A Q & A session with author, David Abraham
I recently had the opportunity to speak with David Abraham about his book “The Elements of Power – Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age ” published by Yale University Press on October 27 this year.
In his book David tracks these “elements of power” as they wend their entwined ways from, say, in the case of niobium, Brazil, to a bridge in India. Or, in the case of indium, from China, to the screen of your iPhone. He tells the tales not only of those who produce the metals, but also of those who trade them and those who use them. And details just how and why we are, now, so dependent on them.
As he further explains, rare in their power and often rare in themselves, these metals, and what they enable us to do, have become inextricably woven into the fabric of both our lives and the world we live in. His book sets out to provide the wider context. And, perhaps most importantly, the responsibilities, on so many fronts, that we either do, or should, assume as an element makes its way, for example, from mine to magnet.
Who is your audience?
I think that, essentially, the book is for people who do not realize the complexity of the products that they use every day. If you take the example, say, of a minor metals trader, I believe this book can help her explain to someone: “This is what I do and this is why it’s important.” It gives insight into the work that metals traders do. Too often, trading is just explained as getting some material from one place to another. But there’s a deeper story in how metals move from the ground to our pockets. This book explains not only just how materials get from one place to another, but also how they got there in the first place.
The audience for this book is really quite wide. It includes people interested in geopolitics, in investing, in mining, and in the environment.
Looking at it another way, people know where their shirts come from – perhaps a factory worker in Cambodia sewed it together. But people often have no idea about other products just as close to us. Take for example our cell phones. People have no idea how it takes half the elements known to man to create the thing. The fact that we have the supply chain actually to make it at all is as impressive as what it can do!
What I’m trying to do is explain the hidden trail of these materials from mine to use.
What is the most important thing you want readers to “take away” with them having read your book?
I think the most important thing is that we’ve got these products that just come to us in a box. We have no understanding that practically everything we use is either mined or grown. And that the more complex the product, your computer, say, or your telephone, is, the deeper it is related to mining. I think that there is this significant disconnect between what we understand about the stuff we get in boxes and resources used to make that stuff. I’m hoping to draw a greater connection between those two, and I use the trading of minor metals to draw that out.
But why is that so important?
Whether you are looking at sustainable living, or whether you want to invest, you need to have an understanding of the impacts of the decisions you make as an individual, or that people make as a group. I think that this understanding of the impacts is an important thing, regardless of whether it may be an ethical issue or a resource issue. You really should understand, if you’re going to do either “x” or “y”, what are the impacts will be and what resources you’ll be using.
Strange as it may seem, the activity of mining and metals trading is not divorced from, but, rather, a critical reason why, we all have smartphones. I want the reader to see that connection. People may rail against mining or oil and gas production, but they don’t actually understand the complexities and the resources that they need to lead the lives to which they are accustomed.
The book tries to be an eye-opening experience because, so often, we just don’t know where the stuff we use comes from. And the book highlights that, even after research, we often still don’t know where it comes from!
Why do you call it “The Elements of Power”, with the emphasis on the word “power”?
It’s because they are resources that have very specific purposes and without them we might not have the applications in which they are used. For example, without dysprosium, you would not have a rare earth magnet that makes your ‘phone vibrate. Without indium, your ‘phone would not respond to your touch. I’m essentially ascribing the word power to the individual elements themselves in an attempt to raise their statures and characterize the unique “power” they have to do the jobs they do.
How and why did you choose the individual elements that you did?
When I came in to looking at minor metals, I came in through rare earths. I was in Japan when China restricted rare earth access in 2010. I was at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, so I had a ringside seat to the resource battle. Since I came in with a geopolitical background, I was really interested in the geopolitics behind these materials. I started looking at what rare earths did. And then I started looking more broadly at minor metals, as the Japanese government was very focused not just on rare earths, but on a whole a slew of other metals.
So, essentially, I started looking at a group of metals that had some characteristic of criticality. For example, was the metal geologically rare, or was it concentrated in one country like, for example, niobium. Was its production predominantly from one mine? Or, even, was the country from which it came not too friendly to the rest of the world? Then it went to where I could get information and what products were of most interest. That led, for example, to indium: I could get information about it and I understood where it fitted in with ‘phones or solar power. But, really, I tried to focus on metals that had a technological angle to them.
What, if any, is your “Call to Action”?
I think that there are several. Perhaps the first is for people to try to understand where things come from. Or, at the very least, to think about it as something they should understand. Second, there’s the whole issue of understanding the impacts of some of the decisions that people make. As I have already mentioned, mining and metals trading are not really divorced from the act of making a ‘phone call. The third, and I know it might sound grandiose, is that we use resources more efficiently.
Interview conducted by Tom Butcher