Green Lithium Mining is a Bright Green Lie. Dispatches from Thacker Pass

Written By Max Wilbert and  originally published on January 25, 2021 in Sierra Nevada Ally. In this article Max describes the plans for an industrial scale lithium mine, the harm this will cause and why we need to protect the area for endangered species.

Thacker Pass landscape. Image: Max Wilbert

On January 15th, my friend Will Falk and myself launched a protest occupation of the proposed lithium mine site at Thacker Pass, Nevada. We have set up tents, protest signs, and weathered more than a week of winter weather to oppose lithium mining, which would destroy Thacker Pass.

You might already be wondering: “Why are people protesting lithium? Isn’t it true that lithium is a key ingredient in the transition to electric cars, and moving away from fossil fuels? Shouldn’t people be protesting fossil fuels?”

Let me put any rumors to rest.

I am a strong opponent of fossil fuels and have fought against the industry for over a decade. I’ve fought tar sands pipelines, stopped coal trains, and personally climbed on top of heavy equipment to stop fossil fuel mining.

Now I’m here, in northern Nevada, to try and stop lithium mining. That’s because, in terms of the impact on the planet, there’s little difference between a lithium mine and an open-pit coal mine. Both require bulldozing entire ecosystems. Both use huge amounts of water. Both leave behind poisoned aquifers. And both are operated with massive heavy machinery largely powered by diesel.

The encampment at Thacker Pass. Image: Max Wilbert

I want people to understand that lithium mining is not “good” for the planet.

Sure, compared to coal mining, a lithium mine may ultimately result in less greenhouse gas emissions. But not by much. The proposed Lithium Americas mine at Thacker Pass would burn more than 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel every day, according to the Environmental Impact Statement. Processing the lithium would also require massive quantities of sulfur—waste products from oil refineries. One local resident told me they expect “a semi-truck full of sulfur every 10 minutes” on these rural, quiet roads.

This is not a “clean transition.” It’s a transition from one dirty industrial energy source to another. We’re making the argument for something completely different, and more foundational:degrowth. We need economic contraction, relocalization, and to stop using and wasting so many resources on unnecessary consumer products.

When people think about wilderness and important habitat, they generally don’t think of Nevada. But they should. Thacker Pass is not some empty desolate landscape. It’s part of the most important Greater sage-grouse habitat left in the state. This region has between 5-8% of all remaining sage-grouse, according to Nevada Department of Wildlife and BLM surveys.

Thacker Pass is home to an endemic snail species, the King’s River pyrg, which biologists have called “a critically imperiled endemic species at high risk of extinction” if the mine goes forward. Burrowing owls, pygmy rabbits, golden eagles, the threatened Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, and hundreds of other species call this place home, watershed, or migration corridor.

Thacker Pass is home to important old stands of Big sagebrush who are increasingly rare in Nevada and threatened by global warming.

One biologist who has worked in Thacker Pass, and who asked to remain unnamed for fear of retaliation, told me the Thacker Pass area “has seen the rapid decline of native shrubland/bunchgrass communities that form the habitat foundation.” He continued, “Those communities (particularly sagebrush) are already under tremendous stress from the dual-threat of invasive annual grasses (especially cheatgrass) and the increased fire returns that those volatile fuels cause.”

Now the BLM is permitting Lithium Americas corporation to come bulldoze what is left, tear away the mountainside for some 50 years, and leave behind a moonscape.

We are engaging in direct action and protest against this mine because the public process is not working. Despite sustained opposition, BLM ignored serious concerns about this mine and “fast-tracked” this project under the direction of the Trump Administration. We mean to stop the mine with people-power.

If you are interested in joining us, visit our website, to learn more about getting involved. And speak out on this issue. We can’t save the planet by destroying it. Transitioning away from fossil fuels and fixing humanity’s broken relationship with the planet will require a more critical approach. Follow

Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, co-authored with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, will be released in March.

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3 thoughts on “Green Lithium Mining is a Bright Green Lie. Dispatches from Thacker Pass”

  1. I hate to keep beating this drum, but it’s the simplest proof around that capitalism — the good old “free market” — cannot continue without destroying the planet we live on. And it will do it before today’s children check into nursing homes.

    Memorize these simple facts, which will shut down any pro-development, pro-growth argument you run into: Since 1900, human population has quintupled, from 1.6 billion to 8 billion. Annual consumption of non-renewable resources is up from 2.3 billion tons to 53 billion tons — an increase of 2300%. And per capita use has gone from 4.3 tons to 10 tons.

    By inventing, producing, selling, consuming, polluting, and wasting the planet at this rate, capitalism’s mania for growth, development, profit, and progress is using up the planet as if business was a race to the graveyard. Even before we run out of oil, lithium, gold or steel, we’ll run out of fresh water and cropland.

    Estimates vary depending on how we define the terms. But a good, ball-park figure is that we lose a forest the size of Belgium and add a desert the size of Maine every year. Even as conservative an organization as the U.N. says we’ll be 40% short of fresh water requirements by 2030, and that by 2040, computers alone will use all the electricity we can possibly.produce. And you can’t charge an electric car from a laptop.

    Joe Biden says, “When I hear climate change, I think jobs.” But the growth world is over, Joe. Continuing the pyramid scheme of capitalism means fake green jobs today, and mass graves tomorrow.

    We have to re-think humanity and learn the simplest and most obvious truth: We are animals, differing from squirrels, squid, and sparrows only in that they know they ARE Nature, and must live by its rules to survive. We, on the other hand, got the cocky idea that we can rule Nature, turn its life forms into lifeless “products,” multiply ourselves and our conveniences endlessly, and somehow live in the overpopulated desert we’ve made.

    There IS NO technological answer to the problems created by technology. There IS NO free lunch. To survive the 21st century, we have to phase out cars, planes, ships, and globalization, and learn to live small and locally.

    There is no other answer. We either live within Nature, or die along with it. We have confused knowledge with wisdom. And if we don’t learn the difference fast, the few species that survive will remember us as the big-brained, dumbest creature that ever lived — and the only one ever to cause a mass extinction, including its own.

    Do you want to be remembered as the animal that was outsmarted by cockroaches and jellyfish?

  2. Correction to my previous comment: Worldwide per capita use of non-renewable resources today is 6.7 tons per year. 10 tons per year is the figure for total resources, including renewables. For the U.S. and similarly developed nations, per capita consumption ia roughly 4 times the global average.

  3. Many if not most traditional indigenous cultures have (or had, if those cultures no longer exist because of civilization) an absolute ban on digging into the Earth. That’s all you need to know about extracting anything from under the Earth. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to extract; if it’s below the Earth, that’s where it belongs and people need to leave it there. As the movie Planet of the Humans clearly showed, so-called “green” energy is more of a scam than anything, and the only reason that well-meaning people buy into it is that they want to maintain their lifestyles.

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