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Lithium, Batteries and Climate Change: The transition to green energy does not have to be powered by destructive and poisonous mineral extraction

By Jonathan Neale - Climate and Capitalism, February 11, 2021

I have spent the last year working on a book called Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs. Most of it is about both the politics and the engineering of any possible transition that can avert catastrophic climate breakdown. One thing I had to think about long and hard was lithium and car batteries.

I often hear people say that we can’t cover the world with electric vehicles, because there simply is not enough lithium for batteries. In any case, they add, lithium production is toxic, and the only supplies are in the Global South. Moreover, so the story goes, there are not enough rare earth metals for wind turbines and all the other hardware we will need for renewable energy.

People often smile after they say those things, which is hard for me to understand, because it means eight billion people will go to hell.

So I went and found out about lithium batteries and the uses of rare earth. What I found out is that the transition will be possible, but neither the politics nor the engineering is simple. This article explains why. I start by describing the situation simply, and then add in some of the complexity.

Lithium is a metal used in almost all electric vehicle batteries today. About half of global production of lithium currently goes to electric vehicles. And in future we will need to increase the production of electric vehicles from hundreds or thousands to hundreds of millions. That will require vast amounts of lithium.

There are three ways to mine lithium. It can be extracted from rock. It can be extracted from the brine that is left over when sea water passes through a desalination plant. Or it can be extracted from those brine deposits which are particularly rich in lithium. These brine deposits are the common way of mining lithium currently, because it is by far the cheapest. Most of the known deposits of lithium rich brine are in the arid highlands where Bolivia, Chile and Argentina come together.

Lithium mining is well established in Chile and Argentina. In both countries the local indigenous people have organized against the mining, but so far been unable to stop it. The mining is toxic, because large amounts of acid are used in the processing. But the mining also uses large amounts of water in places that already has little enough moisture. The result is that ancestral homelands become unlivable.

Bolivia may have even richer deposits of lithium than Argentina and Chile, but mining has not begun there. The Bolivian government had been led by the indigenous socialist Evo Morales from 2006 to 2019. Morales had been propelled to power by a mass movement committed to taking back control of Bolivia’s water, gas and oil resources from multinational corporations. Morales was unable to nationalize the corporations, but he did insist on the government getting a much larger share of the oil and gas revenue.[1]

His government planned to go even further with lithium. Morales wanted to mine the lithium in Bolivia, but he wanted to build factories alongside the mines to make batteries. In a world increasingly hungry for batteries, that could have turned Bolivia into an industrial nation, not just a place to exploit resources.

The Morales government, however, was unable to raise the necessary investment funds. Global capital, Tesla, the big banks and the World Bank had no intention of supporting such a project. And if they had, they would not have done so in conjunction with a socialist like Morales. Then, in 2019, a coup led by Bolivian capitalists, and supported by the United States, removed Morales. Widespread popular unrest forced a new election in October. Morales’ party, the Movement for Socialism won, though Morales himself was out of the running. It is unclear what will happen to the lithium.

That’s one level of complexity. The local indigenous people did not want the lithium mined. The socialist government did not want extractavism, but they did want industrial development.

Those are not the only choices.

For one thing, there are other, more expensive ways of mining lithium. It can be mined from hard rock in China or the United States. More important, batteries do not have to be made out of lithium. Cars had used batteries for almost a century before Sony developed a commercial lithium-ion battery in 1991. Engineers in many universities are experimenting with a range of other materials for building batteries. But even without looking to the future, it would be possible to build batteries in the ways they used to be built. Indeed, in January 2020, the US Geological Service listed the metals that could be substituted for lithium in battery anodes as calcium, magnesium, mercury and zinc.[2]

The reason all manufacturers currently use lithium is that it provides a lighter battery that lasts longer. That gives the car greater range without recharging, and it make possible a much lighter car. In other words, lithium batteries are cheaper.

Global Just Transition case studies from a trade union viewpoint

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 14, 2021

Just Transition: Putting planet, people and jobs first” is the theme of a special issue of Equal Times, published in December 2020. The compilation of articles provides a trade union point of view to describe the just transition experiences in Bangladesh, Tunisia, Argentina, and Senegal, as well as the more frequently cited experiences in Spain and Scotland. The complete Special Issue is here , and was supported financially by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

Although Spain’s 2018 agreement regarding coal transition is well known, this article is a welcome English-language text, translated from the original Spanish version written by Spanish journalist María José Carmona. Another useful English text on the topic is The Just Transition Strategy within the Strategic Energy and Climate Framework, translated and published by the Spanish government in 2019. And an earlier report from the Central Confederation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK) provides brief summaries of Spanish and other Just Transition frameworks, in A Fair Climate Policy for Workers: Implementing a just transition in various European countries and Canada (2019). It covers Germany, Spain, France, The Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, and Canada in a brief 32 pages.

Resist-Occupy-Produce

By Leroy Maisiri and Lucien van der Walt - Pambazuka News, May 24, 2018

The authors use the example of the working class in Argentina to demonstrate how social movements and working people can create alternative models of production that serve the interests of people and not of those of capitalism. 

Introduction

The remarkable “recovered factories” (fábricas recuperadas) movement saw hundreds of closed factories reopened by the workers, run democratically, creating jobs and helping working class and poor communities. It showed that there is only so much protesting can accomplish – at some point you have to create something new. But it also shows it is essential that such alternative sites of production form alliances with, and become embedded, in other movements of the working class, poor and peasantry, including unions and unemployed movements. This assists them in building larger struggles, and provides them with some protection from the capitalist market and the state.

It is, meanwhile, important for unions and social movements to start to systematically develop alternatives to capitalist—and state—run social services and media. However, it is simply impossible to escape capitalism by creating cooperatives, social centres or alternative spaces – almost all means of production remain in ruling class hands, secured by force and backed by huge bureaucracies. It is essential to build a mass revolutionary front of unions and other movements, embracing popularly-run social services, media and production, and aiming at complete socialisation of the economy and of decision-making through a revolutionary rupture.

Documentaries like The Take—a movie that has been widely seen in South African labour and left circles—have drawn global attention to a remarkable challenge to neo-liberalism. In Argentina, in South America, economic crisis saw a collapse in working class conditions. High unemployment, low wages, attacks on social services: we are familiar with such things in South Africa. But something happened, which is very different. In Argentina, from the 1990s, something new started.

Reclaiming Public Services: How cities and citizens are turning back privatisation

Edited by Satoko Kishimoto and Olivier Petitjean - Transnational Institute, June 2017

You would be forgiven, especially if you live in Europe, to think that public services are by nature expensive, inefficient, maybe even somewhat outdated, and that reforming them to adapt to new challenges is difficult. It would seem natural to assume – because this is what most politicians, media and so-called experts tell us continuously – that we, as citizens and users, should resign ourselves to paying ever higher tariffs for services of an ever lower standard, and that service workers have no choice but to accept ever more degraded conditions. It would seem that private companies will inevitably play an ever larger role in the provision of public services, because everything has a price, because politicians have lost sight of the common good and citizens are only interested in their own individual pursuits.

This book, however, tells a completely different story. Sometimes it may feel as though we are living in a time when profit and austerity are our only horizons. In reality, below the radar, thousands of politicians, public officials, workers and unions, and social movements are working to reclaim or create effective public services that address the basic needs of people and respond to our social, environmental and climate challenges. They do this most often at the local level. Our research shows there have been at least 835 examples of (re)municipalisation of public services worldwide in recent years, some of them involving several cities. In total there have been more than 1600 cities in 45 countries involved in (re)municipalisation. And these (re)municipalisations generally succeed-ed in bringing down costs and tariffs, improving conditions for workers and boosting service quality, while ensuring greater transparency and accountability.

Read the text (PDF).

Argentine police break up bus drivers’ protest action

Reposted by Karetelnik - Libcom.Org, July 31, 2015; original in Spanish at Notas

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Bus drivers of the #60 line of Buenos Aires, which includes 10 popular bus routes, carried out a protest action on July 27 2015, disrupting traffic on a number of arterial roads. Helping the drivers to block roads were workers acting in solidarity, including activists of the FORA (Argentine section of the IWA-AIT). The picket on the Pan-American Highway at the intersection of Highway #197 was brutally dispersed by the National Police, injuring at least 18 people.

Workers of the #60 bus line have been fighting for more than a month with the company owner. They had previously announced that they were going to block the La Noria Bridge and the Pan-American Highway at General Pacheco (a city in Buenos Aires province). The first picket was held without major incidents, but the second, in the northern part of the capital region, was met with repression by the police.

The forces of “order” attacked the protesters around 7:20 a.m., and the drivers answered with a hail of rocks. Three workers were arrested. At least 18 people were injured, including journalists.

Around 10:00 a.m., the scene was repeated at the La Noria Bridge. The police used tear gas and rubber bullets, while the workers defended themselves with whatever they could get their hands on.

One of the workers’ delegates, Santiago Menconi, explained that the protest was held because “currently there is no dialogue” with the company and the Ministry of Labour. “Fifty-three comrades are still fired.” He demanded a signed agreement on working conditions and the rights of workers’ delegates, and also payment to the workers for all idle time since the beginning of the conflict.

The protesters blamed the clashes on the police and demanded the immediate release of three persons who were arrested.

The conflict began on June 25 2015, when the drivers, as a sign of protest, stopped collecting fares from the 250,000 passengers who use the #60 line everyday. They demanded the re-instatement of Ariel Alejandro Benítez, fired the day before without any explanation.

John Holloway: Cracking Capitalism vs. the State Option

By Amador Fernández-Savater  - ROAR Magazine, September 29, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Interview by Amador Fernández-Savater. Translated by Richard Mac Duinnsleibhe and edited by Arianne Sved of Guerrilla Translation.

In 2002, John Holloway published a landmark book: Change the World without Taking Power. Inspired by the ‘¡Ya basta!’ of the Zapatistas, by the movement that emerged in Argentina in 2001/’02, and by the anti-globalization movement, Holloway sets out a hypothesis: it is not the idea of revolution or transformation of the world that has been refuted as a result of the disaster of authoritarian communism, but rather the idea of revolution as the taking of power, and of the party as the political tool par excellence.

Holloway discerns another concept of social change at work in these movements, and generally in every practice—however visible or invisible it may be—where a logic different from that of profit is followed: the logic of cracking capitalism. That is, to create, within the very society that is being rejected, spaces, moments, or areas of activity in which a different world is prefigured. Rebellions in motion. From this perspective, the idea of organization is no longer equivalent to that of the party, but rather entails the question of how the different cracks that unravel the fabric of capitalism can recognize each other and connect.

But after Argentina’s “que se vayan todos” came the Kirchner government, and after Spain’s “no nos representan” appeared Podemos. We met with John Holloway in the city of Puebla, Mexico, to ask him if, after everything that has happened in the past decade, from the progressive governments of Latin America to Podemos and Syriza in Europe, along with the problems for self-organized practices to exist and multiply, he still thinks that it is possible to “change the world without taking power.”

Defending the Earth in Argentina: From Direct Action to Autonomy

By Marina Sitrin - Tidal, April 6, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Marina Sitrin in conversation with Emilio Spataro, an organizer with the Guardians of Iberá in Corrientes, Argentina

While corporations continue to land grab, exploit and privatize the little we still hold in common – people around the globe have been rising up. Women are preventing dams from being built in India; indigenous are Idle No More, defending the earth; entire town and villages have organized to prevent airports, roads and mines from being developed in France, Italy and Greece; thousands in the US have used their bodies to block the construction of pipelines intended for fracking; and throughout the Americas there are struggles everywhere against mining and the exploitation of land and water. Not only are people fighting back – but in many places, such as the one in Corrientes, Argentina described below, people are creating horizontal and self organized ways of being in the space of the resistance. Not only are people collectively shouting  No! and using direct action en mass to prevent the destruction of the earth, but together they are finding ways to autonomously recreate their relationships with one another, to work and with the land.

The below conversation is with Emilio Spataro, an organizer in Corrientes, who has been active in various movements in Argentina since his teen years. He was a part of the popular rebellion in December of 2001 and the subsequent neighborhood assemblies, building occupations and horizontal self organized projects. Since 2009 he has been living in Corrientes, collaborating with territorially based movements. He is currently on tour in the US with another movement participant from Guardians of Iberá (salvemosalibera.org). One of the targets of their most recent campaign is Harvard University. Harvard owns massive timber plantations in Corrientes and the movements together with students, faculty and staff at Harvard have been organizing to hold them accountable.

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