Let's save 'endangered technical species'

People leave behind nutrients not only in the biosphere. They also express their intentions in the technosphere. There is much talk today about national debts, budget deficits, and raising deficit ceilings. One U.S. study notes that every baby born to American parents is born with approximately $45,000 in debt to his or her name, before even holding a job. (Other studies calculate the amount at three times as much.)

We think society is setting up a similar debt when it comes to technical nutrients. “Planned obsolescence” dates back to the 1930s as a mode of stimulating economies, by making consumer goods break down or go out of style after a particular time period so as to instigate more purchasing. It gained currency in the 1950s.

But because of society’s design strategies, that planned obsolescence rings with it a significant debt in terms of the raw technical materials put out of industry’s reach in landfills.

We know society has the capability of being more careful with its raw materials. How do people treat gold, for example? Because society values gold, no one simply throws it out to be mashed in a dump or melted into a monstrous mess in an incinerator. That is unthinkable. Everyone would wonder how anybody could accidentally throw their gold away and how we could dig that gold out of the mountainous tons of waste to reuse it.

Instead, people traditionally sell it in its whole form. Or they pass it down to their children. Or they sell it to be remelted and made into gold of equal value.

Now think of cobalt, used in medical implants. Indium used LED lamps. Neodymium for wind turbines. Lithium for batteries.

These rare-earth and heavy metals are truly precious because they allow us to have the needed and valued goods, such as lifesaving devices, renewable power, computers, cars and so on.

But if people keep designing for one material use and not reuse, we “use up” clean forms of the technical nutrients needed to make the products for the future. This means we will all worry about “limits to growth” because we feel we are running out of resources. Because of suboptimal design of virtually all current appliances from a material-reuse perspective, there’s a chance that the technical nutrients used to make them are being used up. The same goes for computers and cars and lawn mowers.

Just as with fossil fuels, the quantity of metals and basic elements held by the earth seems vast. But ultimately these technical nutrients are limited. In truth, the only incoming recurrency available to humans is solar energy, rainwater and the occasional meteor. In our work, we have started calling these metals “endangered technical species” to convey the seriousness of their potential loss to us in pure form: Extracting the metals requires lots of energy. If people reuse them, far less energy is required for their (potential) recapture and reconfiguration. Yet people do not recycle them as well as we could.

Like fossil fuels, the metals are capital being spent as if they were currency, and people are contaminating and depleting what could be available in pure form for generations.

Also, like fossil fuels, the technical nutrients are dispersed unequally around the globe. China currently supplies most of the world’s rare-earth metals, and it has used that fact to express political displeasure toward certain trading partners from time to time, sporadically interrupting the supply. Nations need not be in a state of anxiety about access to productive materials when people can be using and reusing the resources already available more wisely.

Next page: Mining, molecule by molecule