by Jenny Gryzelius. First published in The Sun Online 3 January 2013

AS ONE of my colleagues said the other day “Homo economicus is a myth, what really is the true nature of man is Homo hypocritus.”

Looking at how the environmental discourse has been mainstreamed over the past decades I am bound to agree with him.

Don’t get me wrong; I genuinely believe we have a moral duty to ourselves, our children and our Creator to care for and improve our world – not to mindlessly destroy it through pollution and excavations.

But most of us are hypocrites when it comes to the application of this principle.

But what irks me is the seemingly willful lack of understanding of how our own way of life affects the world and also who we seem to think should pay the price for it.

The Lynas issue is an archetypical example. A rare earth processing plant. It sounds almost like sci-fi, it is clinical and abstract. Think of it instead as sunglasses, camera lenses, combustion engines, speakers – and most importantly – hard drives for computers, tablets and smart phones.

All of these require rare earths, and they are the reason why the demand for these compounds is increasing.

Most of us use these products every day. Many of us buy products containing rare earths several times a year. So who should produce them? Most rare earths are excavated and refined in China – without much general knowledge of the safety or environmental credentials of the plants.

I agree that it would be much better if Australia refined the rare earth mined outside Perth. It would mean that there would be less moving about of the raw material, hence less pollution, and there would not be a new plant outside Kuantan.

But the reality is that if the rare earths are to be processed in Western Australia the labour and infrastructural costs would be too high, translating to higher prices for our beloved smart phones and tablets.

I do understand that the people of Kuantan and its surrounding areas are concerned of what this plant might mean for their health and safety. There are legitimate concerns about safety standards in a factory or plant this size. But these concerns exist in any production plant or mine.

What is important here are frequent inspections of plants and storage facilities, just as it is in any other production plant producing potentially hazardous waste.
Nevertheless, the discussion surrounding the Lynas plant lacks one vital ingredient.

There has to be a discussion about if we really can protest against the production of something that we so wilfully and mindlessly use (and throw away, even though the products are still, in many cases, in perfect working order, just because a new model has been released). We rely on rare earths to sustain our modern way of life.

Should potentially dangerous refinement plants be “outsourced” only to countries too poor to have the luxury to chose? To China, India, or an African country where environmental and safety controls are scarce and chances of leaks are more likely than in a modern plant inspected by the IAEA?

Do we not have a responsibility to assist in the production of the materials that we readily use? I would like to argue that this issue is just a small part of a much greater problem in which we as consumers are not willing to take responsibility for the products that we consume.

We need to realise that our standard of living and the use of modern technology has a price.

For some that price is very high; one central reason for the civil war that is ripping the Congo apart is due to the fact that we, the consumers of modern technology, are not willing or aware enough to question our own consumption habits of what is now increasingly being labelled as “blood minerals”, in this case coltan.

For me the idea of “Homo hypocritus” was cemented when I saw all the iPads and smart phones being waved around at an anti-Lynas rally.

If you do not want a processing plant in your backyard surely it is time to discuss the consumption habits necessitating that plant, and not the existence of the plant itself.

If we do not sort out our demand for the rare earths before we protest against the location of its production, then the production will only move into someone else’s backyard and that someone will most likely not be able to afford the product itself.

– – –

Jenny Gryzelius is a senior researcher at IDEAS.

Leave a comment