I wake at a destined deathbed. Unheeded truths hang like a pall in the air.
At first I smile, cradled in a dusty tent, surrounded by the wintering grounds that belong to the many beings of Thacker Pass in Northern Nevada. Meadowlarks perform their morning songs: pure whistles that descend to gurgling warbles. I delight in how they greet the sun that is sending its first showers over the snow-laden Santa Rosa mountains. The century-old sagebrush becomes more upright; their fragrant wands drink in the slanted light. Spiders, who make a living when night pours in, find sleep in the shrubby branches. Pronghorn antelope nurture their yearlings, cloaked in the flowering mountain faces where golden eagles nest into the certainty of stone. This vitality beckons the dawn of day. Each morning is new, fresh, and full of wildlife conspiring to live.
But thoughts of death are never far. The meadowlarks’ songs will be lost to the whir of machines.
Under the steppe is one of the largest known lithium resources in the world, enough to account for an estimated one-fourth of the global demand. The mining company Lithium Americas is permitted by the Bureau of Land Management to extract the material needed to power electric cars. Lithium, referred to as “white gold,” is essential to the fabrication of “green” technologies, and extracting it enacts as much devastation as harvesting fossil fuels. The 18,000 acres of Thacker Pass is considered a sacrifice zone — the beings who depend on it, can no longer.
Look across the sagebrush and you’ll see the first scars of a test pit, no more than a quarter of an acre across, but already in jarring contrast to the sea of green. The disturbance area will cover 5,000 acres. It will include an approximately 2.3-mile-long open-pit mine, up to 400 feet deep, and an on-site sulfuric acid plant.
This area is “the last large sagebrush piece left for animals in Thacker Pass,” Terry Crawforth, former director for the Nevada Wildlife Department, shared with me from his porch. He lives in a nearby ranching community where he says at least one neighbor has already moved rather than face the repercussions of the mine. “They’ll remove it and with it a lot of critters. That’s the last critical winter range.” He looked out across the mountains where previous “sleeper” mines are concealed, abandoned and still toxic — “when ducks fly over and touch down, they’re dead the next morning.” He said he fears more of the same. “The way the mine is designed right now, it will destroy the local culture especially if they suck up all the water and pollute it.”
Opponents fear the cocktail of emissions and hazardous materials that would imbue the air from machinery, engine exhaust and the sulfuric acid plant where the lithium is separated from the ore.
Lithium Americas has stated that “Thacker Pass is designed to meet or exceed all state and federal requirements during construction, operation and reclamation,” including limitations on air and water pollution. But to me and the activists that I met during a recent reporting trip at Thacker Pass, even if the company meets those requirements, it is not good enough. “Sustainable” mining is an oxymoron. There is no way to convert a living land base into products and protect its unique biodiversity and cultural value. There is no clean way to dig into the Earth, “backfill it,” and try to return the ecosystem to its natural state, which took hundreds of years to develop. If we actually want a chance for a livable planet, we must stop the poisoning before it happens, not tolerate the amount corporations are permitted to poison, or sacrifice what remains of the natural world for a “greater good” — a faulty pretense.
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This beautiful land was once inhabited by the Paiute, who were massacred by American soldiers in the 1800s. Lithium Americas has announced that it will begin “mechanical trenching” operations at seven undisclosed sites to search for cultural artifacts, but the details of the digging are considered confidential by the Bureau of Land Management. Elders say they fear the bodies of their ancestors who died resisting the military forces could be unceremoniously dug up. Descendants of the Paiute and Shoshone tribes were relocated at Fort McDermitt, a reservation named for an American military commander, whose air and water are now threatened by the mine — yet another assault on a community still recovering from a surge in cancer after the Cordero Mine, a mercury mine, operated above their reservation until 1970.
Environmental activists, acknowledging this plight, camp out on the proposed mining site. Their campaign, gaining national attention, goes by ‘Protect Thacker Pass’ and is led by Will Falk, environmental lawyer and author of How Dams Fall, along with Max Wilbert, organizer and author of Bright Green Lies. “We’ve been here for over 100 days, and we’re not leaving until this project is canceled,” Wilbert tells me. “If need be, this will come down to direct action.”
This is the new frontline in the ongoing energy wars. But now the same old destructive actions of the people leading these corporations are masked in bright green.
Allied with ranchers, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, and other opponents, the campaign is designed to educate the public about the dark side of “green energy” extraction. Their outreach includes facts about the devastation to land, water and natural communities caused by the mining processes and the use of sulfuric acid. “Lithium Americas will surely point out that electric cars, and the batteries fueling them, produce less greenhouse gas emissions than vehicles powered by fossil fuels,” wrote Falk in his essay Why I Protect Thacker Pass. “This may or may not be true when you consider the entire production process of new electric cars and the installation of new infrastructure that will be required to power them. That argument, however, assumes that humans need cars and they certainly do not. In other words, it is wrong to destroy the lives and homes of all these creatures for luxuries humans do not, in fact, need.” This conflict lays bare a clash of worldviews and divides the environmental movement.
“Environmentalism is about defending the wild from industrial projects, not sacrificing places like Thacker Pass to make car batteries,” said Wilbert. “The mainstream climate movement has truly lost its way.”
Lithium America’s Alexi Zawadzki wrote a public letter on April 28 called “Lithium Nevada Corp’s CEO explains the benefits of the Thacker Pass Lithium Project.” He claims that lithium mining will “support the U.S. target to reduce greenhouse gas pollution by 50 to 52 percent by 2030.” The Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice’s analysis, however, shows that national emissions would reduce only by 6% with the electrification of cars, in part because these vehicles still rely on electricity generation, roughly 60% of which comes from gas, oil, and coal.
Zawadzki ends with, “As President Biden said recently, ‘This is the decade we must make decisions that will avoid the worst consequences of the climate crisis.’ Together, we will help position American workers and industry to do just that.” The mine would directly release the equivalent of 152,713 tons of carbon dioxide each year, equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of a small city, according to the federally issued final environmental impact statement.
The activists camping out at Thacker Pass potentially face state-sanctioned force and legal repercussions now threatening others throughout the United States who protest extractive projects. Bills to increase punishment for impeding the operations of extractive infrastructure are sweeping the country in response to a public surge of resistance and protest, like the opposition to the proposed expansion of the Line 3 pipeline, which marshals oil from Canada’s tar sands to the United States.
To those I speak with at the camp, it’s worth the risk to fight for a place the greater culture has sacrificed. The ecologies and wildlife corridors for rare birds, mountain lions, porcupines and many more remain intact — a rarity, given that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction driven largely by degraded and ruined habitat. The planet loses an estimated 200 species a day with no signs of this hemorrhaging slowing down. Extractive industries like mining account for 80% of species loss.
Part of the problem is when harms are concealed in premises about the “greater good.” To be clear, the greater good at Thacker Pass is a big batch of electric cars for the privileged, at the expense of safe drinking water for animals, Indigenous and ranching communities and anyone in proximity. Over its projected 46-year span, the mine is expected to draw billions of gallons of groundwater in an already water-stressed region, potentially contaminating it with metals including antimony and arsenic, according to the final environmental impact statement. The study also shows the mine would likely exceed Nevada state limits for water pollution.
As is standard across energy extraction projects, the harm is rationalized as necessary “costs” for the “greater good.” Unfortunately, well-meaning environmentalists have glommed onto this self-deceptive thinking, too. This is dictated by the framework of environmental economics, which is based on incentivizing environmental care by assigning utilitarian values to “services” from ecosystems — like valuing trees for their “climate regulation” — and then providing a disincentive for destroying these resources by fining such “externalities.” For example, charging a mining company for poisoning a river. If we actually want a chance for a livable planet, we must stop the poisoning before it happens at all, not tolerate the amount corporations are permitted to poison.
When I discuss industry rationales with campaign leader Falk, he retorts, “Dear sage-grouse, everything has its cost. Dear Indigenous folks, everything has its cost. Dear future generations, everything has its cost.” He adds, “We want to protect what’s left of the natural world. So-called environmentalists who support the mine only want to protect the material comforts rich humans have grown to expect.”
Corporations do backflips to cover their tracks by issuing “sustainability reports” and environmental impact statements, which ultimately reminds me of an abuser bringing flowers to his victim. What they leave behind is death and destruction as they generate material wealth to insulate unsustainable levels of consumption elsewhere. Who bears the cost are the people and organisms who do not hold the power to make decisions for their daily well-being. The actions and reasons for destroying natural habitats are shrouded in “utility,” that oft-used term wielded like a hidden dagger that eviscerates life. We must see through false accountability and consider where the responsibility to save nature actually lies.
After investigating the “cost” of clean energy, namely the people and animals sacrificed for products and energy sources, I am worried by how many environmentalists have been hoodwinked. Many have adopted the shadowy rhetoric of “green energy,” granting these processes the color of life when in turn they will vanish the actual living green of old sagebrush and all the creatures who depend on it — all the beings who cannot speak in words to ask why sustainability does not include them. Their silence will speak loudly of our failure. “Languages older than words,” as author Derrick Jensen calls them, will be amongst the terrible debris strewn by our species’ dangerous, unexamined ideas ferried forth by that interminable, fortressed word: progress.
Maybe some people do not care about animals. Maybe many have resigned themselves because there are always “costs” and “tradeoffs” when it comes to sustaining human activities and luxuries. Maybe the majority are content to accept the unexamined premises slid by when corporations name violence as externalities — which we know to be the murder of the natural world and its creatures, the scalping of mountains, the poisoning of air and water, the gaslighting of local communities who will suffer. Maybe you think you’ll never see your own backyard bombed and gutted. Or that the failure of green technology to save the planet won’t settle over us all, leaving us to wish we’d acted when we could have to defend what we loved.
As long as we consider the rights of corporations to destroy natural and land-based communities as valid, no one who cares about living in a world rich in birdsong, rich in healthy connection to the planet and to each other, is safe. Livable futures are being stolen in the name of green energy under the false narrative of sustainability and security. The least those who condone and profit off of this new era of energy extraction can do is have the dignity to call “green energy” what it is: more death and destruction.
Cayte Bosler is a 2021 graduate of Columbia University’s M.S. Sustainability Management program. She researches biodiversity in protected areas across the world. Her journalism exposes links between human development and ecological abuse. She is a fellow of the Explorers Club, where she serves on a committee to support women in science and exploration.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.