Bulldozing Nature to Save the World – Dispatches from Thacker Pass

Grandmother - photo: Max Willbert

Opinion

The first time I came to Thacker Pass, I walked up the old dirt road heading back towards the canyons of the Montana Mountains.

Eventually, I came to a gate along a barbed-wire fence, and I saw one of the biggest, oldest sagebrush bushes I have ever seen.

She is tall, six and a half feet, and broad. Her main trunk is thicker than both my hands can encircle. I immediately nicknamed her “Grandmother.”

Grandmother may be 100 years old or more (almost exactly the age that my human grandmother would be, if she were still alive).

It is clear to anyone who sits with her that she carries the wisdom of this place. She has survived droughts and fires. She has weathered deep snows and fierce winds. She has spread her seeds across this mountainside, and she has fed pronghorn and sage grouse.

She has seen Paiutes moving through the pass, harvesting food and medicine. Within her lifetime, the old Indian trail across Thacker Pass was widened into a dirt road, and then pavement — a bulldozer plowing through her relatives.

What did she think when the first car passed by, I wonder? Perhaps she had some inkling of what was coming.

As I wrote in my last dispatch, Thacker Pass is home to the largest lithium deposit in North America, a remnant of the Yellowstone hotspot which was here 16 million years ago.

Now, with the explosion in demand for electric cars and the lithium-ion batteries that fuel them, Lithium Americas corporation (a Canadian mining company) is planning a $1.3 billion open-pit lithium mine here.

Within months, grandmother sage and her relatives may be crushed under the treads of a bulldozer, shredded and buried as part of a 2 square mile open pit mine.

All in the name of “green” economic development. “This is how to save the climate,” we are told. “Sacrifices must be made.”

By whom? By grandmother sage? By the natural world, which is sacrificed again and again and again? And for what? For electric cars?

It is a stunning triumph of corporate marketing that many people believe electric car production is good for the planet.

Cars are a luxury good, not a necessity. Our grandparents lived mostly without cars. Our great grandparents rarely even saw them. 99.9% of our ancestors existed without cars. And car culture as whole — not just the fuel tank or battery — is the problem.

For proponents of this project, I ask: if your environmentalism won’t allow you to critique luxury goods, what is it worth?

Grandmother sage helps me remember. It has not always been this way. There is a better way to live, one that is based on relationships to places like Thacker Pass as relatives. One that does not look at a mountain and see how it can be turned into money.

We are living in dire times. The climate is changing. Biodiversity is collapsing. Water is increasingly scarce. Refugees stream across borders. And scientists tell us this is just a taste of what is coming.

In the face of crises like this, we need so much more than just a superficial change to what is under the hood of the car. Projects like the Thacker Pass mine must be stopped, as must coal mining and oil extraction, as part of this paradigm shift.

If you are interested in joining us, visit our website to learn more about getting involved. And speak out on this issue. We can’t save the planet by destroying it. Transitioning away from fossil fuels and fixing humanity’s broken relationship with the planet will require a more critical approach.


Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, co-authored with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, will be released in March.


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