Electric Cars and Oil Both Accelerate Us Towards Ecological Collapse: From Line 3 to Thacker Pass [Dispatches from Thacker Pass]

This article originally appeared in Protect Thacker Pass.

By Max Wilbert

The great poet and playwright James Baldwin wrote in 1953 that “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction.”

Perhaps never has this been truer than in this era of converging ecological crises: global warming, biodiversity collapse, desertification and soil erosion, ocean acidification, dead zones, plastic pollution, sprawling habitat destruction, and the total saturation of our environment with radioactive or toxic chemicals.

Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous.

That is why I am so concerned that, while searching for solutions to global warming, many people imagine that fossil fuels can be simply replaced with solar and wind energy, that gas tanks can be swapped for lithium batteries, and that this will solve the problem.

For years, I have been arguing that this is wrong, and that we need much more fundamental changes to our economy, our society, and our way of life.

For the last 6 months, I have been camped at a place in northern Nevada called Thacker Pass, which is threatened by a vast planned open-pit mine that threatens to destroy 28 square miles of biodiverse sagebrush habitat, release millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions, bulldoze Paiute and Shoshone sacred sites, and leave behind piles of toxic waste for generations to come.

Electric cars and fossil fuel cars don’t differ as much as lithium mining companies would like us to believe. In fact, a direct link connects the water protectors fighting the new Line 3 oil pipeline in the Ojibwe territory in Minnesota and the land defenders working to protect Peehee Mu’huh, the original name for Thacker Pass in the Paiute language.

The new Line 3 pipeline would carry almost a million barrels a day of crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands, the largest and most destructive industrial project on the planet, to refineries in the United States. On the way, it would threaten more than 200 waterbodies and carve a path through what CNN called “some of the most pristine woods and wetlands in North America.” The project would be directly responsible for millions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

For the last 7 years, indigenous water protectors and allies have rallied, petitioned, established resistance camps, held events, protested, and engaged in direct action to stop the Line 3 pipeline from being built. More than 350 people have been arrested over the past few months, but pipeline construction continues to progress for now.

Ironically, the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine would require importing nearly 700,000 tons of sulfur per year — roughly equivalent to the mass of two Empire State Buildings — for processing the lithium. This sulfur would likely come (at least in part) from the Alberta tar sands, perhaps even from oil that would flow through Line 3.

Almost all sulfur, which is used in a wide range of chemical processes and fertilizers, comes from oil and gas refineries, where it’s a byproduct of producing low-sulfur fuels to meet air-quality regulations around acid rain.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, tar sands contain 11 times as much sulfur as conventional heavy crude oil, and literal “mountains” of sulfur are piling up in Alberta and at other refineries which process tar sands fuel. Sulfur sales revenue is important to the economics of tar sands oil extraction. One report released in the early years of tar sands extraction found that “developing a plan for storing, selling or disposing of the sulfur [extracted during processing] will help to ensure the profitability of oil sands operations.”

This means that Thacker Pass lithium destined for use in “green” electric cars and solar energy storage batteries would almost certainly be directly linked to the Line 3 pipeline and the harms caused by the Tar Sands, including the destruction of boreal forest, the poisoning of the Athabasca River and other waters, and an epidemic of cancers, rare diseases, and missing and murdered indigenous women facing Alberta First Nations. And, of course, the tar sands significantly exacerbate global warming. Canadian greenhouse gas emissions have skyrocketed over recent decades as tar sands oil production has increased.

Mining is exceptionally destructive. There is no getting around it. According to the EPA, hard-rock mining is the single largest source of water pollution in the United States. The same statistic probably applies globally, but no one really knows how many rivers have been poisoned, how many mountains blown up, how many meadows and forests bulldozed for the sake of mining.

The water protectors at Line 3 fight to protect Ojibwe territory, wild rice beds, and critical wildlife habitat from a tar sands oil pipeline, oil spills, and the greenhouse gas emissions that would harm the entire world. Here at Thacker Pass, we fight the same fight. The indigenous people here, too, face the destruction of their first foods; the poisoning of their water; the desecration of their sacred sites; and the probability of a toxic legacy for future generations. I fight alongside them for this place.

Our fights are not separate. Our planet will not cool, our waters will not begin to flow clean again, our forests will not regrow, and our children will not have security unless we organize, stop the destruction, and build a new way of life. The Line 3 pipeline, and all the other pipelines, must be stopped. And so must the lithium mines.

The wind howls at Thacker Pass. Rain beats against the walls of my tent. A steady drip falls onto the foot of my sleeping bag. It’s June, but we are a mile above sea level. Summer is slow in coming here, and so the storm rages outside, and I cannot sleep. Nightmare visions of open-pit mines, climate breakdown, and ecological collapse haunt me.

James Baldwin gave good advice. In this time, we must not shut our eyes to the reality that industrial production, including the production of oil and the production of electric cars, results in industrial devastation. And with our eyes wide open, we must take action to protect our only home, and the future generations who rely on us.

Also available at The Sierra Nevada Ally, Dispatches from Thacker Pass series.


For more on the Protect Thacker Pass campaign

#ProtectThackerPass #NativeLivesMatter #NativeLandsMatter

2 thoughts on “Electric Cars and Oil Both Accelerate Us Towards Ecological Collapse: From Line 3 to Thacker Pass [Dispatches from Thacker Pass]”

  1. The problem is that people don’t want to give up their destructive lifestyles, so they fantasize about “alternative” energy even when shown that all industrial living is destroying our planet regardless of the source of the energy used for it. Planet of the Humans should have been a wake-up call, but instead that movie got massive criticism and even censorship from people who either do or should know better. THAT’s what we’re dealing with here, like on all ecological issues that don’t directly and immediately affect humans.

  2. Full agreement on the above. The problem isn’t how our cars are powered or where we get our electricity. The problem is that we’ve convinced ourselves that cars and electricity are necessities, instead of inherently destructive products of greed — the polite term for which is “profit.”

    The reality is that the products of most industries are essential only to an economic system geared toward exhausting the resources of a 4-billion-year-old planet as fast as possible, and dying in our own filth.

    Most of my great-grandparents never had a car, never lived in a home with electric power, never used an air conditioner, rode in an elevator, or boarded a plane. And if they ever complained about the lack of any of those things, my grandparents didn’t mention it.

    The one mistake most of my ancestors made was having so many children that modern technology had to be invented to feed them, and to poison the planet their descendants would inherit. They called all those babies “blessed events” — which is how the world came to have 11 times the population it had in 1750, pump more than 36 billion tons of carbon into the air each year, and annually dump 9 million tons of plastic into the oceans.

    We’re like 8 billion giant cats — who won’t use a litter box, but shit on the floor next to it. Such is the reality of industrial civilization. And it promises to kill most of the life on Earth in this century, unless we reverse course rapidly. But instead of getting better, we continue to get worse.

    My advice to the human race, for starters, is this: On an individual level, stop congratulating people for getting pregnant. Instead, ask “Why?”

    Don’t switch to electric vehicles. Try walking, or riding a used bicycle. Avoid imports. If you’re thinking of traveling, take a train or a sailboat, or stay at home.

    On a societal level, end the perpetual growth economy. Strive to produce only what is needed, instead of as much as you can manufacture and sell. Stop importing and exporting things that can be produced locally, or stop using them at all. And begin thinking of trash and garbage as crimes against nature, instead of the “disposal industry.”

    Humans are the only species that produces inorganic waste — and the only one that produces organic waste that requires industrial solutions. We’re also the only species that found a way to perpetually increase its population, which is now 45 times what it was, 2000 years ago.

    Before I got over religion, I studied the entire New Testament of the Bible, which was written around 2000 years ago. And there isn’t a word there about a shortage of people, when the total world population was roughly today’s combined population of Colombia and Japan.

    That’s 2000 years of human “progress”: From horses, carts, and boats powered by oars and sails, to millions of cars, ships, planes, farms, and factories, poisoning the land, air, and water; from 175 million people whose resource use was almost entirely organic, to 7.8 billion, whose resource use is mostly non-renewable, and on pace to reach 10 tons per person per year, by 2030.

    Other species keep their populations stable naturally — either by regulating their own reproduction, or by cycles of growth spurts and mass die-offs.

    Humanity, too, is headed for a mass die-off, in the form of the collapse of our civilization. By some estimates, this collapse could be 40 or 50 years away. By others, it could begin in this decade.

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