Monday 17 August 2015

The Desolation Of Mordor: Tolkien’s Fictional Wasteland Has Nothing On Baotou, The Worst Place On Earth.

"The Gasping Pits And Poisonous Mounds Grew Hideously Clear." Toxic waste from the processing of rare earths pours into Lake Baotou in China's Inner Mongolia province. This is where 97 percent of the world's rare earths come from. Without them neither our smart phones nor our much vaunted "green technology" would work.
IT IS ONE of the most graphic passages in the whole of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The description of the toxic desert on the outskirts of Mordor. Inspired by the polluted landscapes surrounding Britain’s great industrial cities in his youth, Tolkien employs the waste-dumps of Mordor as a metaphor for the diseased and poisoned nature of the Dark Lord’s character. Just as the ruined land is beyond all rehabilitation, so, too, is Sauron.
Here is Tolkien’s description of that terrible place:
“They had come to the desolation that lay before Mordor: the lasting monument to the dark labour of its slaves that should endure when all their purposes were made void; a land defiled, diseased beyond all healing – unless the Great Sea should enter it and wash it with oblivion. ‘I feel sick,’ said Sam. Frodo did not speak. 

For a while they stood there, like men on the edge of a sleep where nightmare lurks, holding it off, though they know they can only come to morning through shadows. The light broadened and hardened. The gasping pits and poisonous mounds grew hideously clear. The sun was up, walking among clouds and long flags of smoke, but even the sunlight was defiled. The hobbits had no welcome for that light; unfriendly it seemed, revealing them in their helplessness – little squeaking ghosts that wandered among the ash-heaps of the Dark Lord.”
Throughout the fantasy, Tolkien takes great care to reassure his readers that the “free peoples” of Middle Earth are at great pains to stand aloof from Mordor and all its works. If, however, someone were to attempt to describe the political economy of Middle Earth (at the end of the Third Age) it would have to begin with the declining empire of Gondor and its vassal states, Rohan and The Shire. A largely self-sufficient economic entity, such trade as Gondor still engaged in was principally with the Dwarf kingdom located in the Iron Hills, many hundreds of miles to the north. Tolkien hints that Gondor might also have engaged in limited commerce with the kingdoms of the “swertings” – the black-skinned peoples of the south – but only during the period when the Dark Lord was believed to be dead.
There can be no doubt, however, that Mordor constituted the economic powerhouse of Middle Earth. Like the ante-bellum South, Mordor boasted vast plantations in which thousands of slaves produced the food and other materials required for its sustenance. Any surplus was traded with the southern kingdoms which had, since Sauron’s return, fallen steadily under Mordor’s sway. Moreover, the Dark Lord’s military build-up, in preparation for his attack upon Gondor, would have required the production of weapons on an industrial scale. Mordor’s hunger for iron and other minerals must have been insatiable.
Deconstructing Tolkien’s great tale in this cold-eyed economic fashion is, of course, anathema to LOTR aficionados. The War of the Ring is supposed to be a battle between good and evil, not an economic struggle between a rapidly industrialising, slave-owning tyranny on the one hand, and an economically weak, largely agricultural, kingdom without a king, on the other. Looked at in this fashion, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that without the magical assistance rendered by Gandalf and the Elves, Gondor would have been a gonner.
Cold-eyed and economically determined is, however, very definitely the nature of the world in which we are required to live. A world sadly lacking in magical beings dedicated to the protection of fading empires and bucolic farming communities like the Shire. On Planet Earth, the rising power of a tyrannical industrial powerhouse is unlikely to be checked by anything remotely resembling wizards, elves or hobbits.
Where Tolkien’s fantasy and twenty-first century reality do intersect, however, is in the environmental degradation attendant upon our high-tech civilisation. The hideous pollution which Tolkien encountered in his youth has, like the factories and mines that created it, largely disappeared from England’s green and pleasant land. But this does not mean that Mordor-like desolation is also a thing of the past. Mordor has merely shifted its location: from the north of England and the midlands, to the seemingly limitless horizons of Inner Mongolia and the horrors of Baotou.
Baotou is the global centre of rare earth production: the place from which the minerals that make our post-modern, digitally-driven world possible. Only in China is such an industrial complex possible, because the inescapable environmental degradation attendant upon the extraction of Rare Earths would never be tolerated in the democratic nations of the West.
Read how a team of BBC journalists and photographers described their arrival at the man-made “lake” on the outskirts of Baotou. If Mordor is anywhere in this world, then surely, it is here:
“We reached the shore, and looked across the lake. I’d seen some photos before I left for Inner Mongolia, but nothing prepared me for the sight. It’s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying. The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realisation that this was the by-product not just of the consumer electronics in my pocket, but also green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars that we get so smugly excited about in the West. Unsure of quite how to react, I take photos and shoot video on my cerium polished iPhone.”
Baotou's Toxic Lake: "Nothing prepared me for the sight."
Tolkien’s great fantasy both reveals and conceals the true nature of the world human-beings inhabit. The Ring of Power – symbol of the ruthless instrumentalism through which humankind has subdued the planet – is wonderfully conceived, but its ability to instruct the reader is fatally weakened by Tolkien’s determination to make Good triumph over Evil.
The bitter truth, of course, is that all of us wear the Ring of Power, all the time. And all of us are irredeemably engaged in the moral self-destruction that use of the Ring inevitably entails. We New Zealanders may be “sleepy hobbits”, dozing blissfully in our beautiful little Shire at the world’s end, but that doesn’t stop us, when we’re awake, from using the wondrous consumer goods Baotou’s rare earths make possible. Our ease, and the bounteous lifestyle of which we are so proud (and of which the rest of the world is so envious) only exists because somewhere, far, far away, in the barren wilds of Inner Mongolia, giant pipes are continuously spewing their poisonous brew into a lake so ruined, hideous and deadly, that Sauron, himself, would blanche in horror.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 16 August 2015.


Anonymous said...

David Farrar just posted 200 years of amazing progress: "A pretty stunning graph showing how much the world has changed for the better for the vast majority. We’ve gone from 95% of humans in poverty to under 20% – and the biggest change has been the last 50 years."

His way of providing a smokescreen for the inconvenient truths about the costs of globalisation on (many) new Zealanders (i.e the real estate industry).

Charles E said...

Nice essay & images and I certainly agree China fits the Mordor label well. I would add Russia, with just as bad an environmental record. But your point is that we all benefit from this destructive extraction on one side of the ledger.
What is the fix then? Rules based, enforceable trade agreements which include environmental standards. Like a TPP+. These have been put forward but they are always apposed by China & Russia and their fellow travellers, including the anti-trade portion left, and other idiots like NZF on the right.

But the facts about rare earth metals are:
China currently produces 86% of them but has only 42% of reserves.
China has tried to monopolise the market for them but lost a WTO case recently. They claimed they had to control the market and stockpile the stuff for environmental reasons! Laughable. It's their gross cheap production methods that stops production more cleanly elsewhere, so you are right there.
But 60% of the stuff isused in catalysts, not hi-tech devises and clean energy tech. Just 10% are used in magnets like in wind turbines; another 10% in other which could be phones and computers; and 10% in glass polishing!
Here in the Shire we have rare earths but are way to clean and hypocritical to dig them up. We use others to do that dirty stuff.

greywarbler said...

Fairy Tales, Grimm, Hans Andersen, Tolkien, have something to tell us. Your example Chris and the dreadful explosion in China, have wakened my forebodings. The power of groupthink seems enough to draw people into hell for a cause that sounds well, but often the attraction is ends up as wealth and plunder. Think the Crusades.

It's dangerous to let anyone hold the ring of power and ambition for very long else they become besotted. Each person who touches them is glued by the spell and all will follow.

Anonymous said...

Nitpick: the waste before the Morannon was likely modelled off the No Man's Land of WWI. Tolkien grew up in Birmingham, and after WWI ended up in Leeds, then Oxford. He'd have had personal experience with industrial pollution, but not on the Mordorian scale of nineteenth century London, Manchester, and Glasgow.

Unknown said...

Thank you Chris. I have a good friend who is genuinely worried for the environment. He posted a story on Facebook about the evils of the petrochemical economy. I asked him how he got to work. The conundrum we face is breaking the cycle. It sounds easy until you begin to deconstruct our economic reality in energy and resource terms.

jh said...

Your obsession with Sauron, Mordor and orks is just a manifestation of xenophobia Chris. One should embrace diversity.

jh said...

One thing I find troubling about Lord of the Rings analogies is the timing of the movie and it's effect on Middle Earth

New Zealand is the new Eden, its clean and green image the beneficiary of a public-relations windfall direct from Middle-earth. Americans are not just visiting the country in numbers unimaginable only five years ago—they’re immigrating, drawn by an arcadian ideal (never underestimate the pacifying effect of several billion sheep), breathtakingly cheap waterfront real estate, see-through fish-tank architecture, and an investment climate that, as one Las Vegas resort owner–cum–South Island winemaker puts it, makes New Zealand “the Switzerland of the South Seas.”
One of the most powerful forces in the shilling of the nation is Helen Clark, familiar to all Kiwis as Madame Prime Minister. In her book, there are no bad tourists, only ones with shallow pockets. And in a recent campaign that will go down in history, Clark aggressively packaged and promoted New Zealand as a place where Californians in particular, because of their relative proximity and the kinship in lifestyles, might consider putting down roots. “Active recruitment,” she called it, and some of the state’s richest residents signed up. Vive le marketing.

and this at a time when Labour had secretly embarked on what some academics dub "the Tin-tinisation of Aotearoa"

Unknown said...

We think it is strange that people once thought the Earth was flat however, there are people today who think resources don't matter (Cornucopians) and population doesn't matter (eg Poot and Spoonley). Those people are still sailing the globe but yet to complete the circle.