This week, Eleanor Goldfield digs into mining – past and present. First, author and organizer Mitch Troutman discusses his latest book, The Bootleg Coal Rebellion: The Pennsylvania Miners who Seized an Industry. Mitch shares the importance of remembering and sharing a radical past, as he puts it: nothing was ever inevitable and that history is taught best when it gives us agency in the present. He also explains the role of media in uplifting the miner’s struggle, something more difficult to recognize in today’s media landscape. Next, Eleanor talks with Jamie Kneen from MiningWatch to discuss the fallacy of green growth vis a vis lithium – a metal that many are saddling with utopian hopes for the future while the reality screams of neocolonialist extraction in line with other precious metals in a global capitalist market. Kneen highlights the importance of scale in discussing a livable future as well as the dirty fallout from lithium mining.
We present here the second segment, the interview with Jamie Kneen. Listen to the full show here.
Here's a transcript of that interview.
Eleanor Goldfield: Thank you so much everyone for listening and joining us the Project Censored radio show. We’re very glad right now to be joined by Jamie Kneen, who’s MiningWatch Canada’s outreach coordinator and Canada program co lead. He is responsible for MiningWatch’s work in western and northern Canada, national and international policy areas strategic research and communications and the organization’s Africa program. Jamie, thanks so much for joining us. Hi. So why want to talk about lithium in particular and South America. So the so called lithium triangle, a region that covers parts of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina is a hot topic right now and has been for quite some time, maybe particularly brought to the fore in 2021, Elon Musk tweeted, we will coup whoever we want, as a response to people clapping back to his earlier tweet cheering the US for helping to organize the 2019 coup which overthrew Evo Morales in Bolivia. And Morales had understandably drawn the ire of neocolonialist, hyper capitalists like Musk because he was very adamant that Bolivia not become a lithium plantation, and was strict in terms of how multinational corporations were allowed to take resources in space and Bolivia.
So, Jamie, I want to start off with this framing that we see in corporate media that leftist governments or indigenous groups or environmentalists are standing in the way of a green revolution, via lithium mining. And at the same time, they’re clearly not smart enough or advanced enough to access these riches on their own. So they need our help.
Jamie Kneen: I think the first problem is framing. Anything that’s happening now is framed as the Green Energy Revolution, when it’s really just business as usual, it’s capitalism making a minor course correction, and shifting from fossil fuels to metals as the primary input for energy. And there’s no serious consideration of the limits to growth, to throw in a real throwback phrase, but the fact is that planetary limits are being overrun all the time in many different dimensions. Kate Raworth has some really fantastic material on what she calls the donut economy, which is trying to fit into the various circles of existence that humans share the planet with other creatures and natural systems. All of which is to say that the problem is really one of untrammelled economic growth in the expectation that we can just make more cars, only they’ll be electric, and somehow everything will be fine.
There’s no doubt that we need to get the hell off of fossil fuels. And quickly, but, you know, there’s work has been going on, I think very constructively for a long time on energy efficiency. And a lot of what capitalism has done over the last few decades, and the neoliberal revolution, has been to completely upend any attempt at rational economic organization. The fear most often expressed, in the US, but also in other sort of economic circles, is that all of this climate change stuff is just socialism in disguise. And in a sense, that’s not wrong, because if the idea is to look after our collective interests over the individual wealth of L. Ron Musk or anyone else, that is the problem. So that is what we’re pointing to, and the fact that whether you look at it from the framework of economic inequality, or environmental sustainability, or environmental justice, the equations actually overlap pretty securely. And the idea that governments anywhere in the world should act in the interests of their people and their country and not in the interests of investors, is the aspect that’s revolutionary.
EG: I want to touch on something that you that you mentioned, and that was that was actually that you that you spoke about. In a recent presentation at the World Social Forum. You spoke about the importance of resisting the temptation to buy into literally and figuratively quote unquote, green growth. You said quote, continuing runaway consumption by the wealthy at the expense of the poor. And I think this is such a key point. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about how the lithium conversation misses this point of overconsumption. And, as you say, runaway consumption.
JK: Yeah, it comes back to this idea that wealthy people in wealthy countries can continue to become even more wealthy without addressing the economic and social and environmental costs to themselves or everyone else. And the increasing refusal of communities on the margins, whether that’s in the global South or Indigenous communities in the global North, to accept the idea of becoming sacrifice zones for this continued growth. And it’s really an increasingly conflictive space, because the pressure for “development” is very strong. And because people are increasingly aware of the cost to themselves, you know, communities are aware of the cost of these projects, of losing their water supplies, losing their arable land, losing their forests, whatever the price is, they’re aware of it. These costs are extreme and, and mostly irreversible. And they’re saying “enough.”
EG: Well, I wanted to talk a little bit too about what you’re talking about – they’re basically unwilling to be these sacrifice zones. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that looks like, the environmental side effects of lithium mining, because since it’s talked about is this green growth or Green Revolution, that’s not something that we really hear about, could you talk a little bit about what that looks like - the impact of that?
JK: So there are two basic forms of lithium mining and one is hardrock mining, which is kind of like any other form of mining that we’re familiar with, you know, digging big holes and pulling the rocks out and crushing them and leaving huge piles of toxic waste behind because the metal that we’re extracting is only a few percent of the total amount of material being processed. And that’s hugely destructive, if it disrupts water tables, it disrupts natural ecosystems, and it disrupts the livelihoods of the people who happen to be living nearby.
The other form of lithium meaning is brine extraction, which is what we see in South America and in the deserts, which and which is being proposed in the US and a few other areas where the lithium is in salt. And then the extraction is basically pumping out this brine that is rich in lithium, and evaporating all the water out of it, and then extracting the lithium from the salt residue. The reason this is problematic might be kind of obvious, which is that you’re basically wasting a whole crapload of water and extracting a lot of water and evaporating it and there’s no technology at the moment that is actually recirculating this and maybe decontaminating it in the process. So communities in in Chile are already finding that the water table is disappearing, they have no water for their own use, for their own horses and livestock, for their own planting. And, you know, the iconic flamingos are disappearing because the salt flats are disappearing, where they eat the shrimp and gain that lovely pink colour.
EG: It reminds me a bit of hearing about fracking where farmers have basically lost access to water because fracking uses so much fresh water. And it seems absurd to think that lithium mining could be as destructive to people with regards to water as fracking is because it’s you know, it’s sold as such a wonderful thing and such a wonderful new green technology. And yet some of the outcomes are similar, it sounds.
JK: Well, the products are marvellous, you know, they’re high tech, they’re clean and quiet and so on. The inputs are not, and it’s kind of reflective of a discussion of nuclear power and how, well, nuclear power doesn’t contaminate or anything. Well, if you narrow your vision down to the daily operation of a plant that is in good shape, okay. But if you look at the waste material, on the one hand, the high level waste, or if you look at the mining process that goes into it, or if you look at any of the other inputs that it requires, it’s no longer carbon neutral and it’s no longer clean. And in fact, it’s kind of terrifying.
EG: Yeah, absolutely. And something that you had also mentioned, in your writing, and that I had seen a few years ago, there was a long article, I can’t remember which publication it was, but that talked about how people are looking for lithium. Now in the deep ocean, which is a place that basically understand next to nothing about, I’ve heard scientists liken it to deep space like it is that alien to us. And we’re still very unclear about what life forms are down there. And what would happen if we disrupt that area. And yet, that is somewhere that people are like, oh, we’ll just mess that up. For the sake of lithium. Is that something we’re seeing as well?
JK: I think most of the focus at this point in deep sea mining is on nickel. It shifts every now and then because the technology shifts and the market opportunities shift. And to some extent, this is all just speculation and fraud. These are people getting rich off of investors, you know, with the offer of this fantastic new technology and this new opportunity to make a crapload of money. You know, who gets the money is actually the people running the running the scam. We’ve already seen one Canadian company get big and go bankrupt on the basis of this. But there’s always a threat that it might actually happen. And that’s the problem that small island communities and the rest of us really have to grapple with, because if they actually do this, we have absolutely no idea what the results will be, we have no idea what we’re doing. Unfortunately, that’s not a new tendency in human history to just, you know, wade in get the machinery going before we have any idea of what it is that we’re trampling along the way. But I think there’s enough attention on this, that the machinations at the International Seabed Authority and the corruption and the speculation and fraud might actually not succeed.
EG: There was a previous show where I spoke to someone about how conservation efforts, for instance, in Africa, are often times not at all and they’re very disruptive, both to ecosystems and to indigenous people and tribes. And I feel like this is one of those topics where I already have problems at parties. Well back when those were a thing, where I ended up like being the downer being like no actually that that idea that you thought was a good idea is actually terrible. Let me share with you how destructive it is. And I feel like this is one of those things. And so I’m curious what what what would you say in terms of how could we you know, like different battery technologies, is that what we should be focusing on? Or where would you shift that focus in terms of this topic?
JK: It can go that way for sure. Battery technologies are changing all the time. And there are clearly strong economic and social incentives for companies to develop better technologies that are more efficient, that use less material, or materials that are less damaging, so that things like lithium and cobalt are not necessarily at the centre of it. But I think it’s very difficult to plan on technology saving us. It’s nice if it happens, but it hasn’t happened yet. I think there’s definitely room for improvement. And there are improvements happening. I think it’s reasonable to expect that incremental improvements will happen, and maybe even some revolutionary ones. But planning on that, like I say, is a fool’s errand.
The good news is, as it has been said, we could create a better world, just because, and we could get rid of the kind of jobs that David Graeber referred to, with one of those words that we’re not allowed to use on radio, you know, bovine excrement jobs. You know, the amount of work that people do for nothing, instead of being able to talk with their friends and play games, we’re actually doing nothing useful. And using all these resources, energy, time and materials for nothing. The joy of overconsumption is really overrated, and I think if you take the social pressure out of it, and give people the opportunity to do things that are more meaningful, and rediscover craft and the kind of engagement with work and production that isn’t cheap. We’re talking about a reorganisation of society.
This is way beyond what MiningWatch does day to day, this is not what we do, we work on the impacts of mining and what it does to people, but when you look up and say, What’s this for? And you see stuff just being thrown out left and right. Gadgets being obsolete within a year and being replaced, and not even being recycled. It seems pretty obvious that there’s a better way to do things. Fortunately, again, the good news is, there are lots of people working on everything from the right to repair, to ideas about degrowth, but also looking at global equity, like what does what does energy justice look like? So that people in poorer parts of the world actually have access to energy, and it’s not just the wealthy, who can use it to light up their backyards when they’re not even looking at them.
EG: Yeah, very, very well put, and this is something that you’ve that you’ve mentioned before is rehabilitation and repair. And I think that, you know, you’re talking about what are we doing this for? Is a good jumping off point for that, what do you feel? What are some ways that that looks like to you that rehabilitation and repair?
JK: One key piece is decolonization. You know, redefining the relationships between peoples, redefining relationships between countries, and building something that looks like economic and environmental justice, and finding the rewards in that, not just for the colonized and the dispossessed, but also for the, for those of us who were on the other end of it, in wealthy cities and wealthy countries, and joining the roots of, of all of this exploitation, and also the kind of moral and cultural vacuum that that leaves us in. I think it’s important to stress that these relationships of violence, harm both the perpetrator and the victim, for our greater humanity, we get to reinvent these relationships. So on a practical level, that can take all kinds of forms, and on different scales, everything from major industry to neighbourhoods, there are lots of lots of opportunities.
EG: Yeah, absolutely. And so thank you, Jamie, so much for, for taking the time. Is there anything that you wanted to add that I might have forgotten to touch on?
JK: If you want to talk about investment and trade and investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms. This is in mining, but I think, in many sectors, a real obstacle to self determination. Because it just puts capital in the driver’s seat.
EG: You mean, like trade deals specifically or?
JK: Yeah, yeah. The whole question of investors being allowed to sue governments for acting in their own interest, we’re supporting groups in Colombia right now that are fighting several lawsuits, mining investors who are either being shut down or shut out of protected watersheds. And that’s obviously a restriction of their rights as investors, so they’re using those mechanisms to gain compensation or to overturn those decisions. Either way, it’s hard to win.
EG: Yeah, that’s, uh, well, I mean, now that you mention it, I’m curious, because I remember fighting against the Trans Pacific Partnership back several years ago, and one of the things, of course, was that corporations would have been allowed to sue the US or any other member, country for, you know, potential loss of income or, you know, future loss. And the court was like this international court that had no accountability to any nation. And so it’s like, who do you talk to about that? Like, where do you go to argue these cases? Because it’s a corporate court. It’s like a homebred kangaroo court. So where do you where do you go? What do you do?
JK: And some of the proceedings are secret. You may never find out that a case even happened. Which is just bizarre. Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, the tribunals themselves are complicated, because you know, each party gets to appoint one arbitrator, and then they have to agree on the third. And they can come up with, in some cases, fairly reasonable decisions, and in other cases, just completely bizarre interpretations. They can make up their own interpretations that have nothing to do with what anybody said. It’s because it’s not actually a court system. There’s no precedent, there’s no you know, there’s no jurisprudence. It’s a bit of a kangaroo court. And it’s yeah, it’s just it’s kind of surreal. And it’s another one of these things that nobody knows about. And when you tell them they’re like, “no, really?!”
EG: Yeah, that was that was every conversation that I had back in the Trans Pacific Partnership days. “No, really, what? No.” So Jamie, tell folks where they can find out more about the work that you and MiningWatch do.
JK: So we’re on the web at miningwatch.ca and the social medias @miningwatch. Not too hard to find.
EG: And that does it for another episode of the Project Censored show on Pacifica Radio. I’m Eleanor Goldfield co hosting with Mickey Huff. For this episode. I’ve also been your associate producer and Anthony Fest is our senior producer. Project Censored Radio airs on roughly 50 stations across the US from Maui to New York. And you can find all our previous archived programs by going to projectcensored.org. Please follow and like us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram just before we get deplatformed and be sure to subscribe to the official Project Censored Show on your digital tethering device’s podcast application. Please feel free to contact us, share your feedback, or learn more about our work at projectcensored.org and see our new publishing imprint Censored Press at censoredpress.org. To learn more about my work or to contact me specifically please visit my website at artkillingapathy.com You can also follow me on social media @RadicalEleanor. Last but not least, thank you so much to our listeners for tuning in. We’ll see you next time.