Wants and Needs
Thacker Pass, extractivism, and the fiction of necessity
“In the last days of the fourth world I wished to make a map / for those who would climb through the hole in the sky.
My only tools were the desires of humans as they emerged / from the killing fields, from the bedrooms and the kitchens […]
In the legend are instructions on the language of the land, how it / was we forgot to acknowledge the gift, as if we were not in it or of it.”
—From “A Map to the Next World,” by Joy Harjo
Last week a friend of mine emailed me to tell me that he had just returned from a place called Thacker Pass, Nevada. I had never heard of Thacker Pass before, but he and others had been occupying the site of what is slated to become the largest lithium mine in the United States there for several months.
During that time my friend, Paul Feather, had reached out to several regional leaders of Extinction Rebellion (XR), an environmental justice movement, in an attempt to rally support for the protest. Since I had written about and expressed to him my optimism regarding XR when the movement first came on the scene in 2019, Paul wanted to know my thoughts on the matter. The protest at Thacker Pass thus far involves mainly local indigenous groups that have a connection to the land of the proposed mine site, but Paul and others would like to bring it to the world’s attention. Their case is compelling.
After learning a little about the situation and reading some essays he and others had written on the occupation and its motives, I was a little surprised that major activist groups were not already involved. I’m not sure why this is—there are many possible reasons, pandemic-related disruptions not least among them. I suspect however, that relatively little attention has been given to Thacker Pass because of an unwillingness to engage with what may be perceived as a controversial and divisive issue within the environmental justice community.
Protesting Thacker Pass is potentially controversial because it challenges the renewable/green tech transition narrative, specifically that the lithium to be mined there is a ‘necessary’ step in the path forward to a clean energy future. There are many complications, problems, and outright falsities to this narrative, as we shall see.
At the heart of this particular case, as in many others, there is the continuing dispossession of indigenous people from their lands and traditions at the hands of a short-sighted and murderously materialistic culture—ours. And this is to say nothing of the fate of the more-than-human world inhabiting this beautiful but fragile country.
In this essay, I hope to discuss some of the issues surrounding Thacker Pass, as well as the larger cultural and historical dynamics that have culminated in the current ideology of extractivism—the civilizational lodestar that has, in so many ways, led us to trespass on sacred lands. But before I delve any further, I encourage you to read Paul’s writings on the matter. His thoughts come directly from the protest encampment and they are rousing, beautifully articulated and passionately argued.
If we cannot hold the pass (Counterpunch)
How would you know? (https://www.protectthackerpass.org/)
Can the resilience movement learn from Thacker Pass? (Resilience.org)
In Defense of Thacker Pass
Thacker Pass is a remote area of high desert in the Great Basin of northern Nevada near the Oregon border. The word ‘desert’ may bring to mind images of arid, barren wastelands for some people, but in my experience deserts are places of great beauty and peace—fragile ecosystems that for all of their sparseness are most susceptible to the impacts of human activities.
I have been enchanted by the landscape and the night skies of country like this, at the eastern end of the Great Basin, the vast region that also encompasses Thacker Pass, and so it requires only a little imaginative effort for me to picture the remote and wondrous place now under threat from lithium mining.
Those who have spent time at Thacker Pass have been duly captivated by the spirit of the place and have endeavored to convey that through writing. Rebecca Wildbear, another of the voices speaking up for Thacker Pass, evocatively describes the landscape in her essay, “Warriors Dreaming”:
“Flowering sage covers the desert. Layers of rolling hills and a few rocky cliffs shape the horizon… The dry air is thick with the fragrance of sage, mixed with juniper and pinyon. I imagine the artery of long-awaited water that flows here after rain. The three-pronged footprints of a greater sage-grouse dot the sand. The sky turns shades of crimson, orange, and purple.”
Paul Feather captures the moment as daylight fades at Thacker Pass and the wild night sky emerges, in his essay “How Would You Know?” Pondering the experience, he warns, “[M]y communion with stars—an experience I share with almost every human to ever live upon this planet, but increasingly few alive today—is not a rational process. To take in the night sky as a whole, unobscured by electric light, and to find oneself within the cosmos is an experience and revelation that humanity has only just begun to try living without. This experiment may not go well. It is disorienting, and we are lost.”
In Paul’s recounting of a liminal moment at this singular place, the larger conundrum presented by the forces of technological progress comes into view. As is so often the case, or so I have felt, it is our love for the particulars of a wild place and the transformative potential of that place that bring our true relationship to the natural world and the cosmos into focus. It is this irrational, emotional and very personal relationship to place that compels us to resist the abstract systems and larger power structures that threaten these places.
As Paul continues in his essay, “Resistance (or successful resistance) arises not from rationality, but from an intuitive process in which large numbers of people recognize an opportunity to assert their sovereignty and overturn blatantly exploitative systems.”
The cold, hard facts surrounding the lithium mine at Thacker Pass and its destructive capacity merit some attention, however.
The land for the proposed mine has been inhabited by Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone people for many generations. Members of tribal groups still living in the area will likely be most impacted by the many detrimental effects of an open-pit mine that will cover 6,000 acres, spanning an area 2.3 miles in length and half a mile in width, with plans for further expansions over time.
Because the lithium to be mined at this site will primarily be used for electric car batteries—such as those to be built at the Tesla gigafactory in Reno—the project has been falsely touted as ‘green.’ In reality this mining project led by the Canadian group Lithium Americas Corp, has much in common with extractive fossil fuel mega-projects like the Athabasca tar sands—a seeping wound in the Earth’s skin that can be seen from space.
Mining and on-site processing of lithium ore at Thacker Pass would require 2.3 tons of carbon inputs for every ton of lithium produced. Sulfur waste trucked in from tar sands oil refineries at a rate of 75 semi loads a day would be used to produce toxic sulfuric acid onsite to leach lithium from clay and ores.
In processing the lithium at the mine, 11,300 gallons of diesel fuel per day would also be required, to say nothing of the fuel used in off-site operations. Sulfuric acid along with uranium, antimony and other hazardous substances freed up by lithium processing could easily end up in the groundwater on which local communities and ranches depend, as happens frequently at existing lithium mining sites.
The mining project would also use 1.7 billion gallons of water a year siphoned from an already overtaxed aquifer. The outcomes resulting from the extraction of this much water are unclear, but they could negatively impact rivers, springs and meadows that ranchers and wildlife alike depend on.
A species of critically endangered snail and the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout are two types of wildlife put at risk by the mine’s water use alone. The physical presence of the mine will adversely impact sage-grouse, pronghorn antelope, Golden eagles, and many other species of fauna and flora that exist in this high desert biome.
With these facts in mind, the Thacker Pass mine can hardly be considered green, and this doesn’t even take into consideration other issues related to this so-called green technology. As Rebecca Wildbear points out, “Lithium is only one ingredient needed to make electric cars. Cobalt, neodymium, dysprosium, coltan, and copper must also be mined and smelted. Cobalt is extraordinarily toxic. Located in the Congo, children often extract it from the ground by hand, without protective equipment. Child-miners have been maimed and buried alive.”
And lithium batteries, setting aside all of the demonstrably unsustainable and environmentally destructive hidden costs involved, are only as green as the electricity that ultimately powers them. Currently, much of this comes from fossil fuel and nuclear plants. But even assuming an eventual transition to other ‘clean’ electricity generating technologies, there are hidden costs there too. As Paul writes:
“We are being told that lithium batteries charged on solar, wind, or hydro power will power our cars and stop climate change. Of course that means we’ll also have to build millions more solar panels. Millions more wind turbines. Do you think these come from nowhere? This means more mining and more destruction. It means more human rights violations both locally (especially in connection to man camps for miners that inevitably lead to sexual violence against local women), and also abroad as we seek out cobalt and other conflict minerals needed for this new industrial revolution.”
The larger notion of electric cars as a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels is yet one more example of a superficial and facile mindset that many progressives and would-be environmentalists happily subscribe to. Along with recycling programs, carbon offsets, and other feel-good half-measures naively intended to mitigate climate breakdown and ecological destruction, they fail entirely to address the root causes of the behaviors and circumstances that are driving our planet to collapse.
At the dark heart of it all lies a civilization built on and beholden to extractivism.
Just what is extractivism? A mindset. An ideology. An economic model. A pattern of behavior. A societal imperative. An agglomeration of imperialism, colonialism, consumerism, and capitalism. Extractivism is perhaps all of these things, and many more besides. To my mind though it is the one word that most succinctly captures the operational logic of a civilization bent on destroying life for the illusory goal of progress. Extractivism is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially since the editors at Dark Mountain—a publication to which both Paul and I have contributed writing—announced it as the theme for their forthcoming issue, “Plunder.”
As Dark Mountain’s editors have it, extractivism is the ideology and practice of ‘takers.’ Though they borrowed the concept of ‘takers’ (and its corollary, ‘leavers’) from Daniel Quinn whose works I haven’t read, I find the dichotomy a useful lens through which to view much of human history and I offer my own definitions of the terms below.
Though we may be tempted to explain the will to extractivism as a fundamental characteristic of human nature, the fact that there has existed a leaver-taker dichotomy throughout history argues against this.
“Taker’ is a descriptor that applies broadly to individuals, groups, and societies throughout history whose chosen way of life depends on violence, theft, dispossession, extraction and exploitation. Historical examples of takers include empires and kingdoms, oligarchical governments and nation-states, and many businesses and corporations as well as the elites that own and profit from them, to name a few. Private property, scarcity, growth, surplus, material wealth, social stratification and the primacy of the individual are key aspects of taker culture.
In contrast to the takers, there are leavers—those who live by subsisting to a greater or lesser extent harmoniously within the natural world. Leavers live within and by respecting the limits of natural plenitudes and systems. Their way of life and sense of well-being is not defined by notions of material or territorial acquisition but by their relationships with family, tribe, and the natural world. Leaver groups tend to be socially non-hierarchical. Most indigenous peoples would fall into the category of leaver, as would many pre-agricultural and hunter-gatherer societies throughout history.
Extractivism as such may date back further, but with the rise of neolithic agricultural societies and the subsequent development of cities and civilizations, taker culture emerged and proliferated. Domestication and settled ways of life dependent on extracting a yearly grain harvest or profiting from an increase in livestock holdings gave rise to notions of surplus, wealth, private property, and social inequality.
Taker culture is synonymous with dominator culture, and the acquisitive impulse has driven geographical expansion and conquest through every phase of recorded human history. Time and again, taker cultures have engaged in extractivism at the expense of subjugated and exploited leavers and their territories.
In the early 21st century, extractivism and its practices are with us in globalization, late-stage capitalism and the neoliberal economic consensus. And nowhere else, in a world in thrall of technological progress and material growth, is extractivism more sacredly enshrined than in America. At this point in our relatively short history—a history defined largely by conquest, genocide, slavery, dispossession, and relentless material growth—the dominant American culture has become the apotheosis of extractivism.
Our obsessions with creature comforts, private property, the inalienable right of the individual, and the consumer impulse, along with our unshakeable belief in infinite upward material progress, are so firmly rooted in the national psyche that many Americans can no longer distinguish between wants and legitimate needs.
The mindset that sees an electric car as an acceptable and viable solution to the looming problems of climate breakdown, ecocide, and social and environmental injustice is a perfect example of this confusion in distinguishing between wants and needs. It is also a perpetuation of the extractivist worldview that caused the wicked problems we are now confronted with in the first place.
The Fiction of Necessity
The greatest tragedy of the unfolding ecological catastrophes and cascading societal failures that may soon be with us is the fact that they didn’t have to happen. The coronavirus pandemic that continues to wreak havoc across the planet is a good example, and perhaps a taste of worse things that may be in store for us further down the road.
Millions have died already from a virus that could have been contained in its early stages of transmission, had we all acknowledged the threat and taken seriously the not unreasonable measures our scientists and public health officials proposed.
But if there is a silver lining to the death and disruption the coronavirus pandemic has brought the world over the last year, it may be the fact that previously unquestionable social norms and behaviors once taken for granted have now come under scrutiny. For many, life under lockdown has called into question the necessity of many social and economic behaviors.
Why should office workers, for example, be required to spend tens of hours of their lives each week commuting by car to a job that can more easily and just as effectively be done from home? Why do we not grow our own food and cook our own meals, spend precious time with our families and educate our own children?
Questions like these ultimately lead to larger questions, such as: Why do so many of us, under the ‘ordinary’ circumstances of pre-pandemic life, spend our time, money and attention on things and experiences that bring us no greater joy or benefit, but only serve to distract us from the tedium, horror and despair of life in the modern world—a world which we have all been tacitly creating and blindly perpetuating?
These are questions that are long overdue for the asking, and the answers to these questions may surprise us, if we are being honest with ourselves. Many of the fixtures and routines of daily life that we have taken for granted need not exist at all, or could just as easily exist in other forms.
Certainly consumerism, materialism, dependency and economic exploitation are bred in the bone of mainstream American society, and the arch-extractivists who manage this society perpetuate and profit from these conditions. But to the extent that we are free agents and individual actors in this society we can challenge the ‘necessity’ of circumstances and institutions that exist by virtue of cultural convention alone. How much of our lives have been spent sleepwalking through a hall of mirrors where wants appear to us as needs?
Considering this question leads us once more to the larger question of what we’re willing to accept or sacrifice in furtherance of wants masquerading as needs. The extractivists pushing the Thacker Pass lithium mine agenda would like us to believe that we must choose between driving ‘clean’ electric cars or ‘dirty’ fossil-fueled cars, but this is a false dichotomy. The real choice we must make is whether to drive a car at all, whether to participate in a society based on and organized around extractivist principles. We do not have to accept this and there are alternatives.
As David Graeber so powerfully stated, “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.” As I’ve already mentioned, the disruptions caused by the pandemic have been revelatory in many ways, not the least of which is the realization that we need not accept many of the customs, patterns and values that we previously took for granted as necessary. These are someone else’s wants packaged and sold to us as our own needs.
Another quote I’m fond of, and one that I’ve cited in other writings, seems more relevant now than ever. It comes from the political scientist and historian Thomas Homer-Dixon, who writes, “Actions and futures that were once unthinkable—because they were too wonderful or too horrible—are suddenly possible.” Homer-Dixon wrote that in the context of discussing societal collapse and ‘moments of contingency’—windows for radical change that open up during periods of upheaval and societal turmoil.
I believe we are currently undergoing just such a moment of contingency. A history culminating with the global embrace of extractivism has pushed our planet toward a tipping point from which its natural systems may not recover. Yet at the same moment, many are waking up to the ‘hidden truth of the world,’ that we have the power to change arbitrarily established institutions and ways of being. This is the moment Paul mentioned, “in which large numbers of people recognize an opportunity to assert their sovereignty and overturn blatantly exploitative systems.”
Alternatives to extractivism exist, as they always have, and they are presently embodied and practiced by indigenous people, such as the groups that have successfully opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline and those who are now occupying Thacker Pass. We can stand in solidarity with them by joining the occupation but also by taking a hard look at the choices we make and the conditions in our lives that we deem acceptable.
In determining what really are wants and needs and deciding what we’re willing to sacrifice or accept in order to address them we will ultimately decide between being takers and leavers. I hope we choose wisely.