Beryllium metal, which is used in parts of aircraft brakes and windows, is in critically short supply. Titanium is widely used in aircraft frames and parts because it is lighter and stronger than aluminum, but the supply of that metal is so dominated by foreign sources that it has been named as a potential threat to United States national security. Halnium, a rare earth element used in, among other things, semiconductors, is close to having demand outstrip worldwide supply.
Unfortunately, not everything that we need in order to sustain our modern ways of life can be reproduced through organic sources that readily grow up from the ground. Bamboo can replace a lot of things. It can stand in for cotton, wood, and plastic; it can even replace fiberglass and steel in some contexts. But no such renewable material is magical enough to stand in for or supplement the metals and elements that we need for the manufacture of energy, transportation, and electronics technologies.
A recent report from the European Union news network EurActiv highlights the dire situation faced by the West in supplying its material needs for technological manufacturing in years to come. Part of the trouble lies in the growing demand, with airplane manufacturing orders expected to continue to grow exponentially for twenty years. Indeed, that goes to show that in many respects the planet is living beyond its means. Part of the trouble is also that the United States and its European allies largely have to rely upon foreign producers of certain essential rare earth elements and metals.
Where it is not affected by an actual of the availability of the resource, domestic production is sometimes limited by higher salaries and more progressive environmental restrictions. Unfortunately, in order to help our technology keep up with increasing levels of efficiency and decreasing levels of environmental impact, we need to rely on a certain set of materials the production of which is dirty in and of itself.
These facts suggest a need to broaden the ways in which we think about sustainability. Specifically, it reminds environmentally-minded people of the need for a certain amount of give-and-take. The need for sacrifice takes a number of forms.
We may have to sacrifice a little bit of our idealism when circumstances necessitate that we turn a blind eye to certain sources of environmental harm, in order to secure what we need to make progress elsewhere. But however much progress we make that way, we can’t consume all that we want and expect technology to always stay ahead of our environmental impact. So we have to sacrifice a measure of our comfort for the sake of sustainability, as by reducing the collective demand for air travel.
In the meantime, though, since we know that there are certain things that will continue to have a somewhat adverse impact on the environment, and that we still can’t possibly expect to give up, it’s our particular responsibility to focus on sustainability in other areas. The fact that aircraft production and high tech industries are limited in their sustainability by the resources they rely on means that we need to take care to compensate elsewhere.
It’s actually good to be reminded that some things can’t be perfect. We should never stop trying to make them that way, but when we know that that is unrealistic for now, we can let that motivate us to get as much benefit as we can out of the things that don’t carry such weighty challenges. We’re not going to make high tech manufacturing entirely clean and sustainable anytime soon, but we can make the clothing and textile industries perfectly eco-friendly by focusing on bamboo and other sustainable resources.
And we can emphasize the same sorts of materials in other industries, like home construction and energy production. In most cases, cleanness aside, they’re similarly distinct from metals like titanium and beryllium because as we understand and care more about our environmental impact, they’re becoming more accessible and easier to produce, not less.