Electric vehicles are still fueling a throwaway culture

Auto enthusiasts have named 2022 the year of the electric car as a rapid conversion from gasoline combustion engines to sedans, SUVs, and now even utility and long-haul trucks are gathering, well, steam. What was first predicted as a slow transition to electric vehicles could, driven by heightened consumer interest, become a dramatically accelerated reality this decade.

This is mostly good news. Certainly, in terms of combating global warming and climate change, no one can be unhappy that a shift in transit away from fossil fuels is accelerating so rapidly. But like any other creative destruction and recreation brought about by market forces, there are some downsides to worry about. Electric vehicles leave a lower carbon footprint overall than gas burners, but the energy to power them has to come from somewhere. It won’t be a big breakthrough if 21st century cars are powered by 20th century power grids that rely on fossil fuels, and let’s not forget that the new technology, while providing ecological relief in many neighborhoods, creates also new ecological threats. of its own.

Foremost among these threats is a paradox known as the resource curse, the observation that territories and nations that possess some of the greatest natural resource wealth remain among the world’s poorest, with populations who rarely reap the economic or technological benefits of suppressed resource wealth. under their feet. Extractive industries locate resource reserves, bring in the expertise and technology to extract and refine those resources, and then move on, not only depriving indigenous peoples of a shared wealth, but leaving behind environmental and local governments too corrupt and inefficient to respond adequately to ce. The paradox has repeated itself around the world, from West Virginia and Kentucky to Bolivia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This promising new era of electric power has already launched contemporary resource rushes as industrialists and investors seek to secure supplies of the raw materials critical to emerging battery technology, primarily lithium, cobalt and nickel. . Demand for car batteries could increase 10-fold over the next decade, and billions of US investors have been poured into mining ventures.

The United States holds a vast reserve of lithium but currently maintains little capacity to extract it. A new mine atop a dormant volcano in Nevada promises to change that. Lithium Americas Corp., based in Vancouver, Canada, is already planning what will become only the second lithium mine site in the United States. The project, rushed by federal approval in the final days of the Trump presidency, drew resistance from Nevada’s Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, ranchers and environmental groups. Mining lithium at the site will require billions of gallons of groundwater, a valuable resource in its own right, which could be contaminated for up to three centuries after mining ends.

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“Blowing up a mountain isn’t green no matter how much marketing people put into it,” said one protester at the proposed mine. New York Times last May.

Pope Francis sees the global disruption caused by COVID-19 as an opportunity to globally rethink business practices and consumption priorities, a chance to “build back better.” It is a call launched now from Rome; Washington D.C.; and Brussels for a future economic order that is more merciful towards people and creation. Will he be heard?

For all the benefits it surely offers, the great transition to electric vehicles so far seems less driven by a desire to build back better than a surrender to the same old story of profit-driven utilitarianism and an eagerness to accepting familiar patterns of exploitation and exhaustion. We know where that road ends, because we’ve been there before, but maybe not in our shiny new electric cars.


This article also appears in the April 2022 issue of US Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 4, page 42). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Picture: Unsplash/Ralph Hutter

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