To save the world, we have to decarbonize it. Enter the mineral-extraction industry, which is on a major upswing thanks to skyrocketing demand for substances such as lithium, cobalt, and cooper. But ending our reliance on fossil fuels by turning to a battery-powered way of life is a fraught path. Nick Bowlin attended a conference hosted by the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) to dig into the moral and environmental hazards of an electric future:

Even the most optimistic version of the future, involving reduced demand and robust recycling, will still require some mining. What this ought to look like increasingly preoccupies Patrick Donnelly, who works for the Center for Biological Diversity in Nevada. I know Donnelly—as do a lot of other journalists in the West who cover extractive industries—as a ferociously dedicated conservation advocate. A few years ago, Donnelly realized that no one was tracking all of the American lithium projects and decided to do so himself. His map now shows more than 115 potential mines, clustered in his home state. “It’s the biggest mineral rush of our lifetime,” he told me over the phone. 

In an ideal world, Donnelly said, the U.S. government would put a moratorium on speculative claims and instead survey all of the country’s mineral deposits in order to identify the least harmful places to mine. This isn’t happening and won’t anytime soon. In May, the U.S. fast-tracked a manganese and zinc mine in Arizona, the first mining project added to a program designed to expedite the clean-energy transition and other infrastructure developments. But Donnelly also fears that anti-mining sentiment is turning people against electric cars—and against lithium extraction altogether. “There is zero chance we can recycle our way out of the problem,” he said. This is true. There isn’t enough lithium on the market for battery recycling to realistically meet present demand, let alone the expected increase.

“There is an element of the mining resistance movement that opposes not just particular mines but all lithium and all electric vehicles,” Donnelly went on. “Unless we’re talking about deindustrializing society, which I don’t think appeals to most people, we need to be thinking about how and where we’re getting our lithium, and critically examine our own use of these minerals, like the cell phone I’m speaking to you on now, with minerals from South America, where locals say the mines are destroying their environment and community.”

Such are the paradoxes of the globalized green economy, in which blocking a mine in one place means shifting extraction somewhere else. We want to decarbonize, yet our lives require ever-increasing supplies of energy. And so climate-minded consumers and the mining industry are locked in a self-justifying embrace. We buy an E.V. and think we are doing right by those vulnerable to rising temperatures and tides. But in trying to continue consuming as we are used to, buying stuff and zipping down the highway, we have exposed many of those same vulnerable people to another threat—the market’s readiness to kill, poison, and displace them to get minerals and metals. The mining industry, meanwhile, benefits from the self-satisfied consumerism of the E.V. buyer. For all of its disdain for environmentalists, the industry needs green consumers who seek absolution for their carbon-intensive ways of life. With their complacent inattention to the injustices inflicted by the green economy, these consumers not only fund the industry’s expansion but give it moral cover.