Monday, March 20, 2023

The Thacker Pass Lithium Mine will Worsen the Crises we Face


In his recent opinion piece, “Thacker Pass Lithium Mine is Important for Limiting Global Warming,” Glenn Miller makes the same fundamental error so many others do these days: believing that climate change is the main crisis, rather than a symptom of the real crisis we face, which is industrial civilization and it’s impacts on the living world. 

It’s not surprising he makes this error. The industrialists have done a lot of work in the past few years to make sure we all believe that climate change is the existential crisis we face. Once industrialists, including, yes, even fossil fuel companies, saw the writing on the wall with the increasingly dire IPCC reports coming out year after year, and the public’s escalating panic about the implications of continued fossil fuel mining and burning, they quickly jumped on the technotopia bandwagon. You know, the one that says if we can invent enough new technologies to help us deal with the problems caused by the old technologies, everything will be just fine. And of course, the corporations will be ready to sell us all these new technologies at a large profit (as well as even newer technologies to solve the problems created by the new technologies, and so on ad infinitum). 

The previous decade has been one long PR campaign by the World Economic Forum, the UN, economists, governments, and of course, corporations, for technology solutions to this climate change crisis. We can replace the entire grid with wind, solar, and battery storage technologies! (Never mind that this will require 2.4 billion tons of steel, 1.9 million tons of copper, 2.6 billion tons of concrete, 133 million tons of composite fiber, 2.6 billion gallons of lubricating oil, and so much more). We can suck CO2 from the air and bury it underground with carbon capture technologies! (Never mind that this experimental technology has not been proven at scale, and besides which, where are you going to store billions of tons of CO2 underground, and who’s going to pay for it?).

We can spray chemicals into the atmosphere with solar engineering technologies and reflect some of the sunlight away from the planet so we can keep burning fossil fuels forever! (Never mind that we have no way to test these technologies before doing a global experiment on all living beings on the only planet we know supports life, and that once we start doing this we can never ever stop.) We can reduce CO2 emissions to “net zero” instead of zero by building more batteries or planting more trees or planting crops we burn in power plants or dumping iron into the ocean to make phytoplankton bloom and suck up CO2 or [insert your favorite sci-fi idea here]. Just ignore the fact that even the UN admits none of these solutions are likely to work at scale. At every step, the industrialists will make a profit, and the world will be killed just a little (or a lot) more. 

Technotopians believe in EVs, batteries, and all other technology “solutions” because they do not understand the real crisis we face, which is habitat destruction and pollution caused by industrial civilization (or perhaps they do understand but don’t care because they know they can make money with these solutions, but they can’t make money if instead they’re forced to cut back on industry). Currently, habitat loss and degradation caused directly by human development is responsible for 80% of biodiversity loss, and climate change for 20%. This may change as climate change worsens, but it is clear that climate change is not currently the most critical environmental threat for communities as Glenn Miller claims. Industrial development is. And what is mining? Industrial development that directly causes habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. 

Another error technotopians like Glenn Miller make is they forget that lithium, cobalt, manganese, graphite, iron ore, nickel, copper, and the many other materials we dig up from the ground to build cars, batteries, and other “clean” technologies are all non-renewable, just like fossil fuels. Even if the Thacker Pass mine really is “benign” as Mr. Miller claims (although tell that to the wildflowers and the sage-grouse and the golden eagles and the pronghorn and the jack rabbits and so many more who will be killed or lose their homes – I doubt they will see this mine as “benign”!) replacing 1.4 billion gas-powered vehicles with EVs will use up a large chunk of the lithium that exists on Earth. And then when all those batteries need to be replaced, we’ll use up another large chunk of lithium. And then again. And then again. Each time, more habitat will be destroyed, more land will be polluted, more biodiversity will be lost, and the Earth will be killed just a little (or a lot) more. Eventually we’ll run out of lithium. Then what? 

While battery technology may change over the years, using other materials for anodes as Mr. Miller claims, those “other materials” still need to come from somewhere, and those materials will also be non-renewable. Likewise, even if we eventually replace lithium with something else, that something else will also need to be mined and refined. Recycling is not a solution because not only is it incredibly toxic to recycle lithium and other materials in batteries, material is lost in the recycling process, requiring new material to keep up with demand for new batteries as well as replacement batteries. 

Finally, perhaps the biggest error of all the technotopians make is they believe that if we can just invent the right technologies to make and store energy, we can keep this way of life going indefinitely. Again, it’s understandable why Mr. Miller would make this error: economists, governments, the rich and the powerful and the media they’ve bribed all want us to believe the lie that we can keep this way of life going indefinitely.

Just ignore the billions of tons of industrial waste produced yearly, most of which ends up in the ocean or is incinerated into toxins, to be breathed in by young children who will inevitably die of cancer later in their lives.

Just ignore the micro plastic found everywhere from Antarctica to the Arctic, a lot of which comes from car tires; micro plastic we breathe, drink, and eat every day, causing who knows what kind of damage to our bodies.

Just ignore the millions of miles of new roads that will be built to accommodate all the new EVs Mr. Miller would like to see, and all the existing roads that must be maintained (using concrete and asphalt, made using fossil fuels!); roads that fragment habitat, cause erosion, pollute the land and water, and kill wildlife by the billions.

Just ignore that 90% of the big fish in the ocean are already gone; that 60% of wild animal populations have been decimated just since 1970; that 30% of bird populations have been decimated just since 1970; that all but 3% of the Earth has been impacted by human industrial activity. 

The solution to the crises we face is not to dig up lithium in a more benign way. The solution to the crises we face is to learn how to live without cars and batteries so we don’t need lithium or any other non-renewable materials at all. Just think, the great grandparents of almost everyone reading this didn’t have a car, because cars weren’t available to the general population until 1908. Out of 300,000 years of Homo sapiens living on planet Earth, we’ve had cars for only the last 113 of those years. Perhaps instead of destroying what life remains on Earth so we can drive ourselves into oblivion, we could learn how to live without cars once again. 

Elisabeth Robson is an activist and author. She is campaigning with Protect Thacker Pass to stop the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine. 

Top photo caption and credit: The proposed site for the Thacker Pass lithium mine in north-central Nevada – photo: Max Wilbert

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.