The environmental ethicist Katie McShane compares our respect for cash to the word freedom. Everyone believes in it, but no one knows what it means. “Even though you recognize it has value, it doesn’t tell you what to do when that value conflicts with my needs,” she says.
Comparing the value of things, weighing the costs and benefits of one against the other, is increasingly the concern of environmentalists. Sometimes these competing things both have a claim in the natural world; sometimes we pretend to improve human life. Or the planet as a whole. If the Rhyolite Ridge mine was looking for gold or copper, it might be easier to reject its value. Everyone benefits from commodities, but it can be easy to say that you don’t “need” gold or that dollar value isn’t everything. With lithium, denial is more difficult. Donnelly and Fraga both agree that the country – the world – needs to wean itself off from fossil fuels. Lithium and sun are abundant in the Southwestern Desert, and the transition to green energy will likely bring a new level of industrialization to its landscape. Mines and solar power plants will compete with the rare buckwheat and desert turtles. But in the absence of these mines and power plants, the desert will still suffer. Despite all their harsh conditions and apparent sterility, deserts are fragile places, life is easily threatened by higher temperatures and more frequent droughts. The conditions demand that we formulate a moral equation: How much is the mine worth compared to the factory’s value?
All mines have a dirty side, whether their products are “green” or not. They can destroy landscapes or pollute water supplies or expel greenhouse gases. Historically, mining companies have paid little attention to these impacts, doing the bare minimum to comply with regulations. But lithium miners are under added pressure to act responsibly, says Alex Grant, a technical advisor who works with these mines. Buyers of electric vehicles are likely to be concerned, for example, that 25% of their car’s lifetime carbon impact comes from the battery supply chain. Thus, car manufacturers, anxious to improve their ecological reputation, have increasingly relied on lithium suppliers to burn less coal and obtain certifications attesting that their mines do not ruin water and habitats.
It is impossible to eliminate all the costs. For Grant, there is no alternative to digging up lithium. The status quo of fossil fuel cars is not an option. What did opponents of lithium mining expect? A return to horse and buggy? “We don’t need all the projects,” he says. “Some of them might have impacts that we shouldn’t accept. But we’re going to need a lot of it, that’s for sure.
Each project seems to have its own set of costs that someone will find unacceptable, making it even more difficult to decide which ones should be allowed to go ahead. In far north Nevada, Thacker Pass, another large lithium project on the verge of digging, is stymied by disputes with indigenous groups and ranchers over water rights and pollution. The same is true in places like Chile and Bolivia. Alternatives that seem more ecologically attractive, such as brines near the Salton Sea in California, have been the subject of discussion for decades, but the technology and funding behind these projects is uncertain. Maybe we could turn to the oceans; Deep-sea mining could offer lithium on a scale that would make any landmine stunted. But the environmental costs of this approach are arguably even less well understood and potentially enormous.
Against this background, the fate of a humble flower seems like a very small thing as lithium can be obtained so early and with few additional complications. Mining interests, ranchers and developers have long argued that the listing process for endangered species should take into account economic costs, such as the loss of value of a mine or the expense of maintaining an endangered species. species alive when it seems that natural forces could select it out of existence.