What if Foulden Maar was made of neodymium?

Neodymium is a ‘rare earth’ metal, essential for making the magnets used in computers, cars and cellphones.

The point of our Forest & Bird monthly column is to inform you about our natural world; to highlight the challenges we face in protecting it; to ask for your help in defending  it; and to make you think.  

So let us think about the implications of the ongoing campaign to save Foulden Maar near Dunedin.  There are excellent reasons to oppose mining at this site, an ancient lake deposit of diatomite containing fossils of global significance.  Most Kiwis also oppose mining on the conservation estate, as national opposition to such proposals recently showed. We must protect our precious wilderness, our wetlands, our drylands, and all our biodiversity — they are diminishing before our eyes.   They are valuable for their own sake, for the natural capital they provide, and for the inspiration they give us in an increasingly artificial world.  

Selling Foulden Maar diatomite as pig food was never a good idea  But what if it had been full of neodymium? Neodymium is a ‘rare earth’ metal, essential for making the magnets used in computers, cars and cellphones.  Fossil fuels can be replaced, but there are no alternatives to rare earths in our gadgets. Can you do without yours?  

Our entire Western lifestyle is addicted to mining. We eat off metal spoons; we fly in metal aircraft. We get our electricity from metal turbines or PV panels, and blog about it on devices containing gold — and neodymium — and wear gold earrings.  We can filter our beer through crushed diatomite. Our banned plastic bags were made of mined oil. Mining is totally embedded in our daily lives.  

Mineral deposits (including oil) are formed, and found, in places defined by natural geological processes. They are not everywhere; that’s why there is no gold mine under your house. Mineral deposits do not obey human laws or legal boundaries. They  form over millions of years, not human life spans. Deposits are finite; once they are mined, refined, made into cellphones and spoons, and sold in shops and petrol stations, they are gone. End of story. There is no second crop of minerals: ‘sustainable mining’ is impossible.  

By opposing mining Foulden Maar, or mining on conservation land, we save an invaluable scientific site, or halt despoliation and loss of biodiversity.  But if other mineral deposits have been mined out and exhausted, and all that remains – including our hypothetical neodymium mine – is in our precious places, what then?  Do we mine these places until they too are exhausted? No? But if there is no more mining, there are no new cell phones. Or petrol.

We cannot continue to consume finite resources, be they ecosystems or raw materials. Already humans exceed the carrying capacity of the planet by August each year: we are eating ourselves out of house, home and spaceship Earth  (see www.overshootday.org). 

So what do we do? Could we perhaps consume less, and use what we already have, more wisely?  Refuse, reduce, repair, re-use, repurpose, recycle. Think about it. There is a lot of neodymium in the Victoria Flats landfill.

Mo Turnbull is a committee member of the local branch of Forest & Bird and is a retired geologist, who used to work with mining and oil companies.


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