Book Talk: Klinger on Rare Earth Frontiers


Julie Klinger, Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, discussed her new book  Rare Earth Frontiers: From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes (Cornell University Press, 2018) as part of the Pardee School Research Seminar Series on April 3, 2018. 

Rare Earth Frontiers is a work of human geography that serves to demystify the powerful elements that make possible the miniaturization of electronics, green energy and medical technologies, and essential telecommunications and defense systems. According to Klinger, the rare earths we rely on most are as common as copper or lead, and this means the implications of their extraction are global.

“Rare Earth Elements have fantastic magnetic and conductive properties that have allowed the miniaturization of electronics, the expansion of renewable energy technologies, and they are used in everything from wind turbines, to the navigation components for drones and smart bombs,” Klinger said. “Basically, whatever future we hope to build whether it is the greenest and most peaceful or the most dystopic and hypermilitarized we need these things. That means that Rare Earth Elements in a way are implicated in whatever social, economic, and political project we have. 

In the book, Klinger excavates the rich historical origins and ongoing ramifications of the quest to mine rare earths in ever more impossible places.

“Rare Earths are everywhere. They are not rare. You could go dig on the banks of the Charles River and you’d probably find some traces of them. They are geologically more or less ubiquitous, and that’s good news because they are technologically also more or less ubiquitous,” Klinger said.

Klinger demonstrates in human terms how scarcity myths have been conscripted into diverse geopolitical campaigns that use rare earth mining as a pretext to capture spaces that have historically fallen beyond the grasp of centralized power including legally and logistically forbidding locations in the Amazon, Greenland, and Afghanistan, and on the Moon.

“The way in which we use them provides a sort of mirror that reflects back to us in some rather surprising ways the nature of our social relations — how we relate to each other and our environment,” Klinger said.

Drawing on ethnographic, archival, and interview data gathered in local languages and offering possible solutions to the problems it documents, Klinger examines the production of the rare earth frontier as a place, a concept, and a zone of contestation, sacrifice, and transformation.

Julie Klinger specializes in development, environment, and security politics in Latin America and China in comparative and global perspective. She is currently completing a book project on the global geography of rare earth prospecting and mining, with a special emphasis on the development and geopolitics of resource frontiers in Brazil, China, and Outer Space. 

The Pardee School Research Seminar Series is a forum for faculty and students to discuss and receive feedback on ongoing research. The series is a mix of presentations, works-in-progress sessions, and research workshops. Faculty and students based at BU and elsewhere are invited to present and attend the Research Seminar Series. Anyone interested in presenting should send an e-mail with name, affiliation, and a presentation description, with “Pardee Seminar” in the subject line, to: Mahesh Karra.