This commentary is by Alison Despathy, a resident of Danville. She has a clinical nutrition practice in St. Johnsbury.
Electric vehicle purchases are surging as many seek transportation they feel holds a positive environmental impact and saves money. Steep incentives are available and heavily advertised. Car manufacturers are rapidly shifting over to electric vehicles and many Vermonters are jumping on board.
The use of cobalt and lithium in these vehicles poses serious ethical problems. The abuse of people forced to labor in these mines must be stamped out. Supporting an industry built upon slave labor, child labor, and utter devastation of environments, ecosystems and communities is completely unacceptable. Horrifically, this is the reality.
Corporations and governments are not stepping up to protect people and environments from this abuse. We the people, the consumers, must demand resolution of these issues and consider not supporting this industry responsible for causing so much devastation. The boycott of sugar helped the abolition of slavery. Is this what it will take to end these heinous practices? Many do not grasp the depth of despair and damage that humans and ecosystems in Africa and South America are suffering.
Currently 60% of cobalt is mined in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with a majority involving exploitation of people. In 2019, a lawsuit was filed against Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla by families of Congolese children who were injured or killed while mining. They argued these companies received significant financial gains due to illegal mining of cobalt by children. The companies denied allegations and promised to uphold responsible sourcing and human rights.
Children have died, communities literally caved in and China secured a strong hold on mining due to flooding communities with money so they could move to stable lands after villages turned into sinkholes because of unregulated mining practices and environmental destruction.
Lawsuits, human rights’ violations and increases in market prices led to reductions in cobalt use. Tesla shifted half of its production to cobalt-free by using a lithium iron-phosphate battery. This chemistry heavily decreases range and does not address the lithium issue- the element essentially required for all electric vehicles and the major driver of environmental destruction justified by green energy policy.
Lithium demands are predicted to rise 2.4 million metric tons per year in the next decade — four times the current use. Australia is the primary lithium supplier but due to green energy needs, global mining corporations have descended like parasites on the Lithium Triangle (Argentina-Chile-Bolivia) home of more than half of the world’s lithium dissolved in ancient underground water. Water that is essential to the lives and environments of indigenous communities in the Andes.
On September 19, 2022, Fred Pearce wrote an article for Yale Environment 360 entitled, “Why the Rush to Mine Lithium Could Dry Up the High Andes.”
Pearce discussed that a mobile phone requires a tenth ounce of lithium compared to 130 pounds in electric cars. Lithium is typically extracted via evaporative mining — for every ton of lithium, about a half a million gallons of water evaporates — bringing risk of drought to the Andes and indigenous communities.
The Andes hold unique, diverse and intact ecosystems — salt flats, wetlands, pastures and lakes. Hydrologists warn lithium extraction will result in desertification. This green vehicle drive intended to fight climate change sacrifices environments, indigenous communities and water sources that nourish life.
Does any of this sound like real green policy or an effective and ethical solution? Is destroying delicate ecosystems, precious water supplies, and indigenous communities justified in order to ‘save the earth’? Destroying the earth, depleting water supplies, wrecking communities, abusing humans and hoarding minerals defines environmental and social injustice. Is this what we support?
This level of destruction is criminal and counterproductive to the goal. Due to minimal regulations and protections, there are approximately 50 mining projects licensed in Argentina alone. This is an abusive corporate drive for massive resource extraction as demands, incentives, and propaganda regarding green energy and electric vehicles are promoted and marketed to the people, politicians and industry.
There is also a controversial plan to mine metals in deep ocean seabeds. The damage potential is unknown and scientists like Douglas McCauley from Ocean Initiative, University of California are sounding the alarm. The Intergovernmental Seabed Authority has approved 28 mining contracts covering 360,000 square miles of ocean floor. Over 90 Non-Governmental Organizations have demanded a moratorium on ocean mining until impacts are understood.
This entire situation is hypocritical. I implore Vermont to reconsider this overwhelming and all encompassing drive to lock into an electric future and to stand up to the corporations and governments responsible for this gross abuse of humans and the environment. We are aiding and abetting an industry with unethical, destructive and cruel practices. This is impulsive, ideological policy. This is not leadership or responsible action — this is domination and exploitation.
Some find false comfort in the supposed trade agreements intended to protect the workers and the ecosystems. But words are not actions and until fundamental human rights, communities and ecosystems are protected and children are not forced to suffer a life in a mine, we have no business promoting or ‘gently coercing’ these policies for fake climate justice in Vermont. We have an ethical and moral obligation to take the right action. The propaganda and incentives are hard to resist but until these issues are resolved, it is up to the people to stand up and refuse to support an industry entirely built upon social and environmental injustice.