America: The Saudi Arabia of Green Greed

by Stan Cox & Priti Gulati Cox

Published at TomDispatch

The Yin’s Been Yanged Under the Garb of Green

Much of the excitement over the Inflation Reduction Act, which became law this summer, focused on the boost it should give to the sales of electric vehicles. Sadly, though, manufacturing and driving tens of millions of individual electric passenger cars won’t get us far enough down the road to ending greenhouse-gas emissions and stanching the overheating of this planet. Worse yet, the coming global race to electrify the personal vehicle is likely to exacerbate ecological degradation, geopolitical tensions, and military conflict.

The batteries that power electric vehicles are likely to be the source of much international competition and the heart of the problem lies in two of the metallic elements used to make their electrodes: cobalt and lithium. Most deposits of those metals lie outside the borders of the United States and will leave manufacturers here (and elsewhere) relying heavily on foreign supplies to electrify road travel on the scale now being envisioned.

Adventurers and Opportunists

In the battery business, the Democratic Republic of Congo is referred to as “the Saudi Arabia of cobalt.” For two decades, its cobalt — 80% of the world’s known reserves — has been highly prized for its role in mobile-phone manufacturing. Such cobalt mining has already taken a terrible human and ecological toll.

Now, the pressure to increase Congo’s cobalt output is intensifying on a staggering scale. Whereas a phone contains just thousandths of a gram of cobalt, an electric vehicle battery has pounds of the metal, and a quarter-billion such batteries will have to be manufactured to fully electrify the American passenger car fleet as it now exists.

Not surprisingly, the investment world is now converging on Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. In a remarkable series of articles late last year, the New York Times reported on how the cobalt rush in that country has been caught up “in a familiar cycle of exploitation, greed, and gamesmanship that often puts narrow national aspirations above all else.” The most intense rivalry is between China, which has, in recent years, been buying up cobalt-mining operations in Congo at a rapid clip, and the United States, now playing catch-up. Those two nations, wrote the Times, “have entered a new ‘Great Game’ of sorts,” a reference to the nineteenth-century confrontation between the Russian and British Empires over Afghanistan.

Fifteen of 19 cobalt mines in Congo are now under Chinese control. In and around those mines, the health and the safety of workers have been severely compromised, while local residents have been displaced from their homes. People sneaking into the area to collect leftover lumps of cobalt to sell are being shot at. The killing of one man by the Congolese military (at the urging of Chinese mine owners) spurred an uprising in his village, during which a protester was also shot and killed.

The Times further reported, “Troops with AK-47s were posted outside the mine this year, along with security guards hired from a company founded by Erik Prince.” Prince is notorious for having been the founder and boss of the mercenary contractor Blackwater, which committed atrocities during America’s “forever wars” of the 2000s. Among other mayhem, Blackwater mercenaries fired upon unarmed civilians in both Iraq and Afghanistan and were convicted of the killings and woundings that resulted. From 2014 to 2021, he was the chair of a China-based company, Frontier Services Group, that provided Blackwater-style services to mining companies in Congo.

Prince has joined what the Times calls “a wave of adventurers and opportunists who have filled a vacuum created by the departure of major American mining companies, and by the reluctance of other traditional Western firms to do business in a country with a reputation for labor abuses and bribery.”


Forbes reported recently that 384 additional mines may be needed worldwide by 2035 to keep battery factories supplied with cobalt, lithium, and nickel. Even were there to be a rapid acceleration of the recycling of metals from old batteries, 336 new mines would still be needed. A battery-industry CEO told the magazine:

“If you just look at Tesla’s ambition to produce 20 million electric vehicles a year in 2030, that alone will require close to two times the present global annual supply [of those minerals] and that’s before you include VW, Ford, GM, and the Chinese.”

Currently, the bulk of the world’s lithium production occurs in Australia, Chile, and China, while there are vast unexploited reserves in the southern part of Bolivia where it joins Chile and Argentina in what’s come to be known as the “lithium triangle.” China owns lithium mines outright throughout that triangle and in Australia, and two-thirds of the world’s lithium processing is done in Chinese-owned facilities.

Lithium extraction and processing is not exactly a green business. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, for instance, where lithium mining requires vast evaporation ponds, a half million gallons of water are needed for every metric ton of lithium extracted. The process accounts for 65% of the total amount of water used in that region and causes extensive soil and water contamination, as well as air pollution.

While evidently uninterested in Mother Nature, Tesla’s electric car tycoon Elon Musk is intensely interested in vertically integrating lithium mining with electric battery and vehicle production on the Chinese model. Accordingly, he’s been trying for years to get his hands on Bolivia’s pristine lithium reserves. Until ousted in a 2020 coup, that country’s president Evo Morales stood in Musk’s way, pledging to “industrialize with dignity and sovereignty.”

When a Twitter user accused Musk of being complicit in the coup, the Tesla tycoon responded, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” (He later deleted the tweet.) As Vijay Prashad and Alejandro Bejarano observed at the time, “Musk’s admission, however intemperate, is at least honest… Earlier this year, Musk and his company revealed that they wanted to build a Tesla factory in Brazil, which would be supplied by lithium from Bolivia; when we wrote about that we called our report ‘Elon Musk Is Acting Like a Neo-Conquistador for South America’s Lithium.’”

Bolivia continues to seek to exploit its lithium resources while keeping them under national control. Without sufficient wealth and technical resources, however, its government has been obliged to solicit foreign capital, having narrowed the field of candidate companies to six — one American, one Russian, and four Chinese. By year’s end, it’s expected to select one or more of them to form a partnership with its state-owned firm, Yacimientos de Litios Bolivianos. No matter who gets the contract, friction among the three suitor nations could potentially kick off a Western Hemispheric version of the Great Game.

And whatever you do, don’t forget that Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a lithium-rich land with centuries of bitter experience in hosting great powers, is another potential arena for rivalry and conflict. In fact, Soviet invaders first identified that country’s lithium resources four decades ago. During the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan in this century, geologists confirmed the existence of large deposits, and the Pentagon promptly labeled the country — you guessed it — a potential “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” According to the Asia-Pacific-based magazine The Diplomat, the lithium rush is now on there and “countries like China, Russia, and Iran have already revealed their intentions to develop ‘friendly relations’ with the Taliban,” as they compete for the chance to flaunt their generosity and “help” that country exploit its resources.

Don’t Look Down

The greatest potential for conflict over battery metals may not, in fact, be in Asia, Africa, or the Americas. It may not be on any continent at all. The most severe and potentially most destructive future battleground may lie far out in international waters, where polymetallic nodules — dense mineral lumps, often compared to potatoes in their size and shape — lie strewn in huge numbers across vast regions of the deep-ocean floor. They contain a host of metallic elements, including not only lithium and cobalt but also copper, another metal required in large amounts for battery manufacturing. According to a United Nations report, a single nodule field, the 1.7 million-square-mile Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) in the Pacific Ocean southeast of the Hawaiian Islands, contains more cobalt than all terrestrial resources combined.

A U.N. agency, the International Seabed Authority, issues exploration licenses to mining companies sponsored by national governments and intends to start authorizing nodule extraction in the CCZ as soon as next year. Mining methods for polymetallic nodules have not yet been fully developed or used on a large scale, but the metal hunters are advertising the process as being far less destructive than the terrestrial mining of cobalt and lithium. One can get the impression that it will be so gentle as not even to be mining as we’ve known it, but something more like running a vacuum cleaner along the seafloor.

Don’t believe it for a second. In just a small portion of the CCZ, scientists have identified more than 1,000 animal species and they suspect that at least another thousand are also living there, along with 100,000 microbial species. Virtually all of the creatures in the path of mining operations will, of course, be killed, and anything living on the surface of those nodules removed from the ecosystem. The nodule-harvesting machines, as large as wheat combines, will stir up towering clouds of sediment likely to drift for thousands of miles before finally settling onto, burying, and so killing yet more sea life.

To recap: In America, the Saudi Arabia of green greed, we now covet a couple of metals critically important to the electric-vehicle industry, cobalt and lithium, the reserves of which are concentrated in only a small number of nations. However, the ores can also be sucked straight off the seabed in humongous quantities in places far outside the jurisdiction of any nation. Environmentally, geopolitically, militarily, what could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, of course. Writing for the Center for International Maritime Security last year, U.S. Coast Guard Surface Warfare Officer Lieutenant Kyle Cregge argued that the Coast Guard and Navy should have a high-profile presence in seabed mining areas. He stressed that the 1980 Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resource Act “claimed the right of the U.S. to mine the seabed in international waters, and specifically identifies the Coast Guard as responsible for enforcement.”

He did acknowledge that patrolling areas where deep-sea mining occurs could create some dicey situations. As he put it, “The Coast Guard will face the same problem the U.S. Navy does with its freedom of navigation operations in places like the South China Sea.” But by potentially putting their vessels in harm’s way, he wrote, “the services seek to reinforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as reflecting customary international law.” (Forget the fact that the U.S. has never signed onto the Law of the Sea treaty!) Cregge then predicted that, “[a]mong the most challenging in a future seabed competition would be China and Russia, states that have already used lawfare in the South China Sea and Arctic regions respectively to pursue their territorial gains.”

To make matters worse, seafloor mining might not only spark military conflict but also become an integral part of warfighting itself. Manabrata Guha, a researcher in war theory at the University of New South Wales, told Australia’s ABC television that data, including topographic or thermal maps of the seabed, obtained through exploration of the seafloor by mining operations projects, could be of great value to a nation’s armed forces. According to ABC,

“Just 9 percent of the ocean floor is mapped in high resolution, compared to about 99 percent of the surface of Mars — a blind spot that affects both deep sea miners and military planners. This is all worth keeping in mind, because while the Pacific Ocean is set to be the sea with the most mining potential, it is also home to this century’s most consequential geopolitical tension: the rise of China, and the U.S.’s response to it.”

The resource-rich South China Sea in particular, notes ABC, has long been a potential flashpoint between China and America. As Guha speculated, U.S. use of deep-sea data in the region “could be expanded beyond its battle-centric focus to also include attacks on civilian infrastructure, finance, and cultural systems.” He added, “The undersea domain provides another vector, another potential ‘hole’ that the Americans would look to penetrate,” thanks to the fact, as he pointed out, that the U.S. is 20 to 30 years ahead of China in undersea-mapping technology.

“You want to pick and choose where you hurt the adversary to such an extent that their whole system collapses,” he said. “That’s the idea of multi-domain warfare… the idea is to bring about systemic collapse.”

The Burden of the Big-Ass Truck

Systemic collapse? Really? Instead of devising technologies to take down other societies, in this increasingly heated moment, shouldn’t we be focusing on how to avoid our own systemic collapse?

A national fleet of battery-powered cars is unlikely to prove sustainable and could have catastrophic consequences globally. It’s time to consider an overhaul of the whole transportation system to move it away from a fixation on personal vehicles and toward walking, pedaling, and a truly effective nationwide public transportation system (as well as very local ones), which could indeed be run on electricity, while perhaps helping to avoid future disastrous resource wars.

Such a transformation, even were it to occur, would, of course, take a long time. During that period, electric vehicles will continue to be manufactured in quantity. So, for now, to reduce their impact on humanity and the Earth, America should aim to produce fewer and far smaller vehicles than are currently planned. After all, electrified versions of the big-ass trucks and SUVs of the present moment will also require bigger, heavier batteries (like the one in the F-150 Lightning pickup truck, which weighs 1,800 pounds and is the size of two mattresses). They will, of course, contain proportionally larger quantities of cobalt, lithium, and copper.

The true burden of a massive battery in an electric car or truck will be borne not just by the vehicle’s suspension system, but by the people and ecosystems unlucky enough to be in or near the global supply chain that will produce it. And those people may be among the first of millions to be imperiled by a new wave of geopolitical and military conflicts in what should be thought of as the world’s green sacrifice zones.

Real Climate Action’s Not at COP-27, but It Is in a Thousand Rebellious Communities

Monthly dispatches by Stan Cox; art by Priti Gulati Cox

From City Lights Books

In Real Time: Chronicle of a Fate Unknown, Part 7

It’s Time: a work in progress; pen & ink on vellum embroidered on canvas

“In Real Time” is a monthly series on our blog by Stan Cox, author of The Path to a Livable Future and The Green New Deal and Beyond. The series follows the climate, voting rights, and justice movements as they navigate America’s unfolding crisis of democracy.

Read previous “In Real Time” dispatches here. Listen to the “In Real Time” podcast for audio editions of all dispatches, and hear monthly conversations with Stan on the Anti-Empire Project podcast (scroll down). Also see the evolving “In Real Time” visual work in the illustrated archive.

Two high-profile events relevant to this series are going to coincide next month. One of them—the US midterm elections, which will conclude November 8—could provide the strongest indicator yet of which way our society will turn in the near future: toward an inclusive, pluralistic democracy or toward the anti-democratic “semi-fascism” of the MAGA right. It could go either way. In contrast, the other big event—the COP27 global climate conference November 6 to 18—is highly unlikely to bring any perceptible change in the trajectory of world greenhouse-gas emissions or anything else.

CODEPINK at the National Mall on June 17, 2022, the evening before the Poor People’s and Low-Income Workers’ Assembly and March on Washington

Indeed, the election results could have more profound consequences for the Earth’s climate than the climate conference will have. If, in November of 2022 and 2024, pro-democracy candidates prevail at the polls and the will of the voters is not overturned, passage of bold new climate legislation won’t be guaranteed, but the possibility will at least remain alive. If, however, by hook or by crook, MAGA politicians prevail in large enough numbers to seize control of both houses of Congress and the White House, any chance for effective national climate action will be lost for years to come. In either event, expansion of local struggles for climate action and environmental justice will be needed more than ever, as a foundation for a bigger, stronger national movement. This month, I spoke with two climate activists who are working tirelessly toward those goals. 

Taking Down the Fossil Gas Lines

Liz Karosick is a visual artist and climate activist with Extinction Rebellion in Washington, DC (XRDC). Karosick says that while protecting and extending the right to vote is important, it’s not sufficient: “The system’s not working. If voting was enough, the will of the people who go into the voting booths would be represented here in Washington, and it’s not.” That makes it even more important, she says, for more people to take part in grassroots movements, in order to “build those numbers before things progress even further into the scary future that we’re looking at.” 

Liz Karosick: “We’re mobilizing with an issue that’s local, that will build momentum behind local demands. This is a way to change the trajectory, electrify the city. We feel like this is winnable. And then we can go back to expanding upon broader demands. We’re finding leverage points where we can access the people who have decision-making power and move public opinion.”

That kind of organizing is, by its very nature, local. And what better place to energize national climate mitigation through local environmental-justice organizing than in the nation’s capital? That’s why, says Karosick, XRDC has kicked off a campaign against Washington Gas Light Company, the city’s sole supplier of fossil gas. Traditionally known by the euphemism “natural gas,” fossil gas consists mostly of methane, a compound with powerful global warming potential.

Washington Gas has some of the oldest distribution lines in the nation, and a 2014 survey found more than 6,000 leaks in the system—about four leaks per mile of pipe, largely in the city’s low-income and Black neighborhoods. Some of the leaks posed a serious explosion risk. The company responded by launching a 40-year, $5 billion program to replace the entire pipe system. 

Because installation of new gas infrastructure would throw the city’s climate-mitigation goals completely out of reach, XRDC is demanding that the DC Council stop the pipe replacement project (except for emergency repairs of hazardous leaks) and immediately launch a just transition away from gas that prioritizes DC’s most marginalized people and ends the city’s dependence on gas.

Fossil gas is a threat to humanity and the Earth at both the largest and smallest scales. A federation of state-based, citizen-funded public interest research groups, PIRG, reports that gas leaks across the US from 2010 through 2021 led to the release of 26.6 billion cubic feet of methane, with a global-warming impact equivalent to more than 2.4 million internal-combustion vehicles driven for a year. Meanwhile, open gas flames from stoves, furnaces, and water heaters also produce large quantities of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and other indoor air pollutants. These gases can cause severe respiratory problems—affecting children, especially—and are found disproportionately in low-income and Black communities. 

An XRDC press release has more on the campaign to pressure the DC city council to phase out gas as quickly as possible. Karosick stresses that what she calls “hyper-local” actions such as the DC fossil gas campaign are necessary building blocks of global climate action:

Karosick stresses that what she calls “hyper-local” actions such as the DC fossil gas campaign are necessary building blocks of global climate action:

I get a sense that some people are confused, like, “Hey, fossil fuels are a global problem, much bigger than a local gas campaign. Why this issue?” But strategically, we’re mobilizing with an issue that’s local, that will build momentum behind local demands—like telling Washington Gas, “No, you cannot spend $5 billion on new pipes to lock us into 40 more years of burning fossil gas.” This is a way to change the trajectory, electrify the city. We feel like this is winnable. And then we can go back to expanding upon broader demands. We’re finding leverage points where we can access the people who have decision-making power and move public opinion.

Taking on Tesla

The way that young people have been taking the lead on climate in recent years has been especially heartening to Karosick, who says the climate movement is hoping for a massive influx of members in years to come. “The more young people who participate, the more change we can make,” she says. “It’s not a matter of explaining to them what the problem is—they’re very aware of that.” Still, groups like Extinction Rebellion can offer solidarity and additional opportunities for mobilizing. And, she says, “in our case, that includes nonviolent civil disobedience as the mechanism to get the government to pay attention and to make change.”

As it happens, I also had the opportunity recently to interview Alexia Leclercq, 22, a climate and environmental justice activist and a co-founder of the nonprofit Start:Empowerment. Our conversation took place onstage at The Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival. (See the video here. Leclercq’s and my conversation runs from about the 14-minute to the 59-minute mark.)

In 2019, Leclercq began working with the environmental justice group PODER (People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources) in Austin, Texas. Formed in 1991, PODER has an impressive track record, as she explained:   

Austin is highly segregated due to redlining. East Austin is a largely Black and Brown community, zoned industrial. A bunch of community members came together and started organizing to fight the dirty industries there. They started petitioning door to door, talking to the media, hosting toxic tours for politicians so they could see the conditions that community members are living in. PODER was incredibly successful. They kicked six major oil companies out of East Austin. 

The Teck Mining Co. open-pit Elk River Valley coal mines, located in southern British Columbia along the Alberta border. Drawn from a photograph by Garth Lenz. Teck Resources were fined $60 million for polluting the rivers in March 2021.  

At the time Leclercq began working with PODER, East Austin was still being plagued by a host of problems, including pollution from gravel-mining operations and lack of access to clean and affordable water. And then there’s Elon Musk’s electric vehicle company, Tesla. According to Leclercq, 

Tesla came in with zero plans for community engagement. We built out a coalition and started talking to the press to the point where they had to answer our emails and come talk to us. You could really tell from their company culture, that this wasn’t something that they necessarily cared about. They saw East Austin community members as a workforce to exploit, just as they were exploiting the land, air, and water. Loose regulations in Texas are one of the main reasons they’re there. 

Leclercq told the audience, “We’re trying to push Tesla to make commitments, such as ecological restoration, community education programs, hiring Spanish speakers, and having programs for Spanish speakers to learn some English.” But in dealing with any corporation, she said, “it’s always kind of like a back-and-forth dance: How much do you really want to collaborate with them? How much external pressure do you apply? It’s a fine line.” 

Taking a Stand Against Manchin’s Side Deal

“I work outside of the system, trying to build community and resilience and mutual aid, and I also do work that’s more like inside the system, both local and federal,” said Leclercq. At the time we spoke, her “inside” efforts were focused on a measure then before the US Senate to speed up the permitting of energy projects. The legislation would theoretically streamline all energy sources; however, its primary sponsor, Democratic senator Joe Manchin, valued it most dearly as a vehicle for expediting construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline to carry fossil gas out of West Virginia, the state he represents. In August, he had insisted that this side deal for fast-tracking his pet pipeline be included in future legislation as the price of his vote for the ostensibly pro-climate Inflation Reduction Act. 

Alexia Leclercq: “The media like to kind of glamorize the youth movement, but it’s not something to be glamorized. I don’t think that kids, especially young kids, should be responsible for doing all the hard work. It’s really important for us to encourage intergenerational organizing, and making sure that everyone of all ages gets involved and does their part to create a more sustainable movement.”

Leclercq joined a group of fellow activists in signing an open letter opposing the Manchin side deal. At last count, the letter had been signed by more than 600 grassroots groups and individuals as well as seven US senators and 70 House members. “We’ve been doing a lot of lobbying, a lot of phone calls, a lot of press as well,” she said. A few days after we spoke, she headed to DC with the Environment Justice Leadership Forum—a coalition of around fifty grassroots BIPOC-led environmental-justice organizations—to turn up the heat on Congress. And they won! Faced with fierce opposition from grassroots groups and anti-gas congressional Democrats (as well as many Republicans who, while favoring quicker permitting of pipelines, were furious at the often-inscrutable senator for voting yes on the IRA), Manchin withdrew his permitting measure from the Senate’s year-end funding bill.

Next month, Leclercq will travel to Sharm-al-Sheikh, Egypt for COP27. As with all past COPs, she says, 

Most of us in the grassroots groups don’t expect radical change to come out of it, because of who’s leading it and because the Paris climate agreement doesn’t have any teeth anyway. We can’t have a top-down revolution—it has to be bottom up. We’re attending COP-27 just to make sure that our voices are there, and we’re not being completely screwed over at the same time we’re building movements at home to create the change that needs to happen. And in trying to build those movements, we have to ask, “How can we create alternative systems that are not colonial, that are not capitalist?” And, of course, we need more people on board. 

“It’s Not Something to Be Glamorized”

Responding to a festival audience member—a climate activist who had observed firsthand what she called the “over-exploitation of the energy, passion, and labor of young people involved in this work, which can sometimes lead to burnout”—Leclercq was blunt:

I think every youth activist I know is burnt out, which is a problem. In organizing, there’s very much a culture of having to do more and more and more at the expense of ourselves, and we need to shift away from that. We need both self-care and collective care, because we’re looking to build a sustainable movement, and it doesn’t work to have people burn out and leave. We need to make sure that when we’re opposing systems like capitalism, we don’t perpetuate them in our own work. Making sure we have time off, we’re respecting boundaries, we’re distributing work fairly. The media like to kind of glamorize the youth movement, but it’s not something to be glamorized. I’m honored to be doing the work that I do, and so are all the incredible youth that I’ve met. But I don’t think that kids, especially young kids, should be responsible for doing all the hard work. I think it’s really important for us to encourage intergenerational organizing, and making sure that everyone of all ages gets involved and does their part to create a more sustainable movement.

A few years ago, Leclercq and her friend Kier Blake set out to help build that more sustainable movement by co-founding Start:Empowerment, which describes itself as “a BIPOC-led social and environmental justice education nonprofit working with youth, educators, activists, and community members.” Rather than emulate mainstream environmental education programs by focusing on the physical and biological sciences, Leclercq said, she and Blake wanted to emphasize “the political component, the justice component. These are things that are not usually taught in schools. Youth spend most of their time in those schools, for thirteen years, K through 12. That’s a long time to not be learning about the climate crisis, about environmental justice, about organizing, about politics.” 

Those gaps in learning, she said, “are a huge barrier to taking any kind of action. Before we can make any progress on climate and justice, there has to be mass education, and not necessarily in formal spaces.” The program is not just conveying knowledge, Leclerqc stressed; rather, “we’re building knowledge together. It was really cool to see students connect their lived experience with some of the ideas we were introducing to them, and have them share what their perspective is from growing up in their neighborhoods, and how they saw environmental justice and injustice play out.” 

*   *   *

In the peril-filled decade ahead, local, collective struggles by people of all ages—as exemplified by Extinction Rebellion, PODER, and Start:Empowerment—will be essential to advancing multiracial, pluralistic democracy and climate justice nationwide. Democracy and justice are prerequisites for ending our transgression of ecological boundaries and ensuring a livable future for all.