Above photo: Snow-clad mountain slopes in the Spring Mountains, Nevada, USA – CC BY-SA 3.0.
On Friday, January 15th, two activists drove eight hours from Eugene, Oregon, to a remote corner of public land in Nevada, where they pitched a tent in below-freezing temperatures and unfurled a banner declaring: “Protect Thacker Pass.” You’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of the place—it’s seriously in the boonies—but these activists, Will Falk and Max Wilbert, hope to make it into a household name.
One of the activists is Will Falk, a writer and lawyer who helped bring a suit to US District Court seeking personhood for the Colorado River in 2017. He describes himself as a “biophilic essayist” and he certainly lyrical in describing the area where they set up:
“Thacker Pass is a quintessential representation of the Great Basin’s specific beauty. Millions of years ago a vast lake stretched across this land. Now, oceans of sagebrush wash over her. If you let the region’s characteristic stillness settle into your imagination, you’ll see how the sagebrush flows and swells like the ancient lake that was once here. On the north and south ends of the Pass, mountains run parallel to each other. The mountains feature outcroppings of volcanic rock left by the active volcano that was here even before the ancient lake. The mountains cradle you with the valley’s dips and curves up to the ever-changing, never-ending Great Basin sky. During the day, the sun shines down full-strength creating shape-shifting shadows on the mountain faces. At night, the stars and moon shine with such intensity and clarity that you can almost hear the light as it pours to the ground.”
I’ve spent enough time in the Great Basin to attest to its beauty myself: the dramatic ranges, the expansive flats, the gnarled trees, the stiff-stemmed wildflowers, and the lean, sinewy jack rabbits; they are all expressions of endurance in a landscape imbued with the echoes of the ancient. How long ago it must have been, when waves lapped the foothills, yet the shapes they left are unmistakable. The sense is palpable of being elevated, inland, and isolated from the ocean—the waterways here don’t run to the sea, hence the name “basin.”
Austere as it all is, humans have lived in the area for many thousands of years, digging roots, gathering seeds & berries, harvesting pinenuts and hunting game. These traditions, though assaulted, survive.
To the Europeans seeking fertile valleys to farm or dense forest to cut, the Great Basin offered little to nothing, so most of the folks from “back east” just passed through. But ranching and mining cursed the region since the invasion began, and its grasses were razed and its rocks ripped open. Still, many areas, especially up the slopes, were spared the hammering that befell the tallgrass praries of the Midwest and the old growth forests of the West, which were extirpated to the degree of 95% or more. In fact, some of the last best wildlife habitat in the lower 48 still hangs on in the Great Basin, ragged though it might be around the edges.
Yet it seems the time has come when these “wastelands,” as so many erroneously consider them, will be put on the chopping block for a new kind of exploitation: “green” energy development. Massive solar arrays and huge wind farms have been taking the lead in this latest wave of exploitation, and now mining is being imposed. Not coal for fuel or gold for wealth but lithium for electric car batteries.
Thacker Pass is the site of a proposed lithium mine that would impact nearly 5700 acres—close to nine square miles—and which would include a giant open pit mine over two square miles in size, a sulfuric acid processing plant, and piles of tailings. The operation would use 850 million gallons of water annually and 26,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day. The ecological damage in this delicate, slow-to-heal landscape would be permanent, at least on the human scale. At risk are a number of animal and plant species including the threatened Greater Sage Grouse, Pygmy Rabbits, the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, a critically imperiled endemic snail species known as the Kings River Pyrg, old growth Big Sagebrush and Crosby’s Buckwheat, to name just those that are locally significant. Also present in the area are Golden Eagles, Pronghorn Antelope, and Bighorn Sheep.
A cultural heritage also exists in this area. In describing the north-south corridor immediately to the east of Thacker Pass, wildtender Nikki Hill says:
“This pass in Nevada is a bridge of great importance. My auntie, Finisia Medrano, would speak of how this was the way one would travel by horse or foot from the wild gardens of Eastern Oregon to continue into Nevada and still be supported, finding food and water for the journey. She would speak of how there was no other real good way to make this crossing, due to a lack of resources in the surrounding landscape. If this is the case for a human, it is the case for all the non human people traversing this area as well. There is so much fragmentation, in landscape, mentality and relations, all stemming from a displaced sense of belonging. How will we know our way back to places, both in spirit and in touch, without threads of continuity to weave together?”
It’s industry vs. ecology once again, and there’s nothing “sustainable” about it for the thousands of creatures who will lose their lives or homes if the mine is allowed to happen.
The reason that Will Falk and his fellow activist Max Wilbert rushed to the site on January 15th was because that’s the day the Bureau of Land Management issued it’s “record of decision,” which greenlighted this horrific project. The BLM considered four alternatives and admitted that it did not choose the “environmentally preferable” one—which was no mine—because it would not have satisfied the “purpose and need”—which was obviously the mine itself. I point this out to illustrate that US land management decisions are primarily made in favor of development not preservation. Typically, what environmental regulations do exist are weak, poorly enforced, and increasingly watered down. Hence, Falk and Wilbert’s decision to take direct action.
This is not the most comfortable time of year to be camped out in northern Nevada, so I admire them for making this choice. Overnight lows are in the teens and twenties at this time of year, and daily highs in the thirties and forties. Snow is possible. But it’s the truth that showing up is often the only way to make a difference.
They sent out a press release on Monday, January 18th, announcing their encampment. Said Falk: “Environmentalists might be confused about why we want to interfere with the production of electric car batteries.”
Here, Falk is speaking to the fact that over the last twenty years, the focus of mainstream environmentalism has narrowed in on carbon pollution as a central concern, too often to the exclusion of issues like industrial development, technological consumption and other forms of pollution. Specifically, the topic of automobile use has been reduced to a question of emissions when, in reality, cars and car culture are problematic for many other reasons:
* Car-related deaths in the US are typically around 40,000 per year, and far more people are injured, sometimes maimed for life.
* Cars kill countless animals annually in both urban and rural settings. Whether the vehicle is gas-powered or battery-powered doesn’t make a difference to the poor squirrel, cat, coyote, skunk or deer who is taken out.
* Roads themselves demand a tremendous amount of resources for their construction and upkeep. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest emitter of carbon in the world.
* In rural areas, roads fragment habitat, preventing natural pattern of foraging, hunting and migration.
* Car tires contain toxic substances that are harmful to wildlife, and as the Guardian recently reported, Salmon in the Pacific Northwest are being killed by a chemical being washed into rivers and streams by the rain.
* City life is made far less hospitable by the quantity, speed, and dominating presence of cars. Streets and parking lots can take up 50% of a US city. Much of that would be better be used for other purposes like pedestrian plazas, green spaces and urban agriculture.
* Then there are the cultural aspects of car culture. The car-based suburbs struck a terrible blow to localized communities in the US, breaking up close-knit urban neighborhoods and replacing them with atomized subdivisions, in which each household (now reduced to its “nuclear” form, without extended family) was isolated with a propaganda machine. The “conveniences” imposed on us then ended up having a far higher price tag than advertised, and the resulting consumer culture is now swallowing up the world. From a mental health stand point, the alienation the suburbs inflicted on our society still tortures us to this day.
* More subtle, but very real, is the way our perception is shaped by observing the world from inside a metal box at great speed. From a vantage of insulation and separation, other objects—including people—are reduced to mere obstacles. The dehumanization that is imprinted this way doesn’t immediately end when we get out of the vehicle.
Replacing gas stations with charging stations is not going to address any of this. Though the globalized system of extraction that supports all of this is itself running out of fuel, I fear that electric vehicles will only draw out the agony.
Some will argue that electric cars are beneficial regardless of all of the above, because they do reduce emissions while driving, and doesn’t that make them worth it? That’s unclear. The entire calculus must include the damage incurred by lithium mining, and by all the other extractive activities needed specifically for electric cars. The air might indeed be fresher in the city, but at the cost of habitat destruction, pollution and human suffering in another place—in somebody else’s home.
In a statement issued by the Western Watersheds Project about the BLM approving the Thacker Pass lithium mine, Kelly Fuller, their Energy and Mining Campaign Director warned:
“The biodiversity crisis is every bit as dire as the climate crisis, and sacrificing biodiversity in the name of climate change makes no scientific or moral sense. Over the last 50 years, Earth has lost nearly two thirds of its wildlife. Habitat loss is the major cause. Humans can’t keep destroying important wildlife habitat and still avoid ecosystem collapse.”
Human rights issues are also in the mix. Lest we forget, the US-backed right-wing coup in Bolivia in late 2019 was motivated in part by desire to control the lithium deposits in the Andean highlands, a place of otherworldly beauty. (See “Coups-for-Green-Energy added to Wars-For-Oil.”) Though the Bolivian people have since taken back their government, they experienced violence and suffering in the meantime. Unfortunately, the socialist party returned to power also favors mining the lithium. Their model is Venezuela, where oil profits were used to fund social programs. So, US leftists should take note that overthrowing capitalists does not automatically translate into “green” policy.
As Falk said: “It’s wrong to destroy a mountain for any reason – whether the reason is fossil fuels or lithium.”
The real answer, of course, is fewer cars. Plenty of activists, academics and planners have been talking about how to do that for years, and there’s plenty of solutions to pick from. What’s been lacking so far is the political will and the vibrant movement needed to force that will.
Nikki Hill further commented:
“The answer to the climate crisis is not ramping up new, more, green energy. This ‘green’ is just a word coloring the vision of insatiable growth, peddled by green greed. The green we need so desperately is the one that fills our hearts with connected wonder with the rest of the living world. And that requires slowing the fuck down.”
Indeed. And as of Friday, January 15th, two activists are camped out in Thacker Pass, Nevada, to slow down—and hopefully stop—that insatiable growth.
This article draws on a podcast interview I did with Will Falk on January 18th. Listen to it here.