals are both a ‘green’ commodity as well as a pollutant. Critical for increasing the strength of steel and for producing the arms of the propellers in wind turbines (as just two examples), these metals reduce the weight of cars and facilitate alternate energy production. Conversely, however, the challenges associated with mining these resources require vast amounts of toxic materials to refine and produce them, and, while not impossible, they are extremely difficult to recycle.

Additionally, Abraham provides a comprehensive overview of the breadth of utility of these metals. Ranging from military and defence applications to the vast array of technological applications, the author provides the reader a clear sense of the impact that these items have, unknowingly to most, on our everyday lives. Extrapolating from that, he analyzes the exponential growth in the demand and, by extension, the sustainability of these resources. Given their relative scarcity, he looks at the back-room deals and methods that not only traders but also nations devise to take advantage of the leverage provided from having exclusive access. As an example, China has increased significantly the cost of exporting rare earth metals while keeping the domestic price low in order to bring international industry to the Chinese market.

Abraham’s book outlines the revolution that these earth metals are wreaking upon industry and technological development. His book, written in a convincing and forthright manner, pulls no punches but delivers warning after warning of the dangers of neglecting the development and implementation of a strategic plan to address the international needs of these metals. His thesis is solidly backed by reference material and reveals a thoughtfulness and insight into this relatively unknown subject. Militaries, industry and governments should take notice and develop comprehensive plans to address the issues that Abraham raises before it is too late. Strongly recommended. 

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