Saturday, February 17, 2018

Racism: Beyond Anything We Could Have Imagined

It is not for nothing that they call Harry Turtledove the master of alternative history. His wildly famous 1992 book Guns of the South was just one of his many works that explored how history might have been had a few small things changed its course—or maybe a few large things.

In Guns of the South, Turtledove imagines what might have happened if the Confederacy had had superior weaponry over the Union. And not just a little bit superior: what if the Confederacy had AK-47s and grenade launchers? This is what happened in the novel when, in 1864, some mysterious men showed up, wearing what we call camouflage but for which the confederates had no name, and making AK-47s, which could be used either in semi- or fully-automatic mode, and an unlimited amount of ammunition available for very little money—and for nearly worthless confederate money, at that. The men revealed to General Robert E. Lee and other top confederates that they were from the future—they had a time machine that brought them from 2014 back exactly 150 years. The result is gory and unsurprising, though its details are exciting: Confederate troops storm Washington, D.C., where Abraham Lincoln concedes defeat. The Confederacy just wants to be left alone, and the Union leaves them alone.

But there is a price to be paid. The mysterious camouflaged men told Lee that, if the Union had won the war, black people would eventually have enslaved white people. But what Lee and others eventually discover is that these men were lying about the future. They were a South African militia of white separatists who hated the very existence of black people. They were using a Confederate victory as a means of ensuring white supremacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Emancipation was already beginning in the Confederacy, and it was a great benefit to the economy. But the racists hated it any way—they wanted to have dominion over blacks, even if it bankrupted their confederacy.

The author portrays many Confederates as evil racists, but others, including the sergeant through whose eyes much of the action is seen, and including Lee, were moderates who admitted to themselves that even a Confederate victory would not ensure the indefinite continuation of slavery, which was despised by literally every other nation in the world. After Lee became a civilian, and ran for Confederate president, he campaigned for gradual emancipation of the slaves. The South African supremacists, of course, hated this, and they turned their weapons against the Confederacy for which they had just a couple of years earlier fought. They had overwhelming firepower advantage, but there were only a few hundred of them—racist splinter groups are always small, even in apartheid South Africa. The moderate confederates, principal among them Robert E. Lee, prevail over them and ease their way into racial equality.

Turtledove’s writing is clear and beautiful, sometimes formulaic but never poor. The twists of plot and the delightful characters even by themselves make the book good.

Why am I reviewing this old book? In 1992, neither Turtledove nor anyone else could imagine that the kind of fierce hatred of blacks that fueled South African apartheid could possibly exist in America. But it does. It is impossible to make an accurate count of how many racists there are in America. But when you consider how widespread and common the white power protests are, and, what is more, the sheer number of assault weapons they have built up, it is easy to believe that somewhere around a half million Americans are ready to take up arms against the rest of us in order to establish a White Supremacist Nation. And I believe that they would be willing to stage an act of terrorism every bit as bloody and violent as that of the Afrikaner racists in this novel. In 1992, Turtledove had to imagine a foreign source for a few hundred such racists; today, right here in America, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands.

That is, real history has turned out thousands of times worse than a novelist could have imagined it a little over a quarter century ago. It seems impossible to avoid the inevitable firestorm that will result from white hatred of blacks in America. Evolution has given us both good and bad instincts, and the intelligence to choose the good; sadly, I see no way in which intelligence and goodness can possibly prevail in this selfish and hostile nation that we have become.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Would We Rather Go to War than to Recycle?

We need aluminum (for those of you in the UK, it’s aluminium). Lots of it. It is a light and strong metal. To make new aluminum, you begin with bauxite ore, and use a lot of electricity. But to recycle aluminum, you start with aluminum, and use ten times less electricity than it takes to make it from bauxite.

In addition to the energy used to refine bauxite into aluminum, there is also the fact that the largest bauxite reserves are in countries that often have low industrial capacity and do not use very much aluminum. They are small countries that would not be able to put up much resistance if a country like the USA told them we wanted their bauxite. The largest reserves (7.4 billion metric tons) are in Guinea, a small poor African nation. Brazil has 3.6, Vietnam 2.1, and Jamaica 2.0 billion metric tons. The only significant industrial power with large bauxite deposits is Brazil, with 3.6 billion metric tons. Industrial countries have far less: China has 0.8, Russia has 0.2, and the USA has only 0.04 billion metric tons of bauxite reserves.

Our extravagant use of raw aluminum, while throwing used aluminum into landfills, makes economic sense only because we can get new aluminum from smaller countries. What if these countries decided to charge more money for it, or preferred to sell the bauxite to one of our competitors, such as China? Would we go to war for bauxite rather than to recycle what we already have? I wonder how many Americans are lazy and selfish enough that they would prefer to see an aluminum war rather than to take a few extra moments and a few extra steps to recycle aluminum cans? Half of our federal budget is for the military. How many Americans consider half of our tax money (and the money we borrow from other places), and the lives of our fellow Americans in the military, to be expendable so that we can throw whatever we like in the garbage? Go ahead. Next time you see a soldier, tell her or him that you would rather see them engaged in open conflict than for you to recycle, then tell yourself what a patriot you are.

There are a lot of rare and expensive metals in cell phones. One example is gold. At present, it is cheaper to mine gold from ore than it is to recycle it from electronic equipment. But that is only because, first, we ignore the environmental costs of gold mining, such as at the big mine in Australia shown in the figure, and second, we assume that we will never run out of ore. It is easy (in most places) to recycle old cell phones; electronics stores have receptacles for them, and some will even pay you for them. But Americans prefer to throw them away: ninety percent of them. Would we, perhaps, be willing to go to war for gold rather than to recycle it?

Some of those elements you heard about in high school chemistry actually have some very important uses. Praseodymium, for example, is a component of metal used in aircraft engines. Cerium is used as a catalyst to refine petroleum. Lanthanum is used in carbon arc lights such as those used in projectors. Neodymium is used in welders’ goggles. Samarium is part of the crystals used in optical lasers, and absorbs neutrons in nuclear reactors. Gadolinium is used in color picture tubes and magnetic resonance imaging. These are highly specialized but very important uses.

The reason I chose these particular metals is that Afghanistan has raw ores for these metals—a trillion dollars’ worth.

Though not a chemist, I can imagine that recycling these metals must be difficult, much more so than recycling aluminum. Imagine getting neodymium out of old welder’s goggles. At what point does it become cost-effective to recycle rare metals? The answer depends, of course, on the availability of raw ores for these metals. If Afghanistan will allow American corporations to mine their ores, and let us do so for cheap, then our industrial and political leaders will probably choose to use new, rather than recycled, rare metals.

But Afghanistan seems to be continually at war; America has had a very active and expensive military presence since 2002. When industrial leaders make their calculations for investing in rare metal mining in Afghanistan, they assume that American military presence will be available to protect them for free, that is, at taxpayer expense.

And, of course, our economic competitors such as China want these metals too.

This brings up the uncomfortable possibility that America might be willing to go to war for raw ores of these important rare metals rather than recycling them. We may choose to go ahead and throw away all those metals and, if we start to run out of them, just go to war and take what we need. As any black or Native American can tell you, American history consists largely of the white American government and economic leaders benefiting from the forced labor of, or taking land and all its resources away from, people of color. I am not suggesting that our current Afghan war is motivated by the desire for these metals at this time. One the other hand, maybe it is, or will soon be.

A war for raw mineral ores can be avoided by recycling, which is very easy to do for aluminum, very difficult to do for neodymium, but always possible.

Recycling is the right thing to do for world peace.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mining the Middens

Wouldn’t you just love to take one of my classes? Oh, the field trips I have taken students on! Not so much anymore, because of liability and financial issues, but in the past. I have taken students to such wonderful places as sewage plants and landfills.

I took an environmental science class from Wheaton College Science Station (almost 13 years ago) to the Rapid City dump. We got to experience it with all our senses. The landfill director told us that there was probably a million dollars’ worth of aluminum in the landfill. Two of my entrepreneurial students instantly began discussing plans to recover it. Of course, they didn’t follow through once they realized what the cost of recovery would be. If you want to get that million dollars, you need to get it before it enters the landfill.

The archaeology books all tell us that some of the richest sources of information about ancient and prehistoric human life is garbage heaps, tastefully called kitchen middens. While the great monuments and cave paintings proclaim what people of those times wanted others, including us perhaps, to think about them. Trash heaps tell it like it is. Archaeologist Bill Rathje is already using our landfills to study our recent history. You want to know what people ate? Look for bones and seeds in their trash piles. You want to know what they consider valuable? Look for what they did not throw out. What do you find when you look at our trash piles? You see that we are throwing away the future.

First, even where it is illegal, people still throw thousands of tons of toxic waste into the garbage and then it goes to the landfill. Some of the toxins, such as heavy metals, never decompose. We do not care if seepage contaminates the water sources of other people besides ourselves today, much less people of the future.

Second, we throw away so many things that have value. Recycling is often a more economical source of materials than manufacture from raw materials. The only reason that, in many cases, recycled paper is more expensive than paper from freshly-killed trees is that the trees are either raised in plantations using sometimes ecologically unsound techniques or the National Forest Service is willing to sell them to timber companies dirt cheap. (Actually, soil is valuable. Try replacing it once it has eroded away.) The only reason that rare metals such as germanium may be cheaper to mine and refine than to recycle is that the taxpayers are paying for military operations in Afghanistan, which has immense deposits of rare metals, and one result of this is that we can have access to those metal ores (more on this in the next essay).

So if someone says that recycling isn’t cost effective, ask some questions, such as:

  • How did you calculate the cost effectiveness of recycling vs. use of raw materials?
  • How did you calculate the cost of depleting supplies and dumping poisons on future generations—or did you do any such calculations?

What will future archaeologists (if any; humans may survive but civilization may not) think when they dig up our trash heaps? Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Machine Age, Electronic Age, Garb-Age. They will marvel out how little value we placed upon our planet, upon our fellow humans, and upon or descendants.