Thursday, July 03, 2008

Life After Gallium

A very thought-provoking piece called “Reflections: The Death of Gallium” by Robert Silverberg just came across my inbox from a co-worker.

… now comes word that it isn’t just wildlife that can go extinct. The element gallium is in very short supply and the world may well run out of it in just a few years. Indium is threatened too, says Armin Reller, a materials chemist at Germany’s University of Augsburg. He estimates that our planet’s stock of indium will last no more than another decade. All the hafnium will be gone by 2017 also, and another twenty years will see the extinction of zinc. Even copper is an endangered item, since worldwide demand for it is likely to exceed available supplies by the end of the present century.

Yikes! Stripes! Can we replenish endangered elements?! When humankind over-hunted, over-fished, and destroyed crucial world habitats, we began to push species to extinction well before their natural time. Then, a compassionate and wise faction of mankind began educating us and changing our ways. The faction heard the message communicated from the Mother Earth, telling us that we were upsetting the balance. Now, we carefully monitor wildlife, set up conservations, and specify governing policies in order to keep dwindling populations alive and bring them back to flourishing. Now with the death of Gallium, it sounds like animal endangerment was just the trial run for the Earth. As long as we catch animal population decreases soon enough, we can do something about it. But, we didn’t generalize this learning to extend this to the elements of nature. These cannot be replenished outside of advanced element synthesis techniques which are still not fully understood and are prohibitively expensive.

It looks like planet earth is not stocked up for the human flat screen TV fetish, which rapidly depletes the supply of gallium. Are humans and our technology a curse on the world? Are we pushing it too far?

There are several ways that I can see to look it at:

  1. What humans do is just the natural way of the world. I have to question the “before their natural time” assumption that I made above. It smacks of hubris to think that as humans we are responsible for maintaining order and balance in the universe, any more than any other animals. Humans are part of nature. We are animals, related to primates. Is it really “unnatural” what we do? Is there really something to be fixed? Is it in fact part of the world’s overall intelligence that our neocortex is so new and buggy that it appears to behave “unnaturally”?
  2. Maybe extinction just doesn’t matter, even if caused “unnaturally”. The world survived the extinction of the dinosaurs, in which humans had no hand. The world simply tends toward a new equilibrium. Carrying this forward, the world might not need these endangered elements in large supply at all. The world was surviving before the extraction and consumption of Gallium, right? If the world continued to thrive after several extinctions, it might continue to survive after the depletion of elements, too.
  3. Maybe extinction does matter in that it’s a call for the worldwide shifting of human consciousness. What if this is a pattern of extinctions rather than just 2 instances? The root cause to this may lie in the framework of human society and its reliance on the earth’s resources. Humankind might need to take a revolutionary step and alter everything from behavior to the deepest of our core values. This is not just a call for environmentalism, this is the impetus to shift at a more fundamental level of human community. My gut tells me that this is an opportunity for humankind to learn and grow in some way. As examples, maybe the entire population needs to weave respect for the environment into its fabric, maybe technology should be eschewed altogether as a frivolous waste of precious resources, maybe homo sapiens are evolving themselves out of existence, or maybe humankind needs to find another way to live in harmony with the world.

The third point resonates the most with me. In my post Another Lens for the Flying Dutchman, I posited that we can look at a person’s struggles as opportunities for personal growth. Maybe this same thing applies to humankind, and that this pattern of extinctions (if that is what we’re facing) can be the catalyst for the collective humanity to grow. From Plato’s Republic, we have the wise adage that “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Maybe this is a point of transcendence, as Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth suggests. This can be coupled with learning from evolutionary theory, which lends us to believe that it is part of the intelligence of creation for the world and it’s denizens to adapt to fit a need. For instance, Tolle offers a theory that land-based life began with fish in a body of water that was separated from the ocean. As the climate changed, the lake turned into a pond, then became shallower and shallower year after year. A fish or two began to flop up on land for a period of time, then make it back to the water. Eventually, it was necessary to develop lungs and legs to take to the land. By doing so, by reading the signs, the fish species that evolved were able to survive when the water was gone.

We may be in a struggle so powerful that we’re metaphorically turning coal into diamond, forcing the structure that we know about the world to change and shift. Maybe the guiding intelligence of the universe is orchestrating this as the perfect learning opportunity for the human race. Will we grow with this opportunity, becoming much wiser in the process?


  1. Pardon my literalist mind but unlike biological species, gallium cannot go extinct. You need to split every gallium atom (or fuse it with something else) to eradicate it. True, as demand grows, it will become more and more expensive, and perhaps over time more difficult to extract using the normal means.

    But human beings are innovative. Either we'll find new ways of getting gallium, or find alternative materials, or find alternative techniques to achieve what we need.

    As to eradicating species, human beings have extiniguished the smallpox virus; and are on the cusp of destroying of the polio virus. Both good things.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful words, Roy. These open up an intriguing discussion.

    You caught me playing a little fast and loose with the term "extinct," and I also did that with the term "endangered." This isn't a half-life issue, it's an issue that these elements are winding up in consumer devices and eventually junkyards, rather than in their natural "habitats," but they are still on the earth. It is likely that humans will find a work-around for this "problem".

    As for humans being innovative, I fully agree with that point. Perhaps we will continue to address the symptom as you suggest, though I trust that humans will eventually face that it will be more effective at the root cause. My argument is that in the long run we may find ourselves in a situation where we will need to innovate on our society or even on our collective consciousness in order to survive as humankind.

    And as for eradicating species, I do not make judgement on whether it is a good or a bad thing. It is just a fact, and perhaps an opportunity to learn. I will stick with nonjudgement on the extinction of polio and smallpox as well. I suspect that polio or some being or species identifying with it and against humankind may view it as a bad thing. I will stick with neutral. This point merits further explanation, so I plan to address that in another posting.