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Rare Earth Elements, Global Power & the China Dynamic

Read about the latest wrinkle in this global resources story — the NYTimes‘ Dec. 28, 2010 article “China to Tighten Limits on Rare Earth Exports.”

Rare-earth oxides . Clockwise from top center: praseodymium, cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, samarium, and gadolinium. (U.S. Agriculture Dept.)

In James Cameron’s blockbuster “Avatar,” the essential object of desire is “unobtainium” – a fabulously important element on a faraway planet. In real life, the essential element is not out in space.

It’s called “rare earth” – rare earth elements with astonishing and obscure qualities that are essential to everything from cell phones and hybrid cars, to wind turbines and guided missiles.

But  the catch is that  China has quietly cornered the market on 97 percent of rare earth. Basically all of it. That’s power. It’s an incredible story, with bracing implications.

-Tom Ashbrook


Peter Ford, Beijing bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor.

Anthony Mariano, geologist and world-renowned expert on rare earth elements.  He has fifty years of experience working with rare earth elements, in the lab, and in the field across multiple continents.  He serves on the advisory boards of several rare-earth-related companies.  The mineral “marianoite” was named in his honor in 2008.

Christine Parthemore, fellow at the Center for a New American Security, where she directs the Natural Security Project, specializing in how the production and consumption of natural resources affect national security and foreign policy.

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  • joshua

    What does that mean, China’s got them? Does America have any in a significant amount? I know the Congo does? What other countries have them, and in what amounts? Do we have to depend on China? Are there alternative materials? China is getting all the jobs from green technology innovations–will they also control or dominate the future of raw materials in the technology so many depend on?

    I guess that means environmental pollution in China will never get better.

  • Bill A

    I’ve heard that the mining process behind the minerals used in hybrid cars is terribly destructive to the environment. If electric and hybrid cars are to be the new future fleet of vehicles, what does this mean for the environment?

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Bill A, I’m not sure you can say hybrid and/or electric cars are an environmental liability, that’s too broad a statement. But you might say that the lithium used in lithium ion batteries which is used in some car batteries, laptop batteries, smartphone batteries, etc. is mined in many places outside the US and so, may be mined in environmentally and socially destructive ways.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    PS: Didn’t mean to suggest that US mining is either environmentally or socially responsible by comparison, it certainly isn’t. We in the US don’t have much of a record to stand on in pointing fingers at others.

  • Jean Smith

    Is this the driver for the next “gold rush?” Has NASA mapped out places to find alternative sources for rare earths with their earth science missions?

  • J

    The western media hasn’t covered the whole story. For the past two decades, when the rare earth metals were extremely cheap, countries like Japan have explored China’s rare earth. They imported in great quantities, as much as they could be mined in China, shipped to Japan, without being processed and go directly to landfills. They were creating their own rare earth reserve for their own future. That’s when China didn’t have rare earth metals policies, and didn’t enforce any rules.

  • Grady Lee Howard

    Whoa Boy! Here’s another instance where corporate globalism has humanity by the short hairs. Notice the recent emphasis about Greenland and Afghanistan possessing great quantities of scarce manufacturing elements. I wonder what prompted the choice of this On Point topic since no book is being promoted. Did any certain agency or business request it?

    Electric cars, now let’s consider, corporate developers have a variety of choices in battery development but they have chosen to base the product on extremely rare and hard to obtain substances. It’s almost as if they’ve found a new alchemy that can make gold of any desperately needed thing. How diabolical! How cleverly evil! Is a James Bond picture in the works? “Lithiumfinger.” And I call myself a commodities speculator!?!?

    Stand by in the second hour for RADICALISM. Did you know Marx was quadruplets?

  • http://www.venturacommenter.org F. William Bracy

    Tip-of-the-iceberg stuff. The number to watch is 9 billion. Nine billion humans chasing fewer and fewer resources. Today it’s Yttrium. Tomorrow it’ll be the world.

  • dan

    In other words while we, the USA, were busily spending our blood and treasure in the mad pursuit of oil, china was cornering the rare earth supply. Wow, who looks stupid no?

  • cory

    1. J, forgive me if I don’t weep for China.

    2. Don’t forget the resource China truly dominates in… Poor people who will work for low wages with no benefits. They and global corporations have doomed all of us lazy Americans and have sold them our present, future, and retirement. There is nothing we can do except dive headlong into tariffs and isolationism (and I don’t entertain any fantasies about that happening any time soon in America).

  • http://www.venturacommenter.org F. William Bracy

    Where did OnPoint get the story, you ask? Check Wikipedia. Also, I am always being warned to be very judicious when using Wikipedia as my source. (The photo used above is the same one on Wiki’s Rare Earth page.)

  • Zeno

    One thing is for certain, if the USA geographically had the only supply of these metals we would have sold all mineral rights to China with minimal benefit to the US anyway…so the end result would be the same.

  • Eric Fritzsch

    I don’t know why we are so worried about this. Many countries have near monopolies on strategic elements (think chromium-South Africa). We also have good reserves in the USA (CA, NE, CO, MT, WY, etc) and many of our friends such as Canada have extensive resources. Cerium is more common than copper.

  • John

    Another triumph for focusing on short term quarterly profits.

  • Chris

    I thought that I’d heard (on NPR) that Africa had a lot of these rare earths. Is that true?

  • bambi

    Get ready navajo land. You will either once again be exploited for this or you will gain control of north america through new found power!

  • http://analogousdesign.blogspot.com Dave Eger

    Wouldn’t it be cool if war around the world could be stopped by people realizing how valuable all the resources that go into it are. I would much rather have bunch of cell phones so I can talk to friends than a guided missle to aim at enemies.

    For example, Cobalt is what makes AlNiCo magnets that are used in the best speakers for playing guitar through, which contributes to why music sounded so good in the late 60′s. Unfortunately, the demand on the Cobalt market for making guided missles makes it less cost effective to keep using it in speakers.

  • Mike Bukowick

    It seems that China’s success in developing a rare earth mining capacity that the industry of other countries neglected partly because of its unprofitability says something about the drawbacks of a dogmatically free market model, and could be the starting point of revived national discussion on the value of government intervention in the production of socially (or even politically, economically, militarily) valuable goods. A more environmentally and socially responsible government might even work toward the production of such materials at a loss when it’s considered necessary.

  • William

    I guess we should toss Adam Smith economic ideas out the window and go back to a more “American Made” economy.

  • Nick B.

    Rumored massive lithium deposits in Afghanistan (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/14/world/asia/14minerals.html).
    $1 trillion dollars worth. Guess the US will be there for awhile longer.

  • Lorraine

    Can’t they be recycled? Lots of electronic gear is made obsolete in a few years.

  • Kate Hladky

    So if I understand you correctly, we(the US) won’t “ruin” our landscape or expend our dollars so we can have “vital and indispensable” ingredients for much that we use, including so called “green” products.
    As some one who tries to be kind to our earth, I am appalled that we (the US) are so two-faced and arrogant about our morality on conservation and caring for our mother earth.
    As a consumer, have I no options? Our society is so dependent upon so many of these items.
    …trying to be kind in Iowa

  • Nick

    Some concerns:

    Which multinational corporations are involved in rare earth detection + mining?

    How much does rare earth mining require mountain top removal?

    Who does Mr. Anthony Mariano consult for?
    Who funds his rare earth research?

  • Zeno

    The reason for a lack of long range vision as per national security policies is that we don’t have national security policies, we only have short term corporate security policies and it does not matter where the profit comes from in a global market.

  • Trevor

    The sad part is that the US lead the world in developing the chemical separation process of RE minerals, and refining into metals. The US invented Nd-Fe-B magnets, then sold of the technology to China.

    The US was not asleep at the wheel, the US willingly gave-up it’s leading position.

  • Eleanore Recko

    Is there any kind of rare earth re-capture or recycling? Your guest talks about cost of recycling and cost of mining — consider the costs of environmental damage.

  • brian

    China floods the market, weeds out all competitors and now controlls the market. They may now control the highest level manufacturing jobs. I hate to say it but America’s “corporate” governement outsourced itself again. Corporate interests seem to replace national interests again.

    Thank you

  • Chris

    An idea for HOW we could COMPETE FOR COST OF PRODUCTION:

    First, we figure out HOW to make the mining of these rare minerals environmentally safe and safe for the workers in the industry.

    THEN, we take our Armed Forces, and turn them into Public Service Forces. i.e., some in the services would be armed, but others would be serving as teachers and doctors in OUR country’s disadvantaged areas. THEN, OTHERS, serving their TERM OF SERVICE — which would be required of ALL people over the age of 22 (so people could go to College first and be more mature when they went out to serve; their service could help to pay back the college costs) — would work to do this mining.

    Individuals would KNOW which form of work they were more interested in; so, instead of signing up for the Navy versus the Marines (a choice!), young people would sign up to teach, doctor, do environmental work, do resource work (that’s what THIS would be). They would ALL be seen as providing HONORABLE service to our country.

    Once we got our act together, helping to uplift our entire population, then we could take our act out on the road; and/or individuals could take the skills they acquired during this work out to countries that needed help. We would STILL be giving American aid to needy countries, what we’d be doing LESS of is this: seeing carrying a gun and even more dangerous instruments as the only expression of patriotism!!!

  • http://www.venturacommenter.org F. William Bracy

    This is almost silly. The “Rare Earth” elements were named by 18th and 19th Century scientists who had almost no idea what they were looking at. The elements are difficult to isolate and it would be no stretch to say they had practically no idea what these substances might be used for. Of course the elements seemed rare. Anything is rare until it is “found.” Today these materials are found almost everywhere, which makes total sense. And as was just mentioned, some scientists believe these elements will be found on the Moon. Well, if they are found on the Moon, they’ll certainly be found in greater abundance here on Earth as well.

    Hey! — we can find oil 5 MILES UNDER THE OCEAN’S SURFACE! Are you SURE these materials are all that rare?

  • Nick

    More imperialism: I doubt rare earth materials will dent human hunger, poverty, unemployment.

    America has mired itself in 2 major wars + counter-terrorism.

    China: off + running towards the imperial throne, shoving human + environmental rights into dank, secluded dungeons.

  • david casey

    Mr. Ashbrook -

    The caller who asked about recycling. The response from your ‘experts’ troubles me. Are you telling me we mine Chinese clays with a 1/1000 extract ratio, and that is more ‘cost effective’ than removing the exact part inside a cell phone containing a rare earth element? In the cell phone we know exactly where the element is; the clays need to be filtered. I must say, Mr. Mariano sounds very much like a mouthpiece for Molycor.

  • Lon C Ponschock

    Is the narcissism of playing with a cell phone all day worth new pillage of lands and peoples because, you know, we *need* this stuff?

    Very likely. The move to so-called green economies is paper thin once the threat to middle class privilege surfaces.

  • verygrumpyoldguy

    Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, version 2.0.

  • Barry Liu

    It seems to me that China has developed a consistent national security policy to be a supplier, a distributor,and a market mover for global demand of raw materials. The role of being a global manufacturer (factory) apparently does not sit well over the long run. The incident of cutting off the supply of rare earth elemnets to Japan just flexing muscles to show who is the boss. American should be feared of too many things that make their daily life go around, for examples, Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients, vitamin pills, blood thinners, pet foods, etc, are coming from China.

  • Greg

    Boy, it’s satisfying watching some of these people squirm. We’ve been pissing away our economic base since Reagan and fighting wars on the assumption that it was good for business. Now the baton is as good as passed to China and I it makes people Angry!?! Indignant?? I’m starting to read works like “victim” in the Washington Post from mainstream political commentators, complaining that China is not playing fair and maybe we should have a trade war. Just wow.

    I predict that humility will return as an American value very soon.

  • Ann

    So MANY great comments today!!!

  • david shewrin

    There is a re-occuring theme with this, Rare Earth show, and others. Namely, profitability. It comes as no surprise that this resource, the technologies associated with, etc., have moved out of the US, and to CHEAPER markets. WE, the consumer is cost-first-conscious, and therefore, have created this void.

    Secondarily, mining is a HIGH-impact, highly polluting industry. Environmental regulations (NEPA, CEQA) are essential and I am over-joyed they are established in the US. Another reason for the markets moving abroad.

  • Erik

    I wonder if this is a problem with any/all of the other manufacturing we’re not doing anymore and/or continuing to stop doing here? Given that we’re doing our best to move all manufacturing jobs overseas, could we run into problems with other things we need? Hopefully someone is looking at that…

  • Charlotte

    The People’s Republic of China has moved not only to secure hegemony in mining rare earth metals but also in processing them:

    About six or seven years ago, I was listening to an early Sunday morning broadcast of a meeting at the Cleveland Club on WOSU-AM (Columbus, Ohio). The guest speaker was a Vice President of the United Steelworkers. He mentioned that the union had pled with none other than the President of the United States to block the sale of the last specialty steel mill in the United States to the PRC. That mill’s specialties included rare earth metal magnets for the gyroscopes we need to guide our missiles. The President was so wedded to the his ideology of “free trade” that he disregarded the steelworkers pleas and legitimate American security interests to sign off on the sale of that mill to the PRC. The mill was closed in very short order and all equipment moved to China.

    I don’t know whether that sale included patents, licenses, or any other intellectual property belonging to the American owners.

    Who was the President who signed off on this deal? None other than that crazed liberal pinko George H.W. Bush.

    Remember that come Election Day, Tea Party sweeties.

  • Bob Letcher

    Where are all the “privatize it”, no matter what the “it” is? When US DOD cut back on its “needs” for titanium, private firms switched over to making lightweight “gizmoes”. We need to change our state of mind.

  • Noone

    chuckles when the field ‘expert’ stutters and can’t point to one application of rare earths. Would it kill her to just say “I don’t know”.

  • http://www.rightsaction.org grahame russell

    October 4, 2010

    NPR – On Point

    Dear Tom Ashbrook,

    As a regular NPR listener, I send you this critical commentary.

    As I listened to your On Point program today (October 4, 2010, 10-11am) about rare earth and China, I had to double-check my dial to make sure I was not listening to a conservative AM talk show with the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, etc. (figuratively, not literally)

    The tone and language of this show on rare earth and China was very NPR, clearly different than the regular delivery from Beck, Rush, etc. NPR’s presentation in general is professional and respectful. But your message, in my opinion, was conspiratorial and fear-mongering – softly delivered.

    The hour long program was softly and clearly “educating” listeners to be afraid of China – and their alleged manipulation of their economic power. We have seemingly passed from the ‘fear of communism’ during the “cold war” to the ‘fear of China’.

    At the same time, your coverage was devoid of any discussion of the intentional and self-interested military and economic domination the USA has exercised around the planet, at least since 1945.

    The things On Point was suggestively accusing the Chinese of doing – or wanting to do – with respect to its monopoly on rare earth are things the USA has regularly done, regularly does today.

    I have no more interest in China becoming a powerful nation that abuses its military and economic might around the globe that I have in the country that, since 1945 and before, has done just that – setting the standard.

    As an educator and opinion maker, and particularly as a journalist, I ask you to critically reflect on your coverage of this issue that, while interesting, amounted to an exercise of fear-mongering, perpetuating a harmful and destructive notion of “we” versus “them” in global human affairs.



  • Grady Lee Howard

    grahame russell
    I think you may be onto something about Tom Ashbrook and other NPR talkshow hosts being dictated to by agents for powerful vested interests providing key funding to public broadcasting. Notice how NOW and Bill Moyers Journal left out the PBS back door just as David and Charles Koch came in the front with bigger money than Moyers related foundations. Right now I’m wondering what is happening at WAMU and the Diane Rehm Show. Are NPR and Rush Limbaugh getting imperceptibly closer in serving the Oligarchy. It makes individual pledges seem all the more important in countering business underwriting. Maybe just one more pledge would turn the tide back to unbiased reporting.
    Also, the Chinese people are even more in the grip of corporate power than we. If Americans fail to act soon we’ll be as powerless as they. You have to remember that our Oligarchy has massive investment in China. Ownership of minerals maybe hasn’t changed hands so much as it has found global mobility. After all, the same wealthy people who owned GM now own Toyota.

  • Grady Lee Howard

    Right Ann, poorly conceived show, but redeemed by the critical thinking displayed in the comments. Tom should have a listener day and put 5 of you free content providers on the air. I nominate Josh H., Ellen Dibble, Zeno, Richard, Mari, Ann, et al.

  • John
  • Phyllis Simon

    Can’t help think about all the slag heaps and other heaps from our own minging.

    There must be some rare earths in all those tons already molested

  • Shawn

    While China may have “cornered” the mining of this market. It seems to me that if we really needed these elements we could get them, afterall we are quite an inventive country. What China may find that if it trys to hold the world hostage with these rare earth elements is that it may backfire on them. What does China do with all these rare earth elements if they don’t sell them?

  • Marcia Riquelme

    Not too long ago I read an article in the newspaper (sorry no reference to offer) that Afghanistan contains huge deposits of semi-precious minerals, precious minerals, and rare earth. Exotic metals. It was a report by the US NATIONAL Geological Survey Team telling of the minerals present in Afghanistan including estimates of quantities. This is a study that has been conducted in the last few years and recently completed.

  • http://www.cpmgroup.com Jeffrey M. Christian

    Rare Earth Facts
    The United States has reserves of around 13 million metric tonnes of rare earths, equivalent to around 1,300 years of U.S. usage of these metals. It has even more resources, many of which have never been closely evaluated because it did not make economic sense to seek to mine them at the time.

    China accounts for more than 90% of world production, but only around 30% to 36% of world reserves. It accounts for around half of the world’s known reserve base, which includes ores not counted as measured and indicated reserves yet. There are enormous amounts of rare earth metals in the ground, and undiscovered and unexamined resources are believed to be abundant.

    The fact of the matter is that there are enormous reserves and resources of rare earth metals around the world. Producers in the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa and other countries closed their plants in years past, preserving these countries’ resources, because they could not compete with Chinese producers. Those mines and processing plants can be reopened relatively easily and quickly if and when it makes economic sense. There are no good economic reasons why governments should waste more borrowed money rehabilitating domestic rare earth production at this time. The market will do this when it makes economic sense, if governments do not intervene and allow the markets to function. Miners that do not want to mine their deposits at this time and are not seeking government subsidies to do so are expressing market-based economic wisdom, waiting to maximize the return on their assets.

  • Hugh Everett

    I thought the program this evening had an air of panicked sensationalism about it, along with some ignorance of economics.

    Like oil, the world (and the US) will never run out of rare earth elements. As the supply falls (through Chinese embargoes, or any other reason) prices will rise. Rising prices will make more advanced extraction / mining technologies economical. Also, rising prices will force a reallocation of the resource in the market to the most valuable uses.

    In the case of oil, eventually it will become important enough for chemical manufacturing that we will no longer waste it by burning it. Price increases for rare earth elements will drive companies to innovate away from these expensive elements, developing new technologies not dependent upon them. Statements that “nothing can replace” these elements fail to recognize the phenomenal scientific advances achieved in the face of needs (or wants) of the past.

    It’s true that some current uses of rare earth elements will be prices out of the market, changing certain consumer items. Other technologies will take over. You can bet on it.

  • Tom

    China is extracting these elements at a much cheaper price than anyone else thus there position of control. All of the major countries and corporations are just as greedy for their lust of the cheapest deals in obtaining what basically amounts to money under the ground. Will we ever be satisfied? In our never ending quest to ravage the earth for its rare elements we will poison the environment. People need to get back to basics and live a more simple life. Stop buying all this junk that we don’t need. We need to stop the never ending attempt to becomes Gods of the universe.

  • Tom

    China is extracting these elements at a much cheaper price than anyone else thus their position of control. All of the major countries and corporations are just as greedy for their lust of the cheapest deals in obtaining what basically amounts to money under the ground. Will we ever be satisfied? In our never ending quest to ravage the earth for its rare elements we will poison the environment. People need to get back to basics and live a more simple life. Stop buying all this junk that we don’t need. We need to stop the never ending attempt to becomes Gods of the universe.

  • http://n/a George Peters

    I was intrigued that one of the main sources of rare earths was also rich in thorium. Toxicity can be defended against. Meanwhile, thorium is capable of use in nuclear reactors, yet is useless for making bombs. What an ideal resource for exporting to countries who want nuclear energy, but whom we don’t trust on a security level!

  • Sharon Horton

    Maybe we should be mining our landfills for rare earth elements. Why do valuable elements & components get trashed anyway? Manufacturers could be taking back our used products and harvesting the reusable parts. If we can’t figure this out, maybe we’re just not smart enough yet.

  • maggie

    I can not understand why the entire human race is not outraged by the destructive mining of this tiny, fragile planet with its LIMITED supply of oil and rare earth and natural gas. We have the wherewithal to actually develop TRULY green and renewable sources of energy. So why do we continue to trash the planet? All of us, in every country. This is all we have right now. I am so frightened for my small children. Have any of you read ‘the road’?

  • http://www.phys.ufl.edu/ligo/people.html Dr. Muzammil Arain

    Hi Tom,

    I am a scientist working in lasers and physics. I can not imagine doing without rare earth metals. I have three optical tables on which various experiments are going on. Each table uses lasers and each of them requires Faraday Isolator. Each Faraday Isolator uses rare earth metals (namely Neodymium for magnets and Terbium for the optics).

    I know lot of work is being done on high laser power weapon systems. The above two rare earth elements are necessary. Then in the communication, most of the laser sources (erbium doped fiber laser and amplifier) in the telecommunication heavily depend upon erbium and Ytterbium. They cut the cost dramatically.

    the list goes on and on.

    Muzammil A Arain

  • re quired

    I commend the programming deciders for giving us, the segment of the audience that likes to learn, a bit of technical material.

  • Beth

    I have recently become aware that a Chinese nickle mining company is verbally and physically intimidating villagers in Papua New Guinea for raising concerns about their marine waste disposal system. This coercive manipulation is common when companies want to get their way and a corrupt government allows payment to make up their mind about environmental, social and economic impacts of these mines.

  • Philliph

    I see how a growing dependence on rare earth elements will probably explode as America, and the world, moves towards various green technologies, smart grids become a reality, and computing becomes an indespisable part of the American home and vehicle.

    I wonder though, as America possibly sits upon the cusp of the dawn of commercial space exploration, as well as determining the relevance of NASA in our current age, shouldn’t we be inspired by this growing problem, and look to other planets in our solar system with which to extract these materials? Shouldn’t we at least look to our moon for these materials? Of course this brings to light a whole new dimension of ecological preservation on a grander scale. Yet it may provide the impetus that America, indeed human-kind, needs to motivate us to reach beyond this planet and finally develop the necessary infrastructure to colonize and transform our solar system for the further growth and prosperity of our species.



    This was a wast of time and mind. Just a conversation saturated with OMG fear, dislocation, American’s post 1945 obsession with command, control, militarism, death and power, we’re #1.

    I had actually thought we were getting somewhere when I heard the words, “RARE EARTH”, one more time ‘RARE EARTH’.

    Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff” is where this conversation should start. We need a cultural/spiritual awakening in this country around the issue of DEATH, all of its wonderful aspects. We as a people may not last long enough to unplug granny, as we may well have killed MOTHER EARTH with our headlong production of unnecessary stuff under the present capitalist/demand psychology media driven advertisement of essentially garbage. However we won’t even be able to unplug Granny
    as our condition of massive obesity will not permit us to bend down sufficiently to get to the plug, but there is a technological fix for that, put the plug about 4 feet above the floor level. As Pogo might have said we have found the enemy, it isn’t international terror, it is American Obesecide. As Vladimir Lenin said “Give the Capitalist enough rope and they will hang themselves”, Lenin as we now know was wrong. Give them enough rope ie the bailout and money at.25% and the Capitalist will hang the rest of us!!!!
    Even Benjamin Franklin, Robert Rubin, Larry Summer, Tim Geitner, Phil and Wendy Graham, Alan Greensapn, Ben Bernake and Hank Paulson got it, “We should all hang together or else we shall hang separately”. They and the oligarchs’ paid lackies we call the Congress of the USA hung together, except for a few lonely voicies crying in the wilderness. Now the American nation and people are slowly twisting in the wind blowing in from the east. Look down there is the RARE EARTH.

  • Zeno

    “Maybe we should be mining our landfills for rare earth elements. Why do valuable elements & components get trashed anyway? Manufacturers could be taking back our used products and harvesting the reusable parts. If we can’t figure this out, maybe we’re just not smart enough yet.” – Posted by Sharon Horton

    Sharon, you pose a very intelligent point, and if this program were not so rushed perhaps refundable electronics would have been covered. It is amazing how we put a refund of 5 cents on aluminum, glass, and plastic, but nothing on electronics that are actually toxic to to the environment.

    All it would take is an additional $10 fee up front on the purchase price aggregated to (I hate to say it State government), and then paid out as a refund upon return of the devices. If you ride a bike on Americas highways you will see that cell phones and other electronic devices are a major component of litter.

  • Raj K

    Can any of these rare earth elements be forged/manufactured in a lab or some industrial process?

  • Michele R.

    Check out the 60 Minutes piece on rare minerals recycling from US electronics in China and the link with recyclers in the U.S. The piece is entitled “Following the Trail of Toxic E-Waste”


  • The Chain Store Paradox and the market for Rare Earths

    Economists long wondered :

    Why can a large entity (like a chain store)
    deter competitors from entering their market
    by threatening a price war where the chain store
    slashes prices below cost until competitors
    are driven out of business ?

    This was viewed as a “non-credible threat” by
    most economists, until a Stanford economist named
    David Krepps argued that by creating a reputation
    for being a brutal competitor that enjoys a tough
    fight, the Chain Store can credibly threaten any
    potential competitors into avoiding entering (or staying) in its market. It can then enjoy years
    of monopolistic profits.

    Basically, this is similar to how one person with
    a gun can hold an entire crowd at bay. Noone wants
    to be the first to “get shot”. One of the few
    ways around this is for the crowd to develop an
    “uncontrolled emotional response” (as per Robert
    Frank and Thomas Schelling (two other notable economists)).

    Perhaps our policy-makers should talk more with
    Prof. Krepps and Prof. Frank. Game theory
    has much to say in this area – considerably more
    than most neoclassical economics.

    Vertical integration is also classic way to secure
    competitive advantage – particularly if one can
    choke off, obstruct, or otherwise delay one’s
    competitor’s supply of key component materials.

    “Lean and Mean” and “Just in time” doesn’t work
    well when attacks against chokepoints in the supply
    chain are Strategic – not random.

    Wake up and fight smart…
    (and get some better economists on your team!)

  • http://www.usw.org Gary Hubbard

    The members of the United Steelworkers (USW)want to give voice on the way forward for America in dealing with China’s predatory trade practices with rare earth elements discussed by the ‘On Point’ panel of your Oct. 4 show. On Sept. 9 — the USW filed a comprehensive trade case under the Section 301 provision of our nation’s trade laws with the US government that challenges China’s protectionist policies that include rare earth elements to develop their green jobs sector at our expense.

    The Obama Administration has until Oct. 24 to determine whether to accept our petion for further action in the form of consultations with China or to initiate a complaint before the WTO.

    Host Tom Ashcroft may not have known when he talked about the northern Indiana company that made rare earth magnetics for smart bombs: it employed 250 USW-represented workers who lost their jobs in 2003 when the plant was bought and moved to China. He also was unaware that the Molycorp rare earth elements mine he cited in Mountain Pass, CA., employed USW miners who lost their jobs when unable to compete with the illegal trade practices of China in selling product to our own defense industry.

    These illegal and protectionist trade practices have allowed China to emerge as a dominant supplier of green technologies — threatening American manufacturing of wind mills and solar panels made by USW-represented workers with family supportive jobs in the U.S.

    You should invite us to your next ‘On Point’ program to talk about American jobs when we have nearly 20% effective unemployment, while China’s currency manipulation and trade practices sustain a record $450 billion US trade deficit.

  • Barbara

    Hi, Tom. I am a devoted listener and often recommend certain episodes to my students, family-members and friends. Sadly, I feel compelled to share with you how taken aback I was by your tone and fervor during this episode. I would simply like to echo the eloquent comments of Grahame Russell (Oct. 4, 2010 at 2:33 PM) above.

    There are a few of us left “out here” who cling to shows like yours with white knuckles and a hopeful heart, because we are s-t-a-r-v-i-n-g for rational, balanced, in-depth discussions on important/timely topics between reasonable, informed adults. Please keep up the great work. We’re listening. We’re engaged. We’re counting on you… Peace.

  • http://www.appliedprocess.com John Keough

    In an interesting twist, Afghanistan may prove pivotal. There are large deposits of rare earths in the mountainous regions there. Perhaps rare earths are the answer to the poppy trade there.

    Rare earths are everywhere…..but only concentrated in easily mined reserves in certain places.

    For those of you who think that engineers are sitting out there scheming to rule the world with our materials choices I unequivocally declare you “kooks”. If there are alternatives to rare earths we will find them with our reseach, until then we must operate in the environment we have. The only conspiracy is the Chinese Communists’ desire to corner the market…..very socialist of them, eh?

  • Ian Prendergast

    I have been traveling and only now do I have the time to comment on your ‘ONPOINT’ discussion re ‘Rare Earths’ forum last week. From my experience as a supplier of consumables to the metals industry, the Chinese strategy of gaining a monopoly of necessary industrial materials is not limited to rare earths (Bauxite, Magnesia, Magnersium, Ferroalloys, etc). Far from it, I have watched over the years their long term goal – 10, 20 years – of dominating world trade/manufacturing by either buying up natural resources, or using low pricing to force overseas manufacturers/producers to outsource the particular commodity to China, and then raise prices after their competition has been effectively destroyed. Because of the lack of long term planning of American industry in particular, the Chinese strategy will lead to the domination of America without going to war. Remember, American industry (and American consumers for the most part) run on two basic philosophies:
    1. Lowest bidder gets the job
    2. 2-5 year payback or forget it.

    (There is the bumper sticker which reads something like ‘Out of a job? Buy foreign and you will be’)

    Again, China’s long term goal is to be the only world super power and they do not care how long it takes or how they get there. Hence the hedging on the currency exchange rate, for which they are in the drivers seat.

    On a personal basis, the first household tools I purchased more than 30 years ago were American manufactured, now, replacements are mostly made in China with the American industry literally destroyed.

  • phil


  • http://librixxxi.blogspot.com/ Brian

    I thought Tom was too dismissive of guest Christine Parthemore, in odd ways after clearly explaining a nuanced opinion Tom would cut her off and loudly re-ask almost the same question she just answered. I realize that controversy and conflict are drivers in entertainment, but usually NPR is above that fray.

    Interesting topic and show in any case.

  • http://www.saleemali.net Saleem H. Ali

    The key is to try and focus on recovering these elements and think in terms of industrial ecology. I have tried to argue for this in recent writings including my book “Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future” (Yale University Press)– http://www.treasurebook.info

  • http://abt.com mark

    China has rights to stop exporting anything they want, like american stop high tech exporting to China. China should care about its environment as american with their environment. American are just too damanding on others, while theirself doing nothing goods.

    China exports only got very limited paper money, it is toliet paper in future. I think it is not wise for them to give more free stuffs to USA.

    American will suffer because its policy and not how Chinese treats them! wake up! do not bark on the wrong tree, most jobs in USA was lost to Japan and Indian! only stupid people will dream those jobs went to China!

  • Roy Mac

    Reviewed the comments here; from a broadcast 14-15 months ago.  Very refreshing:  no hint of Modavation, Brandstaat, or the other trolls.  Did you clean them out before the re-post?  Only 70 comments vs. the 400+ resulting from their inanities.  Thanks, Tom; or your webmaster.

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