Jul 23 2008

Aluminium Production in its Global Context

By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson, originally published in Morgunblaðið.

In a brochure named “Norðurál and the Community” [Norðurál is Century Aluminum], published by the company, one can e.g. read about the global process of aluminium production. Century Aluminium has its bauxite mines in Jamaica and now plans to open up one in West Congo, in cooperation with one of the world’s corrupt regimé.

It immediately catch one’s eyes that in Norðurál’s brochure, the word bauxite is not menitoned once and according to an explination picture, which is supposed to show the aluminium process from beginning to end, the production starts when alumina is unshipped in to a huge harbour silo.

How can it be? Is Norðurál such an environmentally friendly company that it does not even have to mine bauxite to be able to smelt aluminium? Does Norðurál have any different methods than other aluminium producers? No, this is what we call greenwashing!

It is absolutely the author of this brochure – Norðurál’s principals – could have got the idea to try to fool its readers in such a cheap way. While Alcoa proudly prides itself of its bauxite mining in the text “It all starts with mud”, it seems like Norðurál is trying to hide the fact that the company is involved with the destruction of rainforests, drinking water and the health of humans and animals on Jamaica. One can simply not find the word bauxite, neither in the above-mentioned brochure, nor on Norðurál’s website. Still bauxite, is the premise for aluminium production! Instead it is said that aluminium can be found extensively in the nature, e.g. in clay and rocks in Iceland.

What now? Is the company claiming that aluminium production is Icelandic; that Norðurál’s aluminium is a “pure Icelandic product”? What an illution! Aluminium production is global and its impacts as well.

What has untill now been missing in the discussino about aluminium production here in Iceland is the global context; global impacts of heavy industry. It is impossible to talk about aluminium production as an Icelandic phenomenon though smelters are being built here in Iceland and driven on by the destruction of Iceland’s nature. An aluminium product travels areound the whole globe untill it ends up where it is consumed. The raw material for a bomb is found in Jamaica or in India, processed in Iceland, the bomb finished in the U.S. and in the end thrown on a village in Iraq. Icelandic what?

In a interview in Morgunblaðið last Saturday, Bubbi Morthens [a famous pop-singer] said that there are more important issues in Iceland than aluminium production, e.g. poverty and unemployment, and crticized Björk and Sigur Rós for not hosting a big concert against poverty [In June 2008, Björk and Sigur Rós had a big outdoor concert against more aluminium smelters]. This is probably a common attitude here in Iceland.

But the issue is not so simple, that we can either choose between poverty or aluminium smelters, unemployment or smelters. The aluminium companies are parts of a capitalist economical system, which sustains on one’s profit while others loose. A job in a smelter can possibly sustain a family here in Iceland but at the same time lead to a catastrophe elsewhere in the world. To refuse these impacts and look completely away from them, is being selfish. Does it really not matter at all where the money comes from? Who benefits on whom? If so, could we than just as well build a weapon factory and children-powered sweatshop here?

In Norðurál’s brochure, it also says that the only possible way to reduce greenhousegases emissions and other pollution is “if people themselves minimize their use of tools and materials that lead to the pollution, e.g. plastic, steel and aluminium. While the demand for aluminium continues to increase, aluminium smelters have to be built somewhere in the world.”

It is easy for an industry that is responsible for as much destruction as the aluminium industry does, to try to get to people’s personal consumption and blame it for the environmental disasters that result from global capitalism. It is true that individuals can very easily minimize their consumption but this statement from Norðurál is still a complete quibble. The company puts itself in the steps of some kind of a charity organization, which simply answers the puclic call: “While you still ask for aluminium… we will produce it!”

Aluminium is now complimented as some kind of a magic sollution to the environmental catastrophe. The aluminium companies preach no real sollutions, no radical consumer stop, but simply the same consumption… only everything out aluminium this time. Jakob Björnsson, former director of energy affairs, recently wrote an article in Morgunblaðið where he spoke on behalf of the whole Icelandic nation and said that it was not ready to lower the “qualities of life” that we live with. Apart from the obvious fact that he has no permission to speak on behalf of 300,000 people, it is clear that if our “qualities of life” lead to poverty and ecological destruction elsewhere in the world, it is not our private decission if we minimize or increase these so-called “qualities”.

We need to take move our eyes away from Icelandic consumers, and to those that the aluminium productions hurts. Norðurál should talk to the people of Jamaica who have lost their lands, health and drinking water because of bauxite mining; the indigenous people of Orissa in India, where cultural genocides take place; the victims of wars who are largely driven by aluminium production. Norðurál should aske these people it they care – if they give their permission for “green and clean” aluminium production in Iceland.