In 1995, the prominent technological futurist Nicholas Negroponte predicted that the world would soon see “bits” replace “atoms”; the intellectual property behind software would increasingly override the raw materials necessary to produce new technology. Yet twenty years on from Negroponte’s claim these new technologies remain reliant on raw materials for their components. A notable example is to be found in one of the world’s largest sectors, consumer electronics. The raw materials used in iPhones, tablets, laptops, include gold, tantalum and tin. Demand for the latter, chiefly in electronics, has seen China, one of two largest global producers of the metal, struggle to meet demand. This shortage can be attributed to a number of factors. Firstly, tin is used extensively in the electronics industry; in the words of one Chinese metals analyst: “As long as there’s a circuit board, there will be tin”. Secondly, electronic products have a comparatively short-shelf life resulting from rising consumer demand for the latest devices or through so-called “planned obsolescence”. Thirdly, compounding this, end-of-life (EOL) recovery rates are very low; ten years after Negroponte’s claims, in 2005, US EOL rates for tin (chiefly from electronics) stood at 28%, almost level with that of recycling rates for the metal between 1925 and 1934. As a result of this poor stewardship, reserves of tin have been estimated at 22 years. The implications of this are all the more profound when we consider that cassiterite – the mineral from which tin is refined – has historically been one of the most plentifully occurring minerals. The implications of these shortages can also be seen in the fact that cassiterite, as well as gold and tantalum, have increasingly been sourced from illegal mining in conflict zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, with suggestions that the trade is funding warlords and fuelling human rights abuses and regional destabilisation. Tin represents just one raw material, which is ubiquitous to modern life but subject to concerns about its long-term sustainability.
From the recent knock-on effects of the fall in demand for iron ore from China on the economy of Western Australia to the international furore over the case brought by the US and Japan to the World Trade Organization against China over the control and supply of “rare earths”, it is evident that what European Commission Vice-President Antonio Tajani referred to as “raw materials diplomacy” matters profoundly. More recently, long-time observers of the global mining industry have averred that a resurgence in economic nationalism represents a major threat to the global trade and industry. However, neither contests nor the rhetoric around raw materials supply are new; questions over “natural capital” were exercising political economists such as Thomas Malthus, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx in the 18th and 19th century. As the Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Solow observed in 1974: “… I think I have found something that is both contemporary and perennial. The world has been exhausting its exhaustible resources since the first cave-man chipped a flint, and I imagine the process will go on for a long, long time”. And yet, as close observers of the trade in raw materials, and policy responses to it, have noted, policymakers remain inattentive to the crucial role of history to understanding the trends and implications with greater clarity. It was these concerns, which attracted a group of raw materials historians at Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University, and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology to found the History and Strategic Raw Materials Initiative (HSRMI). HSRMI was formed with the express intention of bringing together researchers, as well as policymakers, businesses, and NGOs, from a range of disciplines engaged in the field, who are interested in applying historical perspectives to their work to better inform ongoing policy and public debates on the subject. In forming HSRMI, we were also informed by our previous historical studies of aluminium, bauxite, and tin. Twenty years after Nicholas Negroponte’s predictions, the rate of technological innovation, and consumer demand, has not replaced “atoms” but rather poses major concerns and questions that need to be addressed over economic and environmental sustainability and political stability. Key to an appreciation of these complex questions is a deep historical understanding.
Dr Andrew Perchard is Senior Research Fellow and PGR Director, Centre for Business in Society, Coventry University, and Co-Director of HSRMI. His recent publications include: (with Mats Ingulstad and Espen Storli), Tin and Global Capitalism, 1850-2000: A History of the “Devil’s Metal” (2014); and Aluminiumville: Government, Global Business and the Scottish Highlands (2012). HSRMI can be followed on Twitter @HSRMI.