The conflicting questions that #ProtectThackerPass sparks for environmentalists

Is habitat destruction justified when done to mine lithium—a process as dirty and toxic as extracting coal?

I'm sharing a current event pertaining to land conservation with you today—one that will not be covered by mainstream media nor supported by the major environmental organizations. Read on, and maybe you'll see why.

What is Thacker Pass?

As the largest known lithium reserve in the United States, Thacker Pass, a part of the ancestral lands of the Paiute and Shoshone peoples, is now the proposed site for a huge lithium mine that would destroy the region and the valuable habitat they provide for their creatures and nearby communities. The lithium mine is “to supply the electric car industry”.

Spearheaded by Lithium Americas, a Canadian mining company, the project would pry open the lands for almost 6,000 acres of open-pit mining—with potentials for the acreage to triple to 17,000 over the decades (source).

Tribal members have raised concerns particularly about the project's proximity to their cultural and burial sites, as well as the project's expected impacts on golden eagles.

In addition, mining projects that bring in man camps are associated with an increase in violence against women—which disproportionately affects Native peoples.

“Besides depleting the aquifer and poisoning water, bulldozing cultural sites and hunting and gathering areas, air pollution issues, and the many other problems that would be caused by this mine, one of their major concerns is the impact a project like this has on women and girls in the surrounding communities.

Around the world, there is a direct link between major infrastructure projects like open-pit mines and a rise in sexual abuse, sex trafficking, drug trafficking, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW).” –Max Wilbert via Sierra Nevada Daily.

If the Thacker Pass mining proposal gets approved, it would devastate large swaths of land teeming with native fauna and flora—including crosby’s buckwheat (a rare wildflower endemic to this region), king river pyrg (an endangered snail), rabbitbrush, big-horn sheep, coyotes, golden eagles, sage grouse, pronghorn antelopes, and old-growth sagebrush.

This raises a difficult question for many who have overlooked the destructiveness of ‘clean’ energy: Are we okay with living ecosystems and mountaintops being blown up—so long as it's done for extracting lithium instead of coal?

Because this is exactly what has been happening around the globe—primarily in invisibilized communities and on lands in “developing” nations in the Global South—to enable the “green” energy transition. How does this qualify as “eco-friendly”?

“Let's not blow up a mountain and call it green.” - M. Wilbert

Even if one arrives at the conclusion that we must move towards adopting more solar, wind, etc. to decarbonize our energy system to address the immediate climate crisis, we should not mask the realities of what this transition actually entails—and to whom and where it outsources environmental injustice and pollution. Because this acknowledgment shifts what people focus on pushing as the solutions to our health and ecological crises.

When people think that we can simply substitute fossil fuels with “renewable” energy to power the same extractive system predicated on endless growth, then they will focus simply on demonizing fossil fuels and propping up “clean” energy as the ultimate goal—as many major environmental organizations do, which is why they will stay silent about #ProtectThackerPass.

But when people realize that it is literally impossible to power industrial-scale civilization with 100% “renewable” energy, and when people realize that its infrastructure has a limited lifespan and still relies on deforestation, land degradation, toxic mining processes, polluting air and water, the use of fossil fuels, and finite resources, then they are forced to sit with the weighty reality that we must scale back and work towards systemic change.

Thacker Pass is significant because if the project were carried out, it brings the harmful impacts of this “green” energy transition right into the backyards of many environmentalists in the United States who had been pushing ‘bright green’ solutions—as if they didn't come at any costs.

So perhaps this event may be what wakes many western environmentalists up—to see that “green” energy is not the solution to healing our Earth, and that our ecological crises cannot be addressed without deeper transformations of our human civilization.

As Lierre Keith writes in the new book she co-authored, Bright Green Lies:

“Committed activists have brought the emergency of climate change into broad consciousness, and that’s a huge win as the glaciers melt and the tundra burns. But they are solving for the wrong variable. Our way of life doesn’t need to be saved. The planet needs to be saved from our way of life…

‘How can we continue to harvest industrial quantities of energy without causing harm?’ is the wrong question. The correct question is: ‘What can we do to help the earth repair the damage caused by this culture?’” –Bright Green Lies.

So… now what?

I first challenged myself to look into the true costs of this “green” energy transition when I interviewed French journalist Guillaume Pitron, the author of The Rare Metals War. As he shared in our conversation:

“The sooner we're able to get rid of oil and coal, the better it will be...

But ‘green’ technologies, such as electric cars, solar panels, and wind turbines, don't come out of thin air—they need to be manufactured. These technologies are made of base metals such as copper, zinc, and aluminum. They are also made of rare metals—such as cobalt, tungsten, rare earth, gadolinium, gallium, indium, and graphite—which are said to be rare because they can be three-thousand times rarer in the earth's crust than base metals.

Where do we get these minerals from? How are we going to extract them and refine them? 

As a reporter, I travel to the field. That's what I've been doing for years—to look at the ways these metals are extracted and refined in order to manufacture green technologies. The ways these commodities are extracted are extremely, extremely dirty. 

If you want to make something clean at the end of the manufacturing process, you actually need to pollute at the very beginning of the process where the metal is extracted—such as in Bolivia with lithium, in Congo for cobalt, and most of the time in China, as China is the world leader in the production of rare metals.

Wherever I went, in the past years, in China—to graphite mines, to refining zones, or any kind of mining area—it's been a nightmare. People talk about an ecological nightmare, cancers, various kinds of diseases, air pollution, and water pollution. And they say, 'You have no idea because you're very far. You don't mine anything in your countries. We mine all of the metals for you guys, at the end of the process, to say, ‘we're clean.’ But you have no idea how we suffer here to extract these resources.’” (Listen to this episode here.)

So people are increasingly aware of these truths—that there are ecological and health costs that come with the “green” energy transition. But many arrive at the conclusion that some destruction is inevitable in order to “save the planet”, and we should accept them as collateral damage from ultimately still being on the right path to addressing ecological breakdown.

But are we really on the right path if our solutions don't get to the heart of the issues? And how much collateral damage is acceptable for the “solutions” to actually be worth it?

The difficult question I'm marinating on is whether the ‘clean’ energy transition is merely a distraction altogether—or whether it could still play a role in supporting us as we work towards a systemic overhaul centered on scaling down.

When I asked Lierre about this, she was adamant:

“My answer is absolutely no. [Renewable energy is] every bit as destructive as fossil fuels; some of them even release more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. You might as well just burn coal at that point.

[Another way to look at the Jevon's Paradox] is that every single time humans brought another form of energy online, we didn't drop any off. Originally, we burned wood, then we burned coal. We didn't stop burning wood; we just added coal. Then there was oil. We didn't drop off wood or coal; we just added oil. Then there was natural gas—the other three are still there, and we just keep adding.

The same has been true for the tiny slivers of this industrial project fueled by solar and wind—all we've done is added three more percent to the giant energy grid. It never stops the others from being used, so it's not going to help.

The entire thing is a lie from beginning to end. It's not a stepping stone; it's the same industrial platform, the same problem of destroying the climate, and the same consumption of what's left of the living world.” –Lierre Keith.

Max elaborated by speaking to the small role that renewable energy can play—but only at a community scale:

“Honestly, I'm on the fence. I think [wind, solar, etc.] could play a role—at a small scale. Using things like wind and solar at a community level to maintain some basic lighting and medical services, at least for a while, isn't a bad idea at all.

But it's theoretical right now, since there doesn't seem to be any institutional drive for degrowth. And in the long term, it's not sustainable to keep producing these things—they require major global supply chains, extraction, etc.

I don't believe in ‘net zero’ emissions; it seems like a scam. My position would probably be something like this:

We need to stop using fossil fuels, essentially completely, as quickly as possible. ‘Green’ energy is mostly just a distraction allowing us to keep believing that adopting solar and wind will reduce fossil fuel use (which hasn't been true, so far), and allowing us to maintain the illusion that a modern lifestyle can be made sustainable.

If we do succeed in abandoning fossil fuels and stopping the fossil fuel industry, it's likely that continued production of widespread solar and wind energy won't be feasible, since they depend so heavily on fossil fuels for their production.

But I also think people will certainly use whatever ‘leftover’ pieces of industrial technology, like wind turbines and solar panels, until they stop working. And hopefully during this time, people will be scaling up projects of restoration and regeneration.

It's a challenging, complex topic, and we don't really know exactly how the future will play out. But I think it's really important to tell the truth.” –Max Wilbert.

(My full interview with Max Wilbert and Lierre Keith will publish on Green Dreamer Podcast in April. Click here to stay posted.)

If you're feeling conflicted, I'm right there with you. The implications for how deeply we must challenge and uproot our modern civilization, consumptive cultures, and extractive systems are heavy. And many would react defensively by saying that such transformations are simply impractical and impossible. This reminds me of a quote originally attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek: "It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”

But like Max, I at least want to know and share the unfiltered truth—that industrial-scale civilization is simply not sustainable no matter what energy source it's powered by, that we must scale back this extractive economy, and that we must scale up projects of land restoration and regeneration to the maximum extent possible.

Acknowledging the reality is the only way we'll even have a chance at healing our Earth for all of their inhabitants.

xx kamea