At Thacker Pass, “National Security” is Being Abused to Cover Up Atrocities
I was a kid when the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan began, but I could see what was happening.
Corporations were cashing in however possible: selling beans, bullets and band-aids, signing lucrative construction contracts for new military bases, replacing public employees with private contractors from combat units to the VA hospital, and capitalizing on opportunities to make big money in reconstruction and oil.
Now, as an environmental activist and author, I apply the same logic to the climate crisis.
There are surprising parallels between the “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan and climate change. Both are characterized by public fear, existential risks, geopolitical power struggles, manipulation of public opinion, and huge sums of money.
As global warming intensifies, trillions of dollars in government subsidies and consumer spending are flowing to makers of “green technology.” Car manufacturers from Ford to Volkswagen have announced plans to stop making gas and diesel cars, and instead manufacture only electric vehicles. And as more intermittent wind and solar is added to electricity grids, utilities are investing in massive, warehouse-sized battery banks to stabilize power supplies.
All this is driving skyrocketing demand for raw materials such as lithium, graphite, cobalt, nickel, and rare earth metals. The International Energy Agency, for example, expects demand for lithium to spike by 4200% over the next 20 years. Lithium prices have quintupled in the past year alone as demand vastly outstrips supply. And that growing demand is driving mining companies to explore and develop new mines around the world.
One hotspot for this is Nevada, where there are currently 17,375 lithium mining claims and some 50 lithium mining projects in development, the largest of which is Thacker Pass, located in the northern portion of the state. But herein lies the conflict: beyond a rich source of lithium, Thacker Pass is also a highly biodiverse habitat home to rare wildlife and is culturally important as the site of two massacres of Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone people.
I’ve been fighting the fossil fuel industry and reporting from the frontlines of climate chaos for decades, and it’s clear to me that we must stop burning fossil fuels immediately. Yet I question the idea that technology is the solution. In at least one important way, “green tech” is no different than fossil fuels: the natural world bears the costs of its extraction and development.
The environmental and cultural significance of Thacker Pass, and questions about lithium’s efficacy as climate crisis panacea, has catalyzed a serious resistance movement to “Protect Thacker Pass” consisting of protests, regulatory battles, a year-long occupation of the planned mine site, and lawsuits.
Arguing in Federal Court against the two Indian Tribes, four environmental groups, and local rancher who have sued to stop the Thacker Pass lithium mine, Lithium Nevada Corporation’s lawyer recently wrote that “The [Thacker Pass] project is important… to ensure that the U.S. is not dependent on foreign sources for critical minerals as a matter of national security.”
I’m not buying it.
Maybe it’s because I’m old enough to remember the world before ubiquitous cell phones, but it’s obvious to me that lithium is no more “critical” than Hummers or TikTok. What’s really critical are the basics: food, water, shelter, clean air, and a living planet.
When Lithium Nevada’s lawyers and the U.S. government argue that lithium is a “critical mineral,” and that blowing up a mountainside, destroying wildlife habitat and Native American sacred sites, and polluting more than 4 million gallons of water per day is unimportant because building a lithium mine is “a matter of national security” that could “have significant consequences for the economy,” I call bullshit.
Their logic, that we must “compete” with other nations on the world stage to establish dominance, is a sad relic of the colonial imperialist legacy of this country.
In February 1948, George Kennan[i], head of US State Department Policy Planning and one of the most influential people in government, wrote an extraordinary Top-Secret report that wouldn’t be declassified for 26 years.
“[The United States has] about 50 percent of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population,” Kennan wrote in memo PPS23. “Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.”
This, perhaps more than any quote, lays bare the goals of the national security apparatus: not to protect lives, but to “maintain this position of disparity.”
Kennan continued: “To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”
Now, minerals are the new white gold, and a “Minerals Security Partnership” has been formed between the United States, Canada, Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the European Commission. Reuters called this a “Metallic NATO” — fitting, when you consider that mining itself is a war against the land and modern war is impossible without mining. President Biden recognized this last March when he amended the Defense Production Act, a Cold War-era law, to allow the Department of Defense to promote domestic mining.
Big profits, while the land is destroyed. This is the so-called national security that Lithium Nevada is talking about.
All this is not new. The wealthy and powerful have long abused the concept of national security as a disguise for selfish goals.
For instance, look at the 9/11 World Trade Center bombings, which led to the aforementioned wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 900,000 dead, illegal mass surveillance, extraordinary rendition, “enhanced interrogation,” and $8 trillion in costs — much of which went to companies like Halliburton (where Vice President Dick Cheney was CEO before taking office).
Or look at the Vietnam war, where a decade of battle resulted in millions of dead Vietnamese, 300,000 dead U.S. and allied troops, an entire country poisoned by Agent Orange, and spectacular profits for “defense” companies like KBR, Boeing, and Dow Chemical.
We can even look back further, at the wars of colonization, where the U.S. military committed massacres from Sand Creek to the Swamp Cedars in service of “Manifest Destiny,” then took possession of valuable land for agriculture, mining, logging, and towns.
Northern Paiute activist and author Sarah Winnemucca wrote in her 1884 book Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims that war profiteering and greed were major drivers of the Snake War, the bloodiest Indian war in the West and the context for the Thacker Pass massacre of September 12, 1865 that has become a flashpoint for the lithium mine protests.
“[In the summer of 1865] soldiers were sent from California,” Winnemucca wrote, “and a great many companies came. They went after my people all over Nevada. Reports were made everywhere throughout the whole country by the white settlers, that the red devils were killing their cattle, and by this lying of the white settlers the trail began which is marked by the blood of my people from hill to hill and from valley to valley. The soldiers followed after my people in this way for one year, and the Queen’s River Piutes were brought into Fort Churchill, Nevada, and in that campaign poor General [sic] McDermit was killed. These reports were only made by those white settlers so that they could sell their grain, which they could not get rid of any other way. The only way the cattle-men and farmers get to make money is to start an Indian war, so that the troops may come and buy their beef, cattle, horses, and grain.”
All that has changed since 1865 is that the problems have become more entrenched. As technology has escalated, war profiteers have become permanent adjuncts to government, with personnel rotating between high-paying corporate jobs and government roles in what is called a “revolving door.” In most countries, they call this corruption.
This danger is why, on January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower — former Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, and a man intimately familiar with every facet of the military and national security — ended his presidential term with a warning about the pernicious effects of a permanent war footing.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex,” Eisenhower said in his televised speech. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.”
We all want safety. But the term “national security” should not make us stop thinking critically. Democracy, human rights, and justice all depend on us making deliberate and well-informed choices about our path as a society.
My friend Lierre Keith often says that “in the wealthy nations of the west, we live behind a military barricade.” The slavery, violence, and brutality that go into producing an electric car battery or a modern smartphone happens in rural communities and countries far away, while the wealthy reap the benefits. As someone born and raised in the United States, I’ve benefitted from that exploitation without ever choosing to. I live on stolen native land, and with the U.S. dollar as the reserve currency of the world, the economic warfare conducted by organizations like the World Bank and military warfare conducted by U.S. forces preserves a situation where the middle class in the U.S. could pass for the upper class in most of the rest of the world.
With U.S. influence waning globally and lithium supply chains dependent on China, this country’s wealth and power is indeed at stake. To fuel that wealth, the mine at Thacker Pass is being rammed through despite determined opposition.
On a technical level, transitioning to EVs will be extremely challenging. It will demand huge expansion in electric power plants and transmission grids. There may not even be enough economically recoverable lithium in the world to manufacture the batteries to replace the world’s 1.5 billion cars. And some analyses show that EVs will only reduce emissions by ~6% – better than nothing, but not a particularly good use of energy and resources, and not even close to the 100% emissions cuts that scientists are telling us are required to avoid catastrophic global warming.
EVs, then, are a fantasy. They allow people to believe that car culture itself—indeed, industrial civilization—can be made sustainable with mere technical changes. This is a lie. We can’t simply swap out what is underneath the hoods of our cars and expect to reach sustainability. In this sense, a focus on electric vehicles is dangerous because it obscures the true scope of changes which are needed. To halt and reverse global warming will require changes to our society that are far more significant and sweeping.
Recently I was called “delusional” for saying what most people know but are too polite to say: cars are unsustainable, and if we want to live sustainably, we won’t have cars. Just because a truth is inconvenient and politically unacceptable in some quarters doesn’t make it any less true. You can’t argue with the laws of ecology any more than you can argue with physics. If I’m delusional, then so was Galileo.
Energy company executives and political leaders alike don’t want to imagine a world where the U.S. no longer has economic and military dominance of the planet, a world where we make deliberate choices to live within the limits of the planet rather than exploiting and destroying for temporary power and wealth, a world where we voluntarily choose to live with less, a world where Native American sacred sites are respected, a world without an Earth-destroying economy. Doing so, after all, would mean the end of their wealth and their power.
But I can imagine that world, and I think you can too.
They can call us delusional all they like, but we’ll keep fighting for it until our last breath.
[i] Kennan was granted the Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush in 1989, and would later become known as one of “The Wise Men,” a group of 6 Federal Government officials which also included the Secretary of State, the Ambassador to the Soviet Union, the Special Envoy to the President, the Secretary of Defense, and a prominent member of War Department who later served as President of the World Bank. Kennan was granted the Medal of Freedom by George H. W. Bush in 1989, and would later become known as one of “The Wise Men,” a group of 6 Federal Government officials which also included the Secretary of State, the Ambassador to the Soviet Union, the Special Envoy to the President, the Secretary of Defense, and a prominent member of War Department who later served as President of the World Bank.