The ethics of the environment Katie McShane compares our reverence for species to word freedom. Everyone believes it, but no one knows what it means. “Even if you agree that it has value, it doesn’t tell you what to do when that value conflicts with my needs,” he says.
Comparing the value of things, weighing the costs and benefits of one against the other, is increasingly the concern of environmentalists. Sometimes those competing things have a claim in the natural world; sometimes one has the pretense of improving human life. Or the planet at all. If the Rhyolite Ridge ore were mined for gold or copper, perhaps it would be easier to discard its value. Everyone benefits from raw materials, but it can be easy to say that you don’t “need” gold or that the dollar value is not essential. With lithium, the negation is harder. Donnelly and Fraga both agree that the country – the world – needs to get rid of fossil fuels. Lithium and sun are abundant in the Southwest Desert, and so the transition to green energy will likely bring a new level of industrialization to its landscape. Mines and solar-powered power plants compete with rare buckwheat and desert turtles. But in the absence of those mines and power plants, the desert still suffers. For all their harsh conditions and apparent sterility, deserts are fragile places, life is easily endangered by higher temperatures and more frequent droughts. Conditions require us to formulate a moral equation: What is the value of the mine versus the value of the plant?
All mines have a dirty side, whether or not their products are “green”. They can destroy landscapes or pollute the water supply or expel greenhouse gases. Historically, mining companies have cared little about these impacts, doing their least to adhere to regulations. But lithium miners are under additional pressure to act responsibly, explains Alex Grant, a technical advisor who works with those mines. Buyers of electric vehicles should be careful, for example, that 25 percent of their car’s carbon footprint comes from the battery supply chain. Thus automakers, which seek to improve their climate-friendly reputation, are increasingly relying on lithium suppliers to burn less coal and seek certifications attesting that their mines do not destroy water. and habitats.
It is impossible to eliminate all costs. As Grant sees it, there is no alternative to digging up lithium. The status quo of fossil burning vehicles is not an option. What did the opponents of lithium mining expect? A return to the horse and buggy? “We don’t need every project,” he says. “Some of them may have impacts that we shouldn’t accept. But we need a lot of them, that’s for sure.”
Each project seems to have its own set of costs that someone will find unacceptable, which makes the decision of those who should be allowed to move forward even more difficult. In northern Nevada, the Thacker Pass, another major lithium project near excavation, is being held by disputes with Native American groups and farmers 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 California’s Salton Sea, have been talked about for decades, but the technology and funding behind these projects is uncertain. We could look out to the oceans, perhaps; deep-sea mining could offer lithium on a scale that would make any terrestrial mine look chaste. But the environmental costs of this approach are probably even less well understood, and potentially enormous.
In this context, the fate of a humble flower seems a very small thing when lithium can be obtained so quickly, and with few additional complications. Mining interests, farmers and developers have long argued that the process of listing endangered species should take into account economic costs, such as the lost value of a mine or the cost of maintaining a species on it. to the support of life when it seems that natural forces could select it out of existence.