Wandering thoughts: Rare Earth Elements, Climate Change, and Fantasy Settings


I had some grim thoughts about the future of our civilization today, and turned them into a fantastical exploration of alternate worlds… because that’s how my brain works, I guess. Join my escapade, and learn a little bit about Rare Earth Elements, modern technology, and climate change while you’re at it.

Rare Earth Elements are fundamental to modern technology: we’re talking about computers, smart phones, and renewable power generation among other things. Most of the world’s current stock is sourced from Chinese mines in Inner Mongolia. The runners up are mines in Australia, India, and South Africa. There are still some US deposits, but from what I understand those haven’t been mined in any comparable quantity in years. I’ve read some material about the obstacles involved in reopening some US REE mines (Mountain Pass I think), but I don’t recall the details. Oh, also, some REEs are bio-available and may accumulate in vegetation, or in animals who consume REE contaminated water or plants. Effects vary, but beyond trace concentrations the results usually aren’t good.

Part of what makes REEs difficult to mine is that—despite being relatively abundant, elementally speaking—they are not often found in mineable concentrations, or at least not accessible ones (deep sea mining of metal-rich mud is not currently feasible, as best as I know). Many of the places that do have mineable concentrations of REEs crucial for modern technology are also places that will likely become markedly less habitable as our climate warms and changes (due to heat waves, among other things). This means that climate change will hit global civilization with a “double whammy,” assuming you’re willing to lump all the other whammies into one.

I mean, honestly, we’re not ready for all the ways that our warming climate will challenge us. It’ll hit us on so many fronts, it’ll be rough even if we’re actively working to mitigate the issues. For a narrow examination of some of that, check out my piece on building a setting for my swamp gangsters stories.

Anyway, a warming climate will mean that our production of REEs (necessary for making the renewable power generation infrastructure we need to help avoid warming our climate) is likely to become more expensive; hotter temperatures, more extreme weather variation, and more unforeseen weather events, etc., will all make it more difficult to operate those mines. Restriction of REE production will drive up tech costs, making (among other things) widespread distribution of renewables more difficult and making maintaining our tech base while reducing our carbon footprint more expensive. Just another way in which climate change bolsters negative self-reinforcing cycles.

Fun stuff all around.

That’s about where my brain said, “ahhh shit,” so let’s wander off into fantasy land.

Specifically, let’s look at a fantasy-land tied to my Hub setting (which I just realized I may not have written about here). The civilizations linked to the Hub were certainly “sufficiently advanced” by Clarke’s standards, and surely they must have wanted REEs or some analogous material for their sufficiently advanced technology. So what if they had a way of extracting REEs from less-concentrated deposits? Or what if they simply extracted REEs through less mechanically-inclined processes?

My brain immediately went to magical biotech. Somewhere (and somewhen) in this setting, someone designed and bred a plant which concentrated REEs into a part of its organism, ideally a fruit. Rather than mining for REE-rich ore and then processing it, their civilization could simply harvest a crop (and presumably process that in some other way). Heck, given that we’re dealing with magi-tech, perhaps these plants already produce refined material like the extraordinarily rare promethium.

Forget golden apples; how about the bright silvery shine of neodymium apples? It would be the core of any good wand industry. Adventurers in the Hub looking to make their own magical objects might need to find an overgrown orchard, or harvest some other now-rare plant once used for the widespread cultivation of REE-dense crops. Some of those might even require special safety precautions—not that Hub adventurers are likely to know that.

I haven’t gone into any great depth here yet, but I’m already excited about the possibilities for questing after magical metal fruit as a vital reagent. And, given the time scales involved in my Hub setting, perhaps something has evolved the capacity to consume this fruit, or other survivors of the Great Collapse of the Tapestry of Worlds have found uses for these plants and their produce. Given the widespread adoption of radium as a health tonic during the early-to-mid 1900s, it’s hard to imagine people *not* going nuts for the juice of a luminous apple.


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