Rocks Reads Roundup, 9/18

Exhaustion, flower thieves, volcanoes, "learnings"

Stuff I missed/didn’t include last week:

  • This lecture hosted by Strelka Institute was livestreamed last week, but I only got around to watching it this week. Curator and designer Anastasia Kubrak spoke about the exhibition Lithium: States of Exhaustion, opening at Het Nieuwe Institute tomorrow. She speaks to most of the same things I put in that little lithium explainer, but with uh, a lot more examples, some great archival images and a nice thread connecting it to burnout and exhaustion at personal, environmental, and political scales. She also gets into lithium's use in nuclear weapons and the role of lithium in the unanticipated scale of the Bikini Atoll tests. It’s cool to see how other artists and thinkers are exploring this stuff!

  • Older news that I hadn't been following as closely because I've been more on the renewable-energy related mining tack: the frac sand mining industry has been hit pretty hard in 2020. I learned about this while looking for news about Covia, a company created through the merger and spinout of two other mining companies' silica operations. (Sibelco, the parent company of one of the firms that became Covia, owns the high purity quartz mines in Spruce Pine, NC, which supply most of the semiconductor industry, and have the trademark for Iota Quartz, generally the benchmark for quartz purity.) Covia filed for bankruptcy at the end of June, following bankruptcies of two other frac sand suppliers. Sand mining operations have ground to a halt in some areas (click that link for the worst headline pun in the history of journalism). This, along with other shifts in US fracking like major players selling off their fracking assets, have been mainly attributed to the pandemic (remember the weird "barrels of oil are negative money" news cycle?), but it's interesting to look at what industry publications are making of it. I honestly don't know enough about the fracking space to claim any unique insight here, mostly I'm interested in the secondary industry stuff like frac sand mining.

Stuff this week:

  • This update via eagle-eyed reader and Lanthanide Hero Rachel Binx: a mystery vandal dug up over 17,000 rare Tiehm's buckwheat plants in their only known habitat around Silver Peak, Nevada. This is the flower potentially endangered by the development of a new lithium mine by Australian firm Ioneer (mentioned in the newsletter a couple of weeks ago). The tension between "obscure plant that has no obvious bearing on human survival dying" and "but people need the lithium!!" is a dumb straw man argument, but I feel like even if you're lazy enough to be on Team Lithium in such an argument it's real fucking shady to just disappear a plant under review to be added to the Endangered Species List. Obviously we don't know if Ioneer was directly involved, but it's hard to imagine that some other rogue actor who just hates this little flower drove out to federal lands to destroy over a third of basically an entire species for shits and giggles. Cartoon villain shit.

  • Australian mining company Tanbreez received a permit for its planned rare earth mining operations in Narsaq, Greenland. Most of what I know about rare earth speculation in Greenland has focused not on Tanbreez's deposit and more on the Kvanefjeld deposit (which I mostly know about because of this very good documentary and my friend Zane's dissertation work), and there is very, very little coverage of this material in English, but the TL;DR for all of you is: it's probably bad for Greenland and it's being sold as very good for Greenland. I'm going to be doing an interview with Zane for the newsletter some time in the coming weeks and am very excited for you to all learn from his tremendous expertise in this stuff.

  • This little announcement about research from a German university using bacterial enzymes to extract rare earths is cool, but the part that got me was how the extraction research emerged out of the discovery of a europium-dependent bacteria in a volcano? I am extremely Not Good at Biology so I hope I'm not getting this totally wrong but: one, cool volcano bacteria!! Two, the specific bacteria type involved is methanotrophic, which means they obtain energy by oxidizing methane (which is to say: it eats methane, a very bad greenhouse gas!). Methanotrophic bacteria in soils apparently have a rough time in overly nitrogen-rich earth, which is a notable bummer when it comes to fighting climate change. I always worry I’m being a bit naïve or getting my hopes up too much when I look into this research but from an outsider perspective it's inspiring to see all of these threads of research that gesture toward technically feasible and ecologically neutral if not remediative technologies in contrast to the political economy of extraction. I don't really think that the German researchers looking at the relationships between rare earths and methanotrophic bacteria are actively imagining anti-colonial, anti-capitalist applications of this work, but I get really excited about its applications toward that kind of future.

  • The World Economic Forum published a white paper on artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Tuesday. I already started rolling my eyes before even opening the PDF because the summary refers to its observations as "learnings", which means I've put off actually reading it (I just…“learnings”). Full review next week? Worst Zoom book club ever?

  • Brief, but more in lithium recycling projects underway: Governor Andrew "I Am Bad, Actually" Cuomo announced an expansion of operations in New York State for lithium batterry recycling company Li-Cycle. This is more of a “watching the emergence/growth of lithium recycling in tandem with extraction anxiety and price drops” update, I honestly don’t know a ton about this particular company or expect Cuomo is making a play for anything other than proving he brought jobs to New York.


Thanks so much for reading! The already-late longer piece might be coming Saturday. (Seriously, still working on the time management for newslettering, freelancing, and processing stories about ICE committing acts of genocide. Support Dawn Wooten.)

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