A theme that is sometimes used in science fiction is an alien race enslaving another alien race to work in mines. Examples would be an episode of Star Trek called The Cloud Minders or the movie, Robinson Crusoe on Mars. In 1985 there was a movie called Enemy Mine starring Dennis Quaid as a sort of space ship fighter pilot fighting a war with a race of enemy beings called Dracs. He gets stranded on a barren planet with a Drac played by a heavily made up Lou Gossett Jr. There is a poignant scene where Quaid’s character finds a futuristic Pepsi can near where he observes a bunch of Dracs working in a mine. Perhaps Coca Cola paid for the product placement. I would like to think that proponents of solar panels are experiencing such a moment.
Michael Shellenberger has been writing and tweeting a lot lately about how a lot of the solar panels that come from China are made with coerced labor from Uighur Muslims. There are even allegations of genocide. The quartz used to make the solar cells is being manually crushed. In the movie Planet of the Humans, Ozzie Zehner shows how solar panels have to be made with high quality quartz. The energy for the manufacturing processes comes from coal of course.
China is increasingly becoming America’s chief geopolitical rival. Alex Epstein has a very disturbing interview with industrial analyst Maxwell Goldberg:
Goldberg claims that the US is 100% dependent on China for rare earth finished products. China is not the only country with rare earth metal deposits. The US does have deposits of them, but has to ship them to China for processing which can involve very dirty processes. He makes claims that China is keeping prices for rare earths low in order to control the market. This might sound like conspiracy mongering but he does provide a specific example at 18 minutes in. he offers the example of how a company called Magnequench, which was a major producer of magnets for the defense industry was taken over by China. Here’s a detailed account:
Magnequench began its corporate life back in 1986 as a subsidiary of General Motors. Using Pentagon grants, GM had developed a new kind of permanent magnet material in the early 1980s. It began manufacturing the magnets in 1987 at the Magnequench factory in Anderson, Indiana.
In 1995, Magnequench was purchased from GM by Sextant Group, an investment company headed by Archibald Cox, Jr-the son of the Watergate prosecutor. After the takeover, Cox was named CEO. What few knew at the time was that Sextant was largely a front for two Chinese companies, San Huan New Material and the China National Non-Ferrous Metals Import and Export Corporation. Both of these companies have close ties to the Chinese government. Indeed, the ties were so intimate that the heads of both companies were in-laws of the late Chinese premier Deng Xiaopeng.
At the time of the takeover, Cox pledged to the workers that Magnequench was in it for the long haul, intending to invest money in the plants and committed to keeping the production line going for at least a decade.
Three years later Cox shut down the Anderson plant and shipped its assembly line to China. Now Cox is presiding over the closure of Magnequench’s last factory in the US, the Valparaiso, Indiana plant that manufactures the magnets for the JDAM bomb. Most of the workers have already been fired.
The whole thing is not that long and worth reading.
Goldberg also points out some disturbing aspects of China’s current interest in Taiwan. Taiwan is the technological leader of and major producer of computer chips. He points out how US companies have not been able to match them. This part starts at twelve and a half minutes in.
China is clearly expanding its influence on the world stage. They are building coal and nuclear plants around the world. At 1:13:00 in this interview with congressman Dan Crenshaw, Michael Shellenberger talks about how China is helping Saudi Arabia build a uranium enrichment plant, because the US will not:
Going back to rare earths, does China really have the ability to use its position as the pretty much sole producer to control the world? Reason’s Ronald Bailey has expressed skepticism back in 2016. He points out how proponents of peak oil were blindsided by fracking. I find myself a bit sceptical of his skepticism. The tale he tells is far from over. Extracting and finishing rare earths looks a lot harder and dirtier than extracting hydrocarbons. It’s hard for OPEC to control production of oil when member countries each have an incentive to cheat. With rare earths there’s only one totalitarian country.
This brings us to the biggest issue of human welfare: totalitarianism or tyranny. Can technology trends stop tyranny? Cheap data processing and the internet have certainly helped previously marginalized factions get their views heard. But there also appears to by a dark side that increases the potential for the surveillance state. China now has the creepy social credit score. It also looks like there might be a lot of terrible potential in the weaponization of robots and drones. The whole thing may come down to arguments about morality and philosophy, or just the ability to have such arguments. One thing I can think of that can be done about China is to not let the image of man who stood in front of the column of tanks die:
… or the Goddess of Democracy: