This video is an interview with Guillaume Pitron, the author of a recent book, Rare Metals War. His book is about the cost to people and the environment of mining for metals and minerals for “clean energy” technologies, like solar and wind and batteries, and associated technologies, like smart grids, electric vehicles and the computers that run it all.
I have not yet read the book, but I am glad to see more people are talking about this issue. We use the word “clean” in “clean energy” and “clean technology” to mean that the technology produces no CO2 emissions at use time. Of course, as all of us here know, these technologies are far from “clean” when you include the full lifecycle of the technology. Using the words “clean” and “green” in marketing (propaganda) for these technologies, whether done by the corporations themselves or the people and governments these corporations have captured, is highly disingenuous because it fosters the belief that these technologies do no harm, when nothing could be further from the truth.
If you are interested in exploring the impacts of the technologies we use, and the coming impacts as “clean technologies” explode in use in the next few decades, this video is worth a watch. I am adding the author’s book to my reading list.
The author and interviewer discuss the greenwashing of these technologies as clean and green, and talk extensively about the pollution created during refining and manufacturing. Unfortunately they do not talk about the impacts of the mines themselves, or the impacts of installating and using the technologies once they are made. The author uses the example of an electric vehicle not creating CO2 emissions when it’s used, but of course we know that cars have all kinds of other impacts too (from plastic, tires, roads, lifestyle, disposal, etc).
The author and interviewer both believe in “progress” — that these technologies will improve and that we will eventually develop the technologies to recycle the raw elements so we don’t have to mine them. Will we, though? Some components may be easy to recycle but others will not. For instance, look at a wind turbine: the massive steel post on which the blades sit is recyclable, yes. But the football field-length blades are not — these are made from a plastic-fiberglass composite, and after the 25-30 year lifespan of the turbine, the blades are landfilled, putting these polluting blades into the environment forever. And, as we’ve discovered with other recycling efforts, it is usually cheaper to make things new, than to recycle them, which disincentivizes the “free market” from using recycled materials. In addition, growth will inevitably outpace recycling efforts, requiring new virgin materials for decades to come.
The author suggests that we stop relying on China to provide the metals we use for technology, and suggests that we begin mining for our own metals and do it in a “cleaner” way. Well you’ve seen how “clean” Lithium Americas is striving to be — trucking in the diesel fuel required to dig the ore and refine the lithium with electric trucks! Oh, that’s really going to make the project clean and green!
The author believes that we should experience “the full cost of attaining our standard of happiness”. I couldn’t agree more, because perhaps that is the only thing that will make us realize what it actually takes to live the way we do here in North America. We outsource the dirtiest industries and the dirtiest jobs to the poorest people in the world so the rest of us can live our lives in happiness ignoring the pain and suffering we cause elsewhere.
Environmentalists talk about a “just transition” to clean energy. Well, there is no justice for the poor and for non-humans in a transition to technologies that require massive mines, water pollution, toxic tailings, continued appropriation of public land and indigenous land to do it, mass killings of plants and animals, and the possible extinction of some plants and animals in the process. That is not justice. That is genocide.
When the author speaks of the greenwashing involved in our modern technologies — from computers to cars — he describes how the world has been divided between those who take the full impact of mining the resources for these technologies, and those who “pretend to be clean”. He says it’s the biggest greenwashing operation he’s ever seen. I couldn’t agree more.
The author and interviewer talk about how if we produce rare earths in locations with stronger environmental laws, like in the US, we would “treat” the toxic tailings water before releasing it into the environment, and therefore it would be better. Really? Let’s take a look.
What Lithium Americas plans to do to “be better” is evaporate some of the water from the tailings produced by leaching the lithium from the ore, to create “dry stack tailings”, which is a clay like substance that can be piled into stacks. They will place these stacks on a liner, presumably some material that will supposedly prevent the tailings from getting into the ground and into the ground water, and then cover it all with dirt once the mining is done. Essentially they will turn Thacker Pass into a big pit of toxic tailings covered with dirt. This is perhaps better than open tailings ponds like we see with other mines, but I ask you: when have humans done anything that lasts “forever”? Meaning, actually lasts forever? In a world where water gets into every nook and cranny and eventually can bring down bridges and skyscrapers; in a world with earthquakes and volcanoes, a world where liners eventually disintegrate from age; how will this solution last “forever”? It won’t. Eventually those toxic tailings will pollute Thacker Pass and the surrounding land and water and all who grow and live there. How long is “forever” in this scenario? A few decades? A couple of centuries? You and I will not be around to find out, but I can guarantee that “forever” is not actually forever.
I remember a couple of years ago, I read an article about how US mining sites dump 50 million gallons of polluted mining wastewater into the environment every single day. Old mines, mines dug without proper environmental oversight, abandoned mines… these mines “all but ensure that some of today’s mines will foul waterways or require perpetual cleanups.”
“Perpetual cleanups.” Let that sink in.
“At northern California’s Iron Mountain Mine, cleanup teams battle to contain highly acidic water that percolates through a former copper and zinc mine and drains into a Sacramento River tributary. The mine discharged six tons of toxic sludge daily before an EPA cleanup. Authorities now spend $5 million a year to remove poisonous sludge that had caused massive fish kills, and they expect to keep at it forever.”
Forever? Really, forever? Forever implies that humans will be around and able to continue to clean up this and the waste from thousands of other mines emitting toxic tailings every single day forever. I think these people don’t understand what “forever” means. And when humans are no longer here to keep cleaning up (which means moving the pollution from one place to another place, of course), then what happens?
“The records show that at average flows, more than 50 million gallons of contaminated wastewater streams daily from the sites. In many cases, it runs untreated into nearby groundwater, rivers and ponds — a roughly 20-million-gallon daily dose of pollution that could fill more than 2,000 tanker trucks.
The remainder of the waste is captured or treated in a costly effort that will need to carry on indefinitely, for perhaps thousands of years….“
So we will need to keep “cleaning” up this mess (again, moving the pollution from one place to another) “indefinitely, for perhaps thousands of years”. Anyone want to bet that humans will be around indefinitely or for thousands of years to keep cleaning up this mess? Anyone?
And this is happening in a country with “strong environmental oversight” compared to China and other countries we currently rely on to supply metals and minerals for our “clean” technologies.
The solution to these problems is not to move mining from China and other countries with lax environmental laws to the United States, where we supposedly have stronger environmental laws.
The solution is to eliminate the need for these metals and minerals entirely.
This is why the Thacker Pass protest is so important. We are on the cusp of a new “gold” rush”, a new “oil boom”, as the fourth industrial revolution of technologies is now upon us and growing at an exponential rate. The technologies that we hope will “save us” are the technologies that are now destroying life on this planet. As the interviewer says in this video, can we rely on technology to solve the problems created by technology? Looking at history, the answer is clearly NO.
We must stop the Thacker Pass mine, if for no other reason than it is one of thousands more that will be dug to fuel this new “clean” economy here in the United States and around the world. We are drawing the line. We are saying “No!”
Join us, protectthackerpass.org.