On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

A Lake of Rare Earths Sludge: Territorial Management of Profitable Pollution (April 5, 2015)

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Having just read this fascinating article by Tim Maughan, “The Dystopian Lake Filled by the World’s Tech Lust” (an article, which, judging by its web address, must at one point have been entitled “The Worst Place on Earth”), I am thinking very much about the ways in which environmental pollution is, from one perspective, simply a cost that industrial powers weigh in pursuing economic activity.

Maughan focuses his article on a gigantic lake of toxic sludge attached to the town of Baotou, in Inner Mongolia (an autonomous region of China; see this Wikipedia article). Baotou is a town that has boomed due to its participation in the rare earths trade—that is, the trade in particular elemental materials that are required for modern high-tech industrial production (see this US Geological Survey page on rare earths, as well as this useful Ames Laboratories (part of the Department of Energy) page on various rare earths and their uses). As Maughan relates, China controls some 95% of the rare earths trade, even though its territorial surface only contains about 30% of the world’s rare earths, which are distributed all across the world’s surface. What has allowed China, in part, to monopolize this trade is its decision to bear the massive environmental costs related to transforming rare earths into usable products for modern technological industries—for example, as Maughan notes, the production of cerium oxide from cerium.

The images of the toxic lake in the Maughan article are chilling, but do not seem to me new or otherworldly: they evoke the postindustrial horrors of the past century, seen not only in numerous photographs and videos, but also powerfully evoked in filmic works: they remind me of, say, the twentieth-century Soviet Union as evoked in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, or the twentieth-century American industrial horror envisioned in David Lynch’s Eraserhead, or indeed the post-apocalyptic wasteland images of numerous dystopian science fiction films. Maughan quite intriguingly focuses on smells in his writing. Describing the powerful scent of Sulphur in the air that, he assumes, must once have filled the air of industrial cities in America and England (a comment that, as a resident of Buffalo, a formerly hyper-industrialized city in the American Rust Belt, struck me very keenly). What is so striking about seeing these images is that, despite all the knowledge of environmental destruction, the horrific scale of environmental pollution in Baotou goes on apace.

It seems hardly surprising to me that this massive industry (Maughan notes that the mines near this area are said to contain some 70% of the rare earths reserves in the world, giving what appears to be the ability to affect world prices through producing artificial shortages) is placed in Inner Mongolia—far from most population centers and indeed in an autonomous area bordering Mongolia. As scholars such as David Harvey and Rob Nixon have shown, capitalist production is increasingly linked to the geographical management of environmental injustice, and in this case the massive pollution epitomized by the image of the toxic lake (which is simply one of the many environmental effects of this industry, though its strange sludge—which Maughan intriguingly describes as almost not liquid-like, thereby initiating a kind of crisis about materiality even as it speaks to a new scale of massive pollution tied to high-tech culture and massive consumerism) has been confined to a marginalized area of China. Any governmental power will, of course, manage its territory, determining where to distribute the presence and costs of pollution—and this industry has obviously brought massive economic development to the region.

The images of pollution and the description of the eerily choreographed responses to outsiders’ questions in the Baotou Maughan describes will haunt me for some time, providing an especially powerful illustration of territorial policies managing both the profits and pollution of current capitalist culture. As I have written about elsewhere, there is often resistance by marginalized groups to aggressive transational capitalist environmental injustice; one wonders if the clock is ticking on such resistance to emerge in the vicinity of this unimaginably black and artificial toxic lake in Baotou.


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

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