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Fri Dec 22, 2017, 01:21 AM

A critical issue of critical materials; my holiday science reading list.

I have 10 glorious days off from paid work this holiday, and plan to catch up on some reading for which I've had little time.

One important task will be to write to an on line friend about what I've learned about her great niece's diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a very dangerous (and rare) pediatric brain cancer which has been the subject of considerable research.

It's frightening, but I believe I'm an old Obama boy; I believe in hope. I'll do what I can to be of any help.

Another is to catch up on some reading about the broader challenges to humanity beyond any individual beautiful and threatened child.

Tonight in my files, I came across a highly cited paper which I have not read; it's on my holiday reading list, this one:

What Do We Know About Metal Recycling Rates? (Graedel et al, Journal of Industrial Ecology Volume 15, Issue 3 June 2011 Pages 355366)

A few years back, around this time of year, I came across an interesting (if unappreciated) book in the New Books rack in Princeton University's Engineering Library, a sort of shrine that I visit often on my path to peace. It's this one: Thanatia

The above cited paper was in fact a reference from this book.

Thanatia s a little rapped up in this Gaia/not Gaia sort of touchy feely stuff, but I think a somewhat poetic description of a critical issue about which too little public discussion takes place.

The preface of the book, which is now in my files, states issue it addresses quite well:

The extraction of fossil fuels and mineral resources has grown exponentially since the early 20th century and far from decelerating, it is expected to increase in the coming decades. "The Limits to Growth" (Meadows et al., 1972) already alerted that if demand of metals and fossil fuels maintained the same trend, mankind would sooner or later be close to collapse. The book provoked a strong controversy between those that considered that the Earth was plentiful of non-renewable resources (technooptimists) and those who believed in the need for a rational management of the planetary mineral endowment.

Forty years on society has experienced an unparalleled economic optimism (especially in the nineties and the first few years of the 21st century) and also the biggest economic crisis since the Wall Street crash in 1929. At the same time, computers, smartphones, the electric car, renewable energies, new materials and electronic appliances are renovating the optimism for a brighter future. Yet all these technoartifacts are deeply connected to the mineral endowment of the Earth. Elements like indium, gallium, germanium, rare earths, tantalum, zirconium, cobalt, tin, precious and platinum group metals, lithium, tellurium, phosphorous, etc, are profusely used without or with only minor recycling.

How long can society survive without a rational management of these scarce resources? Today, technology is employing all elements of the periodic table and their use is growing exponentially.-Yet this fact is barely discussed in conventional ecological discourse that preferably focuses on climate change, loss of biodiversity, deforestation or ecosystems destruction.


I am, even if I believe that the popular beliefs about sustainability are actually dangerously wrong headed - as much on the left as on the right - still a kind of "techno-optimist." I once spent an afternoon chatting with Freeman Dyson after all.

But as much as in my techno-optimism I believe that dire and extreme problems can be solved, I'm less and less inclined to have faith that they will be solved.

The Christmas season in the United States is a party time: I will participate. But there is some place in it as well, for me if not for everyone, for some sobriety.

Have happy holidays and if you can squeeze in some time, read some science. It's good for you, far better than egg nog.


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