A huge percentage of the world’s rare earth minerals, essential for the manufacture of many modern hi-tech products which define contemporary technological life, come from the fields of Inner Mongolia, China, where loose environmental protection restrictions permit the violent extractive processes required to obtain the minerals. In 1954, in the small and remote town of Baotou, the Baogang Iron and Steel Company was established; 10 kilometres north of the Yellow River, 150 kilometres south of the iron mine at Bayan Obo. Before rare earth elements were discovered there in 1984, massive Soviet investment had already seen the establishment of a major steel production infrastructure. Operation to produce the new mineral oxides began in earnest, and soon enough Baotou became the ‘Silicon Valley of Rare Earths’. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said, “The Middle East has oil; China has rare earths.”
Globalization in the late 20th century accelerated the mining activities, as global companies began competing for possession of the minerals, mostly choosing to subcontract the extraction process to China to save on costs and to avoid environmental regulations. This assured the importation to the West of bountiful rare earth metals, while similarly assuring the permanent exportation of the violent environmental damage which rare earth extraction causes. Western civilisation has always exported violence beyond its borders, with the world now divided, as Guillaume Pitron writes, “between the dirty and those who pretend to be clean”.
Today, China is by far the world’s largest exporter of rare earths, producing around 95% of global supply, the majority extracted on the fields of Baotou. The city was once a village on the traditional lands of the Mongolian people; now it is a vast metropolis of some 3 million people and sustained entirely on rare earth mineral production. Ore from Bayan Obo is brought in every day for extraction, with the waste produced being funnelled through flimsy pipelines into a tailings pond nearby; into a giant lake of poison called Weikuang Dam which stretches to the horizon.
It is estimated that by 2030, the global demand for rare earths will be 5 times what it is now. In 2021, it was announced that Australia would be ear-marked to compete with China’s rare earth monopoly, with a major rare earth extraction plant planned for Western Australia.
The toxic lake of Baotou is a vision into a nightmarish future, where technology and human expansion has poisoned the earth and skies. Using Hong Kong philosopher Yuk Hui’s notion of ‘cosmotechnics’ as a departure, Rare Earth explores the metaphysics of rampant human growth, examining how traditional knowledge systems compare to the ethos and ontology of modernity and of unmitigated technological expansion. Looking out at the expanse of Weikuang, we see a human cosmological praxis out of touch from its centre. The film is thus a meditation on technological progress, human and environmental destruction and our ultimate destiny as a species.
Director – Robert McDougall
Robert McDougall is a non-Aboriginal Australian artist, composer, filmmaker and anthropologist whose work incorporates video art, essay film, photographic print, kinetic installation and electroacoustic music. Focusing on archival, ethnographic and metaphysical research, his work explores durational and formalist aesthetics, vernacular traditions and the Avant Garde, knowledge practices and unconsidered histories, post-conflict trauma and justice, numinous spaces and the sublime. Recent work includes films on post-conflict trauma in the Caucasus region, a Discostan/NTS Radio special mix of Uyghur pop and electronic music, and an ongoing doctoral research project on the perspectival worlds of South Asian traditional knowledge practice in the West Himalayas.