Salar de Uyuni salt plain in Bolivia. (photo by Lion Hirth, public domain)
The US-supported right-wing coup against Bolivian President Evo Morales on November 10th was a serious strike against that nation’s autonomy and its people (especially its indigenous, of whom Morales was one). Such meddling has defined US foreign policy in Latin America for nearly two centuries, since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823.
“Same song, different verse,” one could say, and that’s true, but each verse has different lyrics and this one features a new element (no pun intended): Lithium.
While Lithium is used as an ingredient in a wide variety of products such as pharmaceuticals, industrial lubricants, desiccants, lenses and even rocket propellants, the fastest growing application is for batteries for electric cars. According to Bloomberg, demand for lithium could “double by 2025.”
Bolivia’s lithium reserves are believed to be the largest in the world. A conservative estimate puts their share at nearly a quarter of the world’s total, though the government has claimed it to be as high as 70% [Lithium Today]. Regardless of the exact amount, Bolivia’s supply is globally recognized to be significant, enough to have attracted the attention of China and Germany, among other countries.
Obviously, US interests in Bolivia are not about democracy, freedom or the rule of law, as Trump disingenuously stated. They’re not solely about lithium either; the socialist politics of Morales are anathema to capitalist elites the world over. Similarly, Iraq was not solely about oil. But with lithium, we’re talking about a substance that could become “one of the most important commodities on earth” so yes, it has some bearing. [See: Bolivian Coup Comes Less Than a Week After Morales Stopped Multinational Firm’s Lithium Deal and Bolivia coup against Morales opens opportunity for multinational mining companies.]
The big dream of “green energy” is that society will just be able to switch from one source to another without changing anything fundamentally. How perversely appropriate, then, that US foreign policy would not have change to fundamentally either. To wars for oil, we’ll just add coups for green energy. That’s not an improvement.
Here our attention is called to a big blind spot in US liberalism. “Defense” spending devours over half the discretionary budget; the Pentagon is the world’s largest institutional polluter; the military has approximately 800 bases around the world in over 80 countries; at The facts are plain: the US is a bloated empire, defiling the planet and retaining our ’60s era title of “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
But these facts go virtually unmentioned by Democrats, either the leadership or the rank-and-file. Here’s this monstrous institution that’s exceptionally expensive, ecocidal, and murderous, and it’s off the table. That’s obscene.
The text of the “Green New Deal” as proposed by AOC and others does not mention military spending or activities, though both must be drastically curtailed to address the multiple environmental crises inflicting the planet. With this omission, the whole program is a non-starter. Throw it out and start over.
As far as all of this is concerned, investigative journalist Cory Morningstar hits it in the bullseye:
“Without anti-imperialism as a foundational building block of every social movement, without a comprehensive understanding of history and the existing power structures at work, we not only fail our brothers and sisters in the Global South, we fail as a species. Not only will our social justice movements be fought in vain, all legitimate ecological movements undertaken to protect what remains of our natural world will also prove to be futile.”
Exactly. The stakes are high. This is no time to pussy-foot around, play dumb, or put our faith in half-measures. Yet we are ignoring this central truth of our world.
Further, we must take a close look at anything labeled “green.” That includes lithium mining, no matter who’s doing it.
The highest concentrations of lithium are found in the briny groundwater beneath salt flats. This water is pumped up and collected in shallow ponds where it is left to evaporate. The remaining precipitated solids are subjected to a chemical process to extract the lithium.
Such salt flats exist only in arid places in the world and the removal of the brine tends to lower surrounding water tables, affecting local wildlife and humans. Toxic chemicals are introduced into the water, soil and air. Heaps of sludge pile up. Plants and micro-organisms are killed and animals depart. In short, the sites subjected to this industry are irrevocably wrecked. That ain’t green at all.
In an article about the environmental issues of lithium mining, Bloomberg quoted a Chilean biologist, Cristina Dorador, who said: “We’re fooling ourselves if we call this sustainable and green mining. The lithium fever should slow down because it’s directly damaging salt flats, the ecosystem and local communities.”
In an piece entitled, “Lithium mining for ‘green’ electric cars is leaving a fetid stain on the planet,” which discussed lithium operations in South America, Raw Story concludes: “The idea that electric cars, or anything with lithium batteries, is ‘green’ might be a farce.”
Bolivia’s lithium is found on the Salar de Uyuni, a massive salt plain (at over 4000 square miles in size it is the world’s largest) high in the Andes Mountains (at close to 12,000 feet in elevation). It is a place of startling beauty and the second most popular tourist attraction in Bolivia. However, it has been negatively impacted by just the limited mining activity so far:
Previously, on travelling across the blinding white surface, one could expect to come across mirages, multi-coloured lakes and even flamingos or geysers. This time there are no flashes of light or oases on the world’s largest salt flat, just an inestimable number of artificial lakes, clunking machinery and workers. The new complex of laboratories, pilot plants, prospecting wells and pools covering 27 sq km of the southeastern part of the plain, situated 140km from the town of Uyuni, represents the dreams of more than a generation of politicians – a national lithium industry.
Morales was calling for much bigger operations, with the main beneficiary to be the state rather than foreign corporations. “We will develop a huge lithium industry,” he said.
Under this plan, the unique Salar de Uyuni would become a sacrifice zone, like Chile’s Atacama.
I abhor the fascists that ran Morales out of office, especially the ones in the US. We have no business messing with anyone’s right to self-determination. I hope that Morales is able to return to power, as he has pledged to do.
At the same time, I wish that Morales could support his revolution some other way, just as I wished that Chavez could’ve avoided oil extraction in the service of his. Just as I wish every day that we here in the belly of the beast could break our deadly habits.
In this era of ever more severe ecological disasters, our most important task as humans is to stop what we’re doing, in the interest of simple survival. In this context, I will venture to say that resource extraction like lithium mining is one of the master’s tools, unfit for dismantling the master’s house.
Even when it’s called “green.”