by Alison Despathy
Electric vehicles purchases in Vermont have surged. Many seek transportation that they feel helps the environment and save them money. Steep incentives are heavily advertised. Car manufacturers are rapidly shifting over to electric vehicle options.
But the use of cobalt and lithium in these vehicles pose serious ethical problems. The abuse of adults and children 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.
Unfortunately, it is also the current reality.
Corporations and governments are not stepping up to protect people and environments from this ongoing abuse. The boycott of sugar tremendously helped the abolition of slavery. Will boycotting these devices end these heinous practices?
Many do not grasp the depth of despair and damage that humans, children, indigenous communities and the ecosystems of Africa and South America in particular are suffering.
Currently 60-70% of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with a high majority involving exploitation of people and children. In 2019, a lawsuit was filed against tech companies Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft, and Tesla by families of Congolese children who were injured or killed while mining in the DRC. The lawsuit argued that these companies received significant financial gains due to extensive and illegal mining of cobalt by children which is still currently in global supply chains. The companies denied allegations and claimed responsible sourcing, and upholding universal declarations of human rights.
Children have died, communities have literally caved in and China has secured a strong hold on mining rights due to flooding these communities with money in order for them to move to stable lands after villages turned into sinkholes due to unregulated mining practices and the rampant environmental destruction.
This lawsuit, awareness of human rights’ violations and an increase in market prices led to reductions in the use of cobalt and nickel. Tesla for example shifted half of its production of cars to cobalt and nickel-free by using a lithium iron-phosphate combination. This battery chemistry heavily decreases range and still does not address the issues related to lithium – 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 to 2.4 million metric tons per year in the next decade – four times the current use. Australia is the primary supplier for lithium but in response to projected green energy needs, global mining corporations have descended like parasites into the Lithium Triangle – Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia – home to more than half of the world’s lithium deposits concentrated in ancient underground water 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 of an ounce of lithium compared to an electric car which uses 130 pounds. Lithium is typically extracted via evaporative mining – for every ton of lithium mined, about a half a million gallons of water evaporates- bringing great risk of drought to the high Andes and the indigenous communities living there.
The Andes hold unique, diverse and intact ecosystems – salt flats, wetlands, rich pastures and pristine lakes. Hydrologists are warning that lithium extraction will result in the desertification of these precious ecosystems. This global drive for green vehicles supposedly intended to fight climate change will sacrifice these environments and indigenous communities as well as the water source that nourishes their life.
Does any of this sound like real green policy or an effective and ethical solution? Is destroying environments, delicate ecosystems, precious water supplies, indigenous communities justified in order to ‘save the earth?” How counterproductive! Destroying the earth, depleting water supplies, wrecking communities, abusing humans and hoarding minerals defines environmental and social injustice. Is this what we want to support?
This level of destruction is criminal. Due to minimal, almost nonexistent regulations and protections, there are about 50 mining projects licensed and in the works in Argentina alone. This is an abusive corporate drive for massive resource extraction as demands, incentives, propaganda and narratives regarding green energy and electric vehicles are promoted and marketed to the people, politicians and industry.
It is also important to note the controversial and heavily debated plan to mine metals from the deep ocean seabed. The damage potential here is unknown yet imaginable and scientists such as Douglas McCauley of the Ocean Initiative at the University of California in Santa Barbara are sounding the alarm. The Intergovernmental Seabed Authority has currently approved 28 mining contracts covering 360,000 square miles of ocean floor. Over 90 Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have demanded a moratorium on ocean mining until impacts and risks on ocean health are understood.
All this is devastatingly hypocritical. I implore Vermont to reconsider this obsession 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 beyond our comprehension.
Knowing what we now know, Vermont energy policy is revealed as impulsive, ideological coercion.
This is not leadership or responsible action. This is domination and exploitation.
Some may 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 author is a clinical nutritionist in St. Johnsbury.