This is sure to end well: Afghanistan’s vast untapped mineral resources

Paul Raven @ 14-06-2010

Looks like my cynicism gland gets an early boost this week, as the New York Times reports that the US government has discovered Afghanistan holds an estimated US$1 trillion in previously untapped mineral deposits [via MetaFilter].

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.

An internal Pentagon memo, for example, states that Afghanistan could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” a key raw material in the manufacture of batteries for laptops and BlackBerrys.

Looks like I’m reading from the same page as Charlie Stross:

Note the presence of lithium in that list. It’s a vital raw material for high-capacity rechargable batteries, used in everything from mobile phones to hybrid or electrically-powered automobiles — and there’s a growing worldwide shortage of the stuff. There’s no intrinsic shortage of lithium, but high grade mineral sources are hard to find — it’s mostly bound up in other mineral deposits, in very low concentrations. Half the known exploitable reserves are in Bolivia (at least, before this new discovery).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make the inductive jump from oil:old burning-stuff-to-keep-warm economy to lithium:new post-carbon alternative energy economy. And by applying the PNAC’s equation of control over energy reserves with maintenance of competitive advantage (by applying the choke collar to rivals), it’s fairly likely that, coming at this time, the discovery of Lots of Lithium in Afghanistan will be used to reinforce western support for an increasingly unpopular war of occupation.

Charlie expresses his hope that he’s being overly cynical; it’s a hope I share, but not one I’d like to put money on. But here’s Thomas Barnett with a slightly different take on the situation:

Before anybody gets the idea that somehow the West is the winner here, understand that we’re not the big draw on most of these minerals–that would be Asia and China in particular. What no one should expect is that the discovery suddenly makes it imperative that NATO do whatever it takes to stay and win and somehow control the mineral outcomes, because–again–that’s now how it works in most Gap situations like Africa.  We can talk all we want about China not “dominating” the situation, but their demand will drive the process either directly or indirectly.  There is no one in the world of mining that’s looking to make an enemy out of China over this, and one way or another, most of this stuff ends up going East–not West.

[…]

Here’s the simplest reality test I can offer you:  if we’re just at the initial discovery phase now, we’re talking upwards of a decade before there will be mature mines.  Fast-forward a decade in your mind and try to imagine the US having a bigger presence in Afghanistan than China.  I myself cannot.

Start with that realization and move backward, because exploring any other pathway will likely expose you to a whole lotta hype.

A rather more optimistic viewpoint than my own (and, to judge by the content of my Twitter feed, a lot of other people’s). We’ll just have to wait and see… which will certainly be an easier experience for us Westerners than for the poor Afghanis. Better make some more adjustments to that perpetually mutating narrative, eh?


Better living through chemistry – lithium, for a saner society

Paul Raven @ 04-05-2009

water tapsI like to think I’m mostly over my twenty-something’s obsession with conspiracy theories and government-as-competent-ubiquitous-control-system paranoia… but stories like this still hold the power to make me start thinking about where I left the tin-foil. You see, it turns out that populations who drink tap water that contains lithium are statistically less inclined to suicide; so, why don’t we engineer a happier society by giving everyone lithium?

High doses of lithium are already used to treat serious mood disorders.

But the team from the universities of Oita and Hiroshima found that even relatively low levels appeared to have a positive impact of suicide rates.

Levels ranged from 0.7 to 59 micrograms per litre. The researchers speculated that while these levels were low, there may be a cumulative protective effect on the brain from years of drinking this tap water.

At least one previous study has suggested an association between lithium in tap water and suicide. That research on data collected from the 1980s also found a significantly lower rate of suicide in areas with relatively high lithium levels.

A spokesperson from a mental health charity points out that:

“… lithium also has significant and an unpleasant side effects in higher doses, and can be toxic. Any suggestion that it should be added, even in tiny amounts, to drinking water should be treated with caution and researched very thoroughly.”

Or perhaps simply deployed on the quiet for the good of the nation; after all, if you wait until after the lithium has been soaking into the population to tell them about, they’re less likely to get upset about it. It’s all for their own good, poor lambs; best to shelter them from the miseries of reality as completely as possible. Think of it as a method of extending governance beyond its traditional border – the oh-so-intransigent skull.

Yeah, I know, there’s probably no Western government that could get away with it… but you can’t try to tell me there aren’t certain elements in the halls of power who’d find it a very appealing prospect nonetheless. [via Jamais Cascio on Twitter; image by koshyk]