Spreading Sacrifice Areas in Anthropology

By Alexander Dunlap

Confronting a room of ‘Revolutionary Communists’ and Marxists about their desire for industrialism in 1980, Russell Means took the time to explain the uncomfortable reality of extractivism in native territory:

Right now, today, we who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation are living in what Euro society has designated a “national sacrifice area.” What this means is that we have a lot of uranium deposits here and Euro culture (not us) needs this uranium as energy production material. The cheapest, most efficient way for industry to extract and deal with the processing of this uranium is to dump the waste byproducts right here at the digging sites. Right here where we live. This waste is radioactive and will make the entire region uninhabitable forever. This is considered by industry, and the white society which created this industry, to be an “acceptable” price to pay for energy resource development. [….]

We are resisting being turned into a national sacrifice area. We’re resisting being turned into a national sacrifice people. The costs of this industrial process are not acceptable to us. It is genocide to dig the uranium here and to drain the water-table, no more, no less. So the reasons for our resistance are obvious enough and shouldn’t have to be explained further. To anyone.

This reality outlined by Means not only continues today across the world through various extractive projects, but it is intensifying. ‘Progressive’ and ‘conscientious citizens’ not only cling to the proliferation of voluntary UN standards, corporate social responsibility (CSR), private auditing firms, and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) consultations, but also ideas of ‘sustainable development,’ the ‘green’ economy and renewable energy. While understandable in this time of ecological and climate crisis, the unfortunate reality is that despite international efforts to mitigate these issues Means’s words still ring true. Distinctions between fossil fuels and renewable energy is a clever sleight of hand, masking the continued ecological degradations necessary for the continuation of an irresponsible consumer society and its ecological modernization.

While there are significant problems with the way wind and other renewable energy projects are being implemented, equally concerning is the extractivism necessary to create these ‘renewable’ technologies. A two-megawatt wind turbine, for example, uses roughly 150 metric tons of steel for reinforced concrete foundations, 250 metric tons for the gearbox and 500 metric tons for the tower, which includes 3.6 tons of copper per megawatt. Now imagine regions like the Isthmus of Tehuantpec region in Oaxaca, Mexico that has 1,608 wind turbines operating to export electricity out of the region to propel Walmart, Grupo Bimbo, industrial construction, mining and beverage companies. According to Guezuraga et al. the most energy costly and CO2 producing is ‘the production of stainless steel, followed by concrete and cast iron,’ meanwhile ‘plastic production represents the most energy intensive process of all materials.’ From the perspective of carbon accounting this may be true, but the issue of rare earth mineral mining and processing to manufacture permanent magnet generators remains publically unacknowledged.

Figure 1: Baotou Mining and Processing Area; Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields

Baotou, Inner Mongolia, and Ganzhou, South East China, depending on the years between the late 1980s and 2015, produce between 8598% of rare earths used in wind turbines, electric cars, smart phones and other technologies. The Baotou mining and processing area has been called ‘hell on Earth’ in a BBC report, describing the area as a dystopic industrial landscape filled with pollution and cluttered with factories, pipelines, high-tension wires and artificial lakes filled with ‘black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge’ that ‘tested at around three times background radiation.’

Figure 2: Baotou Lake, Mongolia. Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields

Mined with open pit, underground or leached in-situ methods, rare earth ore deposits contain “low concentrations [of desired minerals] ranging from 10 to a few hundred parts per million by weight.” Most concerning, however, is that ‘[t]he mining and processing steps for refining of rare earths,’ Haque et al write, ‘tend to be energy, water and chemical intensive with significant environment risks affecting water discharges (radionuclides, mainly thorium and uranium; heavy metals; acid; fluorides), tailing management and air emissions.’ Renewable energy thus involves socially and ecologically destructive mining processes with large amounts of mining tailings that contain industrial and radioactive waste that contaminates the air, water, soil, animals and humans in the region—the quantity and intensity of which is difficult to measure because of not only political, but also epistemic factors in accounting for full-spectrum ecosystem impacts. While in theory, Amory Lovins points out, wind turbines could be built without rare earth minerals, this is currently not the case for industrial-scale wind parks. Like other industrial technologies, wind parks continue to require extractivism that generates toxic and radioactive waste that is absent from carbon accounting, meanwhile sacrifice areas engulfing entire regions in china and other extractive sites across the world.

Whether politicians or anthropologists, the majority remain indifferent to the perpetuation of national sacrifice areas. Means reminds us, it is an ‘”acceptable” price to pay for energy resource development.’ Disappointingly, it appears anthropologists choose to ignore these realities, instead clinging to the popular public discourse surrounding the green economy and renewable energy. Anthropologists could be important figures in denouncing this atrocities, as some are, which could include devising real and/or genuine experiments into socio-ecological sustainability. Instead, however, anthropologists justify themselves by demonstrating their relevance to a ‘public’ surreptitiously transformed into corporate interests, leaving many to tailor academic programs to celebrate the green economy, business partnerships and even offer students careers to produce knowledge ‘fit for industry products‘ that implicitly believes that the green economy and renewable energy is the protagonist of our time. In actuality it is reselling the rotten and poisonous wine of industrial development as ‘new’ through ‘green’ economic schemes to present extractivism as ecologically ‘sustainable.’ While anthropologists might be concerned about their jobs, grant acquisition and their professional existence, we cannot forget our complicity in reproducing and spreading sacrifice zones. We should minimize, if not protest, it, dedicating resources in novel ways to achieve diverse pathways to energy and food autonomy.

Alexander Dunlap is post-doctoral researcher at the department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.

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