If We Cannot Hold the Pass

By Paul Feather, published originally at Counterpunch, April 16, 2021

It is time to stop asking ourselves, “What can I do?” and start asking, “What needs to be done?”

—Will Falk

The wind is tearing through Thacker Pass. I am warm enough in my tent, though I can’t sleep. In a nightmare vision, I have seen what will happen if we cannot hold this pass against the men who will come with guns and machines to destroy this mountain: the mountains will fall one after another—like dominoes.

I am sleeping—or rather I was until a moment ago—upon the largest known lithium resource in the United States. The market for electric cars is exploding in response to fears of climate change. Manufacturers need lithium batteries, and this place is projected to provide 25% of the world’s demand. If we cannot stop them this mountain would become an open pit, stretching from here almost two miles to the east and up into the first hills of the Montana Mountains above me to the north. To the south, the pit would extend as far as Nevada Road 293, which lies far enough in the distance that I can’t hear the occasional long-haul trucks—even on the days when the wind stops, and silence settles in the sagebrush like a pool that ripples with meadowlarks in song.

There were surveyors on the road today. It has begun.

A Dispatch from Thacker Pass

I have only seven comrades hunkered down against the wind with me this evening, and I hope they are sleeping better than I. Others come and go: mostly locals from the Fort McDermitt Paiute Reservation a few miles away. They bring us food, water, and company. We can’t build much here for shelter or comfort lest the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) step in with fines—maybe leading to arrests. But the Paiute folk have parked some cattle trailers here for windbreak and hung plywood on metal fence posts as shelter for their elders and to make a little shade when they visit in the afternoons. They are kind people. They love this land.

During the days we ask each other how we might stop this destruction. The McDermitt Reservation is small and beleaguered. Their water is already poisoned by a nearby mercury mine; their tribal council is filing a lawsuit against the BLM to protect heritage and religious sites at Thacker Pass, but it’s probably a long shot; they are fighting a gold mine on the other side of the reservation as well; and one of them mentioned concerns about a grab for their water rights.

I am worried for them. I am worried for all of us.

A Nightmare

In my dream, I was playing a video game—something I haven’t done in over twenty years. I was shooting my opponents, and as each one disappeared they were replaced by another. I shot them all. Figure after figure appeared before me: men with guns; men without guns; a redneck with a confederate flag; four black men with baggy clothes; a businessman with a briefcase; a young child. The figures began to change so quickly I couldn’t even see them. I fired faster and faster, and I blew them all away.

I awoke with the knowledge of what would happen if we fail to hold Thacker Pass. The dominator culture that seeks to destroy this place will not stop here. There is lithium on the South side of the pass, and Lithium Americas Corporation has claims higher up in the Montana Mountains too. The deposits extend into Southern Oregon. They would not stop at Thacker Pass; the infrastructure would already be here, and local resistance already crushed. Tesla has partially completed a ‘gigafactory’ near Reno (expected to be the biggest building in the world) to receive the ore from murdered mountains. They will not stop. There are more lithium claims a few hours away at Rhyolite Ridge where biologists warn that mining will cause certain extinctions. The demand would never be satiated. As I did in my dream, they will kill and kill faster and faster until there is nothing left.

This is all being done under the guise of environmentalism. We are being told that lithium batteries charged on solar, wind, or hydro power will power our cars and stop climate change. Of course that means we’ll also have to build millions more solar panels. Millions more wind turbines. Do you think these come from nowhere? This means more mining and more destruction. It means more human rights violations both locally (especially in connection to man camps for miners that inevitably lead to sexual violence against local women), and also abroad as we seek out cobalt and other conflict minerals needed for this new industrial revolution.

The biggest cause of mass extinction is habitat loss. Yesterday morning, I awoke before dawn to watch the sage grouse lekking up in the Montana Mountains north of the pass. There were about a score of these rapidly vanishing birds. There are golden eagles and other endangered species here too. When did the environmentalists start calling for threats to endangered species, mountain top removal, and human rights violations? It would be one thing if this were a sacrifice for the greater good, but this transition to renewables isn’t even going to work! As energy and climate analyst Richard Heinberg says,

“Our environmental crisis is often framed just in terms of climate change. But resource depletion, destruction of wild habitat, and pollution also lead to collapse—just by other means. All result from economic over-expansion. A useful metaphor for what we must do is, ‘take our foot off the accelerator.’ If you’re headed toward the wrong direction, it doesn’t help to get there faster; instead, slow down and change direction.”

It seems that the extinction crisis doesn’t have a gas pedal. It has a renewable energy pedal, and we’re about to floor it. We are poised to destroy everything—to blast away at mountain after mountain, river after river, species after species after species—their loss all flashing before us too fast to see as we kill and kill and kill. We will not stop.

Unless we wake up from this nightmare.

Strike the Bottleneck

Thacker pass is a bottleneck in both the physical and the symbolic landscape. Guerillas might choose a mountain pass to stage an ambush in a land war, but wars aren’t fought like that anymore. However, as we move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, we must pass through a symbolic pass that is also vulnerable to attack. The dominator culture is trying to create a narrative that climate change is ‘under control,’ that environmentalists drive Teslas, that we don’t have deep-seated cultural dysfunction based on millennia of genocide and colonization—we just need something new to buy. But that story will have to come through Thacker Pass. This place is critical. There are surveyors on the road. They’re too far in to get out now. It is time to strike.

Twenty twenty-one is a year that is yet to be claimed. We can go ‘back to normal’ after the pandemic, buy into the billionaires’ bright green lies about renewable energy, and slip back into the trance of nine to five jobs—maybe buy a Tesla. In a few years, we will be told again that the next election cycle is, “the most important election in history,” and we could again compromise our principles in a choice between ecocide by evident fascists or ecocide by murderous oligarchs. Which side would win? How much difference would it make to our children? Perhaps they would placate us with half-measures that line billionaires’ pockets at the expense of marginalized people and ecological destruction: we would get an Old White Deal, but they will tell us it is a green new one.

Or not. Twenty twenty-one is yet to be claimed. We could wake up from the nightmare of mass extinction, destruction, and isolation. What better opportunity will we have? The pandemic has broken many of the routines and habits we didn’t know we could escape. Could we converge on Thacker Pass, seize this bottleneck of the new industrial revolution, and halt the tide of mass extinction? What other choice do we have? What do we risk if we do not try?

Tonight we are eight. I alone am awake and holding vigil at Thacker Pass. The wind will not stop today. Who will it bring? You, perhaps? Your friends and comrades? If we cannot hold the pass, the entire caldera will surely fall. I don’t know where we will stop them. I fear we will be overrun. Strike! Stand and fight! They are in the pass—we saw them today. Isn’t there a spark left in your conscience? Will you let this mountain die? This moment?