The Environmental & Societal Costs of Electric Vehicles & Storage

Photo: African cobalt "artisanal miner" for environmental, human impact post
African cobalt miner. Photo by Hugh Brown from Quartz Africa.

This is a problem some environmentalists attempt
to justify away or just plain ignore.

The “diggers” will never own a mobile phone, but there’s a good chance the risks they took to feed their families provided the raw material for the battery in yours. 

They call themselves “creuseurs,” which is French for diggers, but others refer to them with a more whitewashed moniker: “artisanal miners,” as if they were baking bread, brewing beer in the garage or laying the brick for a new building.

The harsh reality is they are Congolese laborers who make less than the cost of a fancy cup of fancy coffee per day in their daily searches for cobalt that makes the lithium-ion battery in your phone viable. Not to mention the battery in your tablet, laptop and, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford one, your electric car, too.

And as the world looks to “build back better,” shifting from the fossil-fuel based economies to systems driven by renewables, the need for cobalt is going to grow exponentially, as is the demand for lithium and nickel, all of which need to be mined. They’re elemental to the development of short- and long-term storage of electricity generated by wind turbines and solar panels that environmentalists of all stripes agree are needed. 

But clearly there are bigger things at stake than how privileged people get their electricity when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, namely degradation and destruction of ecosystems, groundwater contamination, excess water consumption for mining processes that threatens to leave land, plants, animals and humans parched and, last but certainly not least, human rights abuses and economic enslavement in poor nations.

It’s About People, Not Just the Environment

Creuseurs work in horrifying conditions, using hand tools to burrow into mines with only the small lamps on their helmets to light their way. Many die when unstable tunnels cave in. Those lucky enough to make it back out of their holes return to ramshackle homes with wives and children who do not have enough to eat. Creuseurs are only paid for the cobalt they find. If they’re lucky, they’ll find enough to earn the equivalent of $3 a day or less. If not, they don’t get paid. These are people who know the heartache of choices like whether to buy flour or salt because they can’t afford both. 

Even more horrifying, many diggers aren’t old enough to have wives or children. According to a report by The Washington Post quoted a 2012 UNICEF report that said there might be as many as 40,000 children working to find cobalt in the Congo.

Their bare-bones, survival-level existence makes it possible for you to read this post. Or post a TikTok. Or scroll through your Twitter feed to find out what’s happening with friends, family and Britny.

Photo of Congolese cobalt miners for post on environmental, human impacts
Congolese cobalt miners. Image by Amnesty International.

The diggers and their families aren’t the only people who are negatively impacted by the “need” for raw materials for lithium-ion batteries. Mining operations require millions of gallons of water, which has to be drawn from rivers, lakes and aquafers that plants, animals and people rely on for their very existence. 

The New York Times provided an excellent illustration in a recent report on a new lithium mine proposed by Lithium Americas.

The project “… has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe (Paiute and Shoshone), ranchers and environmental groups because it is expected to use billions of gallons of precious ground water, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.

Photo of Native Americans protesting environmental impact of Nevada lithium mine
People protest a lithium mine proposed for Nevada. Photo by Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

“The company has said the mine will consume 3,224 gallons per minute,” (PER MINUTE!) and it “…may cause groundwater contamination with metals including antimony and arsenic.”

Which brings us to an intersection of environmental and social justice.

Intersectional Environmentalism

Environmentalist and social media influencer Leah Thomas, a.k.a. Green Girl Leah, defines intersectional environmentalism this way:

“Intersectional Environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimize or silence social inequality. Intersectional Environmentalism advocates for justice for people + the planet.”

These mines and their impacts appear to demonstrate the anti-definition nicely. And appallingly. 

But bring up cobalt and lithium mining and their negative impacts to the environment and human beings, and some bona-fide environmentalists don’t want to talk about any of that. In fact, press the issue and attitudes can veer toward the dismissive, with reactions like:

  • The only thing that matters right now is eliminating CO2 emissions into the atmosphere.
  • Everything’s a trade-off.
  • There’s always winners and losers, no matter what you do.

Eliminating CO2 emissions, and fast, is critical to slowing and reversing global warming and, therefore, the survival of the human race. Life has taught me that nearly everything is a trade-off between good and bad. And, yes, it does seem like no matter what decisions one makes, they help some and hurts others. 

Graphic of Instagram post about intersectional environmentalism

However, when we’re talking about human rights abuses and child endangerment, about depleting or contaminating water supplies, about developed societies taking advantage of the less fortunate, and if foreseeable and preventable deaths of innocents are at stake….

No. This Cannot Stand. 

Work is being done to address these abuses and inequities, such as corporations monitoring their supply chains for human rights abuses and scientists’ efforts to develop alternatives to cobalt- and lithium-dependent batteries. Groups like Amnesty International are monitoring the situation. But saying “we’re working on it” simply is not enough. 

I don’t have the answers. I simply want to let more people know this is a serious problem and keep the conversation alive, not to mention more diggers in the Congo.

However, I am certain about this:

We need to change our mindsets. There is no such thing as “building back better” on the backs of people who are on the wrong side of the win-lose societal equation. We have a moral obligation to protect all people now, not just in the climate-change-proof and socially just future we envision.

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