Mines to save the planet?

To achieve the energy transition, as many metals would have to be extracted in twenty years as in the entire history of humanity. It is one of the great paradoxes of our timenotes Celia Izoard.

Journalist, translator and philosopher, Celia Izoard has been examining the social and ecological impacts of the development of new technologies for several years. This new work fits into this vein by exploring the harmful effects of the energy and digital transition.

The green transition requires extracting colossal quantities of metals from the underground. They will then be used for the production of low-carbon energy which will save the planet. This race for metals supposes to save the planet from climate change, does it not aggravate ecological chaos, environmental damage and social inequalities??

Celia Izoard is conducting a vast investigation into this global, unprecedented and invisible phenomenon. If other works have also highlighted the physical unsustainability of such a transition, the strength of this book is to develop an overview of this issue through field surveys and an analysis provided on the cultural, political, economic and social aspects of mines and metals. .

The myth of the green mine

At the beginning of the book, Celia Izoard sets off in search of the mines of XXIe century, responsible, relocated, 4.0or carbon-free, digital and automated. Through a detailed argument and a dive into mines in Spain or Morocco, the author demonstrates that behind this discourse promoted by international institutions, political leaders and business circles hides another face. That of the predatory, energy-consuming and destructive mine. The one who devours the terrestrial habitat and the living.

Locally, the process of radicalization of industrial mining is detailed through the prism of its social ravages. The mine is above all a gigantic uprooting machine (p. 54), which empties spaces by expropriating the last peoples of the plant. In addition, contemporary mining exposes populations to various diseases and poisoning. In the Bou-Azzer mine in Morocco, we extract responsible cobalt for electric cars; miners and local residents suffer from cancers and neurological and cardiovascular diseases.

The overall scale of mining sector predation in XXIe century is also outlined through the growing production of waste and pollution. The mining sector is the most polluting industry in the world. For example, an industrial copper mine produces 99.6% waste. Stored near mining pits, the waste rocks, gigantic volumes of extracted rock, generate sulfur releases which drain the heavy metals contained in the rocks and make them migrate towards waterways. Factory pipes constantly spew toxic residues which can, depending on the ore processed, consist of cyanide, acids, hydrocarbons, soda, or known poisons such as lead, arsenic, mercury, etc. Finally, zero-carbon mines are pipe dreams because they are all very energy-intensive. The amount needed to extract, crush, process and refine metals represents approximately 8 to 10% of the total energy consumed worldwide, making the mining industry a major culprit in climate change.

The dark side of the energy transition

In the second part, Celia Izoard shows that the lites are burying the climate and energy crisis deep in the mines (p. 62). This imperative to extract metals for the transition coincides with the return of the question of raw materials to the public scene, in a context where Western powers have lost their hegemony in the face of China and Russia.

Since when has the transition involved a mining revival and therefore the transition from fossil fuels to metals?? This argument is clearly spreading following the publication of a World Bank report in 2017. In collaboration with the largest mining lobby in the world (theICMM, International Council on Mining and Metals), the report states that the mining industry is expected to play a major role in the fight against climate change by providing low-carbon technologies. Electric batteries, wind turbine rotors, electrolysers, photovoltaic cells, cables for the global electrification wave, all these infrastructures and technologies nevertheless require enormous quantities of metals. The energy transition of societies would require the use of numerous base metals (copper, nickel, chromium or zinc) but also rare metals (lithium, cobalt, anthanide). The electrification of the French automobile fleet requires the entire annual production of cobalt in the world and twice as much as the annual production of lithium.

At XXIe century, the material is suddenly reminded of the Western powers even though they dreamed of being freed from it in the 1980s. However, Western companies had obviously never stopped supplying themselves with raw materials by sourcing from the mines and offshore industries of the countries of the South. This process of displacement had also contributed to making the mine and its pollution invisible to the landscape and the collective imagination.

Under the banner of transition, which makes it possible to anticipate environmental protests and to get populations to join this unprecedented global race for metals, lies the project of continued growth and lifestyles with excessive energy and metal needs. This new legend of the capitalist West justifies an extraction of metals which will also be intended for European companies in the digital, automobile, aerospace, armaments, chemicals, nuclear and all cutting-edge technologies sectors.

Destroy capitalism

This book then explores in a third part the history of capitalism through that of mining and metals. It shows how an extractivist model was founded based on ideologies: Salvation, Progress, Development and now Transition? Extractivism is enabled by the elaboration and development of a set of beliefs and imaginations which give it omnipotence. This is what Celia Izoard calls: the extractivist cosmology (p. 211). Accompanied by favorable legislation and colonial policies carried out by the state and the bourgeoisie, then by industrialization in XIXe century, this matrix has favored our dependence on a mining regime. In the eyes of the Amazonian Yanomami people, white people are earth eaters (p. 215).

How to get out of this vision of the Western world structured around mining whose objective is the accumulation of capital and power. The mining solution, as well as the technological one, to the climate crisis is a trick, says Celia Izoard. The climate movement must go through mineral degrowth, through a metal withdrawal as much as energy withdrawal (p. 291). Reducing energy and material consumption is a realistic solution. The daily lives of Westerners are over-mineralized like the emblematic object of our daily over-consumption of metals: the smartphone. It alone contains, in the form of a complex alloy, more than 50 metals. Shouldn’t metals be reserved for uses determined to be essential to human life??

To get out of the mining regime, it is first urgent to make the overconsumption of metals visible in the public debate. On the one hand, this must happen through political measures. Establish a metal balance in the same way as the carbon balance because the ideology of the transition has created an illusory separation between toxic fossil resources (coal, oil and gas) and metal extraction, considered beneficial and essential. Or even target the mineral overconsumption of the richest by distinguishing between luxury missions and subsistence missions, as already proposed by Andreas Malm. On the other hand, for undermine capitalism (p. 281), this will have to go through a process of collective and democratic reflection and debate, social movements and individual awareness, particularly in hyper-industrialized countries whose overconsumption of metals is aberrant.

Not content with circumventing the obstacle of energy transition, extractivism pushes the boundaries ever further, justifying the conquest of new Eldorados: Greenland, the ocean floors, even extraterrestrial minerals. Faced with the process of contamination and degradation of the plant led by the mining and industrial sector, the struggles against the projects are intensifying. Recently, it was the Collas, an indigenous people of Chile, who opposed the mining giants. The latter plan to extract lithium in the salar by Maricunga; This will result in the pumping of millions of cubic meters of water into the depths of the salt deserts, these emblems of the Andes mountain range. The Colla community will be even more weakened as it is already suffering from urban exodus and the drying up of the region. The lifters will also have to abandon their lifting and head towards the immense mining towns of the region. In addition, transhumance, biodiversity, around forty local wild species (the Chilean pink flamingo, vicunas or guanacos, etc.), are threatened. Supported by their spokesperson Elena Rivera, they do not intend to give in and have appealed to the Environmental Court of Santiago, which deals with the numerous ecological controversies in the country. At XXIe century, the debates and struggles organized around extraction in Chile, the second country concentrating the most lithium on the planet, prove that the poor and the last peoples of the planet are on the front line facing the harmful effects underlying the green transition.