The biggest of all pickles

July 5, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Laura Campbell

For a long while now, both detractors and proponents of electric cars have raised the alarm about the intensive mineral mining required for the construction of car batteries. There is no doubt about it, while the technology is constantly improving, the current models of lithium and cobalt extraction, for instance, are hardly sustainable. The impact lithium mining has on water, especially, presents the biggest of all pickles to those of us trying to devise ways in which to tackle climate change by phasing out fossil fuels. Without mining of lithium, (not to mention cobalt and nickel), modern clean tech doesn’t stand a chance. Without batteries, we can’t reasonably pursue renewable energy systems (for instance, energy storage units). 

It’s complicated stuff, but lithium exists most readily in salt flats. Water is pumped into them to extract minerals which are then further refined. The concern around water usage has been most evident in Bolivia and Argentina where indigenous people (and especially quinoa farmers) are facing both water shortages and illnesses. Worse still is cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where the industry has gone so unregulated (not surprisingly) that it reportedly uses over 35,000 child workers, some as young as 6, who eventually succumb to illness and disease from inhaling the toxic dust released in the mines. Heartbreaking details of this can be found in Dr. Siddharth Kara’s 2018 research and reporting in The Guardian. If you’d like to read the stories, the information can be found readily on your smartphone or tablet which is powered by these very minerals. 

There are a myriad of reasons why all of these essential components of batteries are so problematic, but most of them can be reduced to the history of imperialism and capitalism. The way these two forces interact, both historically and in real time, has produced a scenario where some environments and some workers are simply deemed expendable by western industry, and ignored by their consumers.  

But the core of our fight in environmentalism, is to make the world sustainable, safer, and more equitable. How do we do this in light of what we know about mining that is needed for batteries? Do we abandon lithium battery technology, all the while knowing that the impacts of climate change are equally treacherous for the poorest people in our global community? 

My sense is that we have two options, and climate apocalypse is not one of them. We have to either 1) deal with the mining problem through strict international regulation (the way, for instance, atomic energy is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency) or 2) shift to radically ‘small’ and localized economies across the globe. The first option is much easier. But I think over the long term, and very inevitably, the second option is going to become more and more necessary. If technology has made the world smaller, that means we must also take responsibility for the people and environments that our technology is having an impact on. 

If I can recognize this, how come our leaders aren’t making this happen already? (Perhaps capitalism and imperialism are at work, again). I will be generous and acknowledge that international regulation is hugely complicated. Asking our companies to abide by the same standards as they do in our own jurisdictions hasn’t been successful yet, and without some kind of seriously rigorous framework, they’ll continue to behave the same way. So that being the case, to get any kind of political endorsement from us in the way of votes, political parties MUST face this challenge head-on. Evidence suggests that a government trying to help companies evade prosecution are not likely to take the next step to force companies to stop committing crimes (here’s looking at you, Liberals and Conservatives). 

So what about going to the companies directly? I’d say that Apple and Microsoft and the car manufacturers are our best bet. They have to respond to market pressures in a meaningful way if we maintain pressure on them. What does that pressure look like? Perhaps a global pact among millennials to abandon smart phone technology until companies create “fair trade lithium and cobalt”? I don’t know. It might be a start. 

We cannot conquer nature sustainably. We cannot be ‘masters of this planet’ or the planet will strike back at my children’s generation. (It is already striking back at us, anyhow). We simply can’t in any convenient or ethical way replace every single vehicle on the road with an electric one until the kinks have been ironed out – nor can we continue to drive gas-guzzling conventional cars. 

What we need is to rebuild our cities, suburbs, and our way of life, around smaller systems. Say no to more roads, more highway extensions, more fossil fuel infrastructure, more of the same. 

Our culture must instead make way for minimalism, localism, and living in harmony with nature, not in opposition to it.

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