I have heard it said that one of humans most impressive traits is our ability to delude ourselves. Nowhere is this more clear than here at Thacker Pass.
Fourteen days ago, my friend Will Falk and I set up a protest camp here to stop Lithium Americas corporation from bulldozing and blowing up more than 5,000 acres of this teeming, biodiverse sagebrush steppe to extract lithium for electric cars.
If you believe the hype, this is a “green” mining project. Lithium Americas claims on their website that “environmental leadership is a core value” and that their “Thacker Pass [mine proposal] has been engineered to minimize the environmental footprint by avoiding sensitive environmental habitat.”
Investors and supporters of this mine claim that lithium is a key part of a “green economy.”
When those who resist, like me, bring up the pronghorn antelope, the sage-grouse, the Lahontan cutthroat trout, the Pygmy rabbits, the old-growth sagebrush, and the thousands of other life forms who call Thacker Pass and her watershed home, we are told that “sacrifices must be made.”
Interestingly, these sacrifices are never required of Lithium Americas CEO, Board of Directors, investors, partners, and financiers. As usual, the natural world is what is sacrificed on the altar of progress.
Robert Jay Lifton is a psychotherapist who studies the origins of violence. One of his most important ideas is his “claim to virtue” hypothesis.
The idea is simple. Lifton believes that humans are harmed by committing violence; that humans are, by nature, good. Therefore, before any person can commit mass atrocity, Lifton argues that they must have a psychological justification for it: a “claim to virtue.”
For examples of this, we can look to history. In Nazi Germany, officers did not believe they were committing mass murder and genocide, they believed that they were purifying the Aryan race and creating “living space” for Germany.
Similarly, in the early conquest of North America, people like Andrew Jackson and George Washington justified the wholesale slaughter of indigenous peoples as “manifest destiny,” and attempted to force those Natives who did survive to assimilate through boarding schools and economic coercion. As was the motto of the Carlisle School, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
The same idea of “civilizing the savage” justified much of Britain’s brutal exploitation of India and the Transatlantic slave trade. More recently, the unilateral invasion of Iraq was justified as a “war on terror,” and atrocities in Kashmir, Western Sahara, Yemen, and throughout the world have been justified with other claims to virtue.
The same type of claim to virtue can be seen from the spokespeople of corporations like Lithium Americas.
Lithium Americas claim to virtue is that this project will help the world transition from vehicles fueled by gas and diesel to vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries, and thus will help stop global warming and save the planet.
While they plan to burn tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel every day; while they plan to import 75 semi-truck loads of sulfur from oil refineries every single day; while they raise $400 million from people who have never even seen Thacker Pass; and while they plan to blow a 2 square-mile hole in the planet to produce luxury goods (and yes, all cars are luxury goods—even electric ones), they have the temerity to call this “green” and talk of “sustainability.”
What they mean to sustain is not the planet. It’s not sage grouse, or wild bird populations. It’s not water, for they plan to use (and poison) well over a billion gallons of it per year. It’s not ancient sagebrush. It’s not topsoil, or biological soil crusts, or bat populations, or golden eagle populations. It’s not even human health, because this project will poison groundwater and harm people who live nearby right now.
What they mean to sustain is simple: profit and luxury.
For the Sage grouse, Golden eagles, King’s River pyrg, pygmy rabbits, horned lizards, big sagebrush, pronghorn antelope, Lahontan cutthroat trout, sage thrashers, native pollinators, bunchgrasses, and humans who will be killed or harmed by this project, it seems like nothing but greenwashing.
Years ago, I would have agreed with EV (electric vehicle) proponents. But my mind has changed. I am the author of forthcoming book, Bright Green Lies, which examines many of the proposed technological solutions to the environmental crisis, from solar panels to wind turbines, from EVs to vertical farming. My co—authors and I, after extensive research, find these solutions lacking.
As a doctor cannot solve a disease without correct diagnosis, so global warming cannot be stopped without a proper accounting of its cause. The root of global warming is not fossil fuels. It is our destruction of the natural world, of which fossil fuel extraction and burning is just one (albeit important) part.
By focusing on fossil fuels to the exclusion of all else, companies like Lithium Americas can justify bulldozing thousands of acres of important, biodiverse, ancient habitat. And they can call this “green.” This is not a story that is only playing out here. All around the world, corporations, governments, and even non-profits are justifying further destruction of the natural world and calling it “green.”
The great Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan said, “progress is a madness that is a sort of god to people. Decent people commit horrible crimes that are acceptable because of progress.”
And so, the “progress” of moving from fossil fuel cars to electric cars may lead Thacker Pass into oblivion—unless we stop this project.
We’re already living in the 6th mass extinction event, and so far global warming has so far played a small role in species extinctions. That won’t continue to be the case if warming continues to accelerate as it has over recent decades. The madness of fossil fuels must end.
Nonetheless, we cannot stop the crisis of our broken relationship with the natural world by destroying more of the planet. We must stop destroying. Lithium mining is no answer. It is another manifestation of that mad god, progress.
And so I am here in a tent next to a small woodstove as a blizzard rages outside, standing against the lithium mine at Thacker Pass, and against the Bright Green Lies that lead us and the whole family of life away from the truth and closer towards the endless night of extinction.
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.
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.