No Comemos Baterías: Solidarity Science Against False Climate Change Solutions


No Comemos Baterías: Solidarity Science Against False Climate Change Solutions

By Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice: M. Brito-Millán, A. Cheng, E. Harrison, M. Mendoza Martinez, R. Sugla, M. Belmonte, A. Salomón, L. Quintanilla, J. Guzman-Morales, A. Martinez

Volume 22, number 1, The Return of Radical Science

It’s rush hour in San Diego, California. A continuous flood of headlights flows over Highway 8, an interstate freeway running east-west over what used to be the largest freshwater river system in San Diego County.1 Members of CIEJ, the San Diego-based Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice, have just picked up a contingent of Indigenous water protectors from the Andean Altiplano at the airport.

Our guests look out the car window in disbelief. They have never touched US soil nor seen such traffic. They’re used to reading the stars reflected off the glassy surface of desert lagoons. Here, the city lights and police helicopter patrols obscure the night sky.

“They all drive alone?” one of them asks us, amazed and appalled.

“A lot of them do,” we reply.

They’ve come to San Diego to gain allies in protecting their ancestral waters from lithium mining, which is destroying their homelands in South America so the traffic lanes of Highway 8 can keep flowing with “environmentally-friendly” electric vehicles and so we can distract ourselves with fast-charging cell phones. As the descendants of generations of Andean Altiplano peoples, they are the legitimate keepers of the lands that transnational corporations now call the “Lithium Triangle.”2 This region spans the highlands of Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile and houses the largest and most accessible reserves of lithium, a key component for the batteries of “green” electric vehicles.3

Current efforts to use electric vehicles to transition to a “zero-emission” world reduce climate change to an emissions issue, without stopping the extraction and oppression that are the causes of climate change. As CIEJ, we have chosen to align ourselves with Indigenous land and water protectors to develop a science practice for decolonization grounded in anti-racism and feminism and, ultimately, to identify alternatives to green-washed capitalism that can truly confront climate change. Unlike the isolating high speeds of consumption promoted by the tech industry, our process as a community organization is slow, complex, collective, and relationship-driven. We seek not just to prevent further climate and environmental catastrophe, but ultimately to break away and heal from over 500 years of colonial, capitalist, racist, and heteropatriarchal violence. And we humbly propose that, from a scientific standpoint, decolonial feminist science can have a critical role in that process.

CIEJ: An Encounter and a Case for Decolonial Feminist Science

Our collective is united by a shared understanding that science is political—that it is intrinsically embedded in capitalism, colonialism, and every other system of power. We connect to each other as variously racialized, gendered, classed, and sexualized people, and our identities as cis people of color—Indigenous, white, Caribbean, Latinx, and Asian—are important guides that drive the ways we do our political work. Those of us in CIEJ who inhabit the neoliberal structures of the university do so from within the undercommons, contemplating and planning for our collective fugitivity while we redirect the resources of our labs and offices to support resistance and resurgence outside academia.4 Within the university we are environmental scientists, engineers, and ethnic and critical gender studies scholars; we are also artists, poets, community organizers, and policy experts who, at the core, are friends.

We see the academic sciences as tools that may be strategic in supporting decolonial and anti-colonial Indigenous struggles to defend and regenerate land and life. We recognize that our tools have limitations, and that they can better accomplish the task at hand when they are working alongside the tools of communities in struggle, such as cultural resilience, intergenerational knowledge, lived experiences, and collective resistance. Our task is to dismantle co-constitutive systems of oppression: white supremacy, settler-colonialism, heteropatriarchy, capitalism, the nation-state, and land and water dispossession.

Building on decades of community-based organizing, grassroots activism, and slow intimate relationship-building practices, we leverage Western science and laboratories in support of Indigenous knowledge as science in its own historical and cosmological right. We call this emergent practice decolonial feminist science: a science for land, life, and radical liberation.

When we say “decolonial” we mean that our work is in service of Indigenous communities working to keep or regain agency over their land and livelihood.5 When we say “feminist” we take as a starting point the argument that feminist science must “aim to eliminate research that leads to the exploitation and destruction of nature, the destruction of the human race and other species, and that justifies the oppression of people on the basis of race, gender, class, sexuality, or nationality”.6 Our scientific research and technological interventions aim to be in solidarity with, not undermine, Indigenous epistemological practices and forms of knowledge production. We respect the profound role that affective, embodied, and spiritual knowledge has in Indigenous worldviews despite having been demoted by the logic of positivism—as with felt experiences of the racialized, gendered, and sexual nature of colonization.7 Our methodology centers committed, sustained relationships as a feminist practice, and we build on that practice in intersection with decolonizing methodologies and research justice.8 These frameworks require us to critically consider the dynamics of the interpersonal relationships we develop through research. Academic and institutional research relationships, historically, have been extractive, exploitative, and violent towards Indigenous peoples and people of color.9 We structure our research relationships to be accountable for these legacies, to evaluate the potential for problematic dynamics, and to form more equitable and healthy alternatives, motivated by a robust praxis of transformative decolonial love. CIEJ is a space of local and transnational solidarity with Indigenous protectors of land and water as life.10 We stand in joint struggle with those fighting from the Americas to Palestine to Aotearoa—and of course the Andean Altiplano, the home and site of struggle of our guests visiting Kumeyaay territory also known as San Diego.

A People and Place in Resistance

The Andean Altiplano is the widest part of the Andes stretching across Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru. An average of 3,750 meters above sea level, this landscape features extensive deserts, snow-capped mountains, active geysers, and lagoonal salt flats, or salares. It’s cool and severely arid, overlapping with the driest non-polar desert in the world, the Atacama.

The geography of this region is characterized by internally draining basins that accumulate water in large underground reservoirs rather than allowing it to drain into the ocean. Due to the extremely arid environment, more water evaporates from the basins than enters them each year, causing the salts that flow in with the rivers to concentrate over time.11 Decades of scientific investigations suggest that the underground reservoirs were filled during epochs with wetter climatic conditions.12 Nowadays, there is net water loss even without industrial extraction.13 These ancient aquifers are nonrenewable.

The groundwater in these basins contains zones of fresh and saline waters, the former of which have sustained Indigenous Andean communities since time immemorial. The latter is rich in lithium, potassium, and other minerals dissolved from the local volcanic bedrock by water flowing through the subsurface and concentrated into a “brine” that in some places is many times saltier than seawater.14 This water accumulates in reservoirs beneath the basins. In these basins live the Lickan Antay in Chile, the Kolla in Argentina, and the Aymara and Quechua in Bolivia, sustained by the same groundwater systems that have generated the world’s largest lithium reserves.15

Oral histories from Indigenous peoples throughout the Andean Altiplano tell us that they have adapted to and thrived within these extreme environments in spite of the violent encroachment of colonial regimes, from the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s to the brutal US-backed dictatorships of the twentieth century. Under the ongoing neocolonial period in which Western-styled nation-states, including Chile and Argentina, have occupied Indigenous lands, national economies have sustained themselves by continuing the unrestrained resource extraction initiated by Spanish colonists. Mining industries in Chile, nationalized under the socialist Allende government and largely privatized under the Pinochet dictatorship, seized parcels of Lickan Antay land to extract copper, nitrate, and lithium in overlapping succession.16

In Argentina, too, and across the Americas, mining on Indigenous lands and the exploitation of Indigenous bodies as extractive labor has proliferated, contaminating the land and poisoning both mine workers and neighboring Indigenous communities.17

A new wave of eco-exploitation threatens the Lickan Antay and the Kolla. This time the familiar mining industry is cloaked in the facade of sustainability, promoting the large-scale extraction of one finite natural resource to replace another. In today’s bustling green economy, the exploitation of Indigenous territories in the Altiplano is driven by the lust for lithium: the new “sustainable” fuel.

New “Gold Rush,” Same Genocide

Lithium is referred to by speculators as “white gold” and the fever around its extraction as a new “gold rush,” with a Deutsche Bank investment report predicting huge increases in demand and promoting what analysts refer to as a “wild west” style free-for-all of mining speculation and investment.18 Economists and corporations view the potential of a new lithium economy as a boon for the wealthy who are poised to take advantage of the market. But if the extraction of lithium follows the trajectory of gold mining in California during the 1800s, it will likely bring apocalyptic changes to ecosystems and either displacement or death to Indigenous communities in South America.19

Prior to dependence on fossil fuels, energy markets used other finite resources such as whale oil. The over-hunting of whales for fuel led to the near extinction of these animals, whose populations have still not recovered, and threatened the Indigenous peoples who depend on them.20 Shifting the energy economy from whale oil to fossil fuels meant creating an economy based on the burning and consumption of ancestral materials—the fossils of previous living organisms. To many Indigenous cultures, fossil fuels such as oil are understood as the blood of the earth or ancestral material, and their desecration has spiritual as well as physical consequences.21 Climate change linked to carbon emissions is a further material consequence of fossil fuel consumption, rooted in extractivist policies within the context of colonial systems of oppression and clear ties to white supremacist worldviews.22

Where Western science and mining companies have commodified land and water to produce items for sale in the global economy23, land and water are not commodifiable products within indigenous onto-epistemologies.24

Colonial capitalism extracts from material sites using epistemic formations that produce death, viewing plants and minerals as resources to be removed and exploited, for example, rather than as living relatives who require protection and reciprocity.25 These logics are antithetical to epistemologies, ontologies, and cosmologies—ways of knowing and being—based on relation-building and life-regeneration.

The consumer-based economy for green technologies like lithium batteries merely shifts who and where is exploited; it does not end exploitation of people or the environment.26 Behind the green-washing of capitalism is the same war on nature and subsistence-based peoples’ sustainable ways of life that has been ongoing for the last 500 years.

The Toll of the Lithium Economy

Lithium brine mining is groundwater mining. Lithium exists naturally as a dissolved mineral in the saline brines of the Altiplano basins; to extract it, mining companies pump the brine into vast shallow pools at the surface, where evaporation from eight months to three years concentrates the highly-valued lithium salts.

Lithium is used in some metal, glass, and ceramic materials, mood stabilizing pharmaceuticals, and lithium-ion batteries, which have largely overtaken alkaline and nickel-metal hydride batteries because they are lighter, charge faster, and hold a longer charge. The global lithium demand is projected to triple from 2015 to 2025, almost entirely driven by an eight-fold increase in the lithium demand for electric vehicles.27 A single electric vehicle battery takes sixty-three kilograms of lithium carbonate equivalent. Each ton of lithium carbonate, or fourteen electric vehicles, requires 2 million liters of water to be evaporated—the equivalent of an Olympic size swimming pool.28

Governments, mining companies, and environmentalists alike, emboldened by the promise of economic expansion, proceed in the face of, and without due regard for, the evident consequences of lithium extraction. In the Salar de Atacama, the mining companies SQM and Rockwood Lithium claim that the effects of groundwater extraction are localized to the mining areas.29 These companies have funded modeling studies contending that the groundwater in the parts of the basin where the Indigenous communities live is separated from the mined waters by either an impermeable layer in the soil or the density contrast between freshwater and brine.30 But research grounded in geochemical and hydrogeological data has come to contradictory conclusions, demonstrating that the groundwater system is connected throughout the basin.31 The Indigenous communities’ observations are consistent with this determination.

The groundwater in question forms the basis of the salar ecosystem, a complex web including flamingos, grasses, aquatic microbes, and people. The Indigenous communities understand themselves as integral to this system rather than separate from it, and the threat to groundwater as a threat to all the interconnected life that depends on it, including themselves.32 In the Salar de Atacama, the communities’ entire cosmovision rests within the basin; the alignment of the sun with mountains to the east and west determines the timing of crop cultivation; and they trace their ancestral lineage to stromatolites in the shallow lakes analogous to early life forms.33 If the salars dry out, they will feel it in their bodies.

The rate of groundwater pumping continues to increase, and lithium mining companies may already be pumping and evaporating more water than they’re supposed to.34 Plans to massively upscale lithium battery production threaten to deplete the driest region in the world of its ancient water reserves, irrevocably destroy the unique desert environment home to keystone microbiolite communities,35 and complete the colonial task of cultural genocide against the Indigenous peoples of the South American Altiplano.36

The False Promise of Electric Vehicles

CIEJ is based in southern California, a region that touts itself as a beacon in the fight against climate change because it is a leader in sales of electric vehicles.37 Such attempts to address climate change often ignore the fact that climate change emerged as a byproduct of destructive, extractivist policies built upon the oppression of Indigenous peoples and ecological systems.38

The rush towards a battery powered economy is fueled by the global north’s desire to transition to a “zero-emission” world. Electric vehicles are a key part of the sustainability movement in the US and Europe, lauded as a major solution to combating climate change and reducing carbon emissions with renewable technology. For example, the COP23 climate meeting used electric shuttles to move delegates around and featured itself as running on 100 percent renewable energy.39 More recently, Scotland pledged to completely phase out new production of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2032 to make way for electric vehicles.40 But electric vehicles are dependent upon a non-renewable resource: lithium stored in prehistoric water on Indigenous lands.

Not only do the lithium batteries draw groundwater from water-scarce regions, the impacts of electric vehicles on carbon emissions are highly varied. No electric vehicles (nor any “renewable” energy technologies) are truly zero-emission. The production of a lithium-ion battery has twice the global warming potential as a fossil-fuel car.41 Much higher emissions are generated by mining lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt, and aluminium and subsequent battery production than are created by manufacturing fossil fuel engines. Reducing emissions also depends on how electric vehicles are used post-production because charging electric vehicles depends on local electrical grids. For example, where electric grids run on coal, electric vehicles may increase carbon dioxide emissions by up to a factor of four compared to non-electric vehicles.42Recent estimates suggest it takes a mid-size electric vehicle on Germany’s electric grid an average of nine years of use to break even with carbon dioxide emissions from a diesel vehicle.43 The irreversible costs of even these modest emission reductions will fall upon Indigenous Andean people.

It is dangerous to reduce climate change to an “emissions” issue and to leave intact the extractive and oppressive processes that caused climate change in the first place. Vehicles marketed as “zero-emissions” and “green,” including the emerging wave of hydrogen fuel cell cars, perpetuate the cycle of technological fixes that are impermanent solutions.44 Technological fixes often create different contamination problems and, as in the case of lithium, drive additional extractive production that destroys the environment and subsistence livelihoods.45 The flawed marketing scheme of “voting with your dollar” shifts the burden of global climate change and environmental pollution from governments and corporations onto marginalized communities and individuals.

As with electric cars, the Green New Deal introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey rests on the belief that “green” technologies can save us from climate change. The Green New Deal is an economic policy initiative to restructure the US economy away from fossil fuel dependence with the specific goal of dramatically lowering greenhouse gas emissions. However, the Green New Deal is not a rebuke of capitalism or extraction, but is a reform attempt to tamper the most egregious tendencies of a market designed by and for the profit of the corporate elite. The belief that we can buy our way out of climate change without having to restructure our way of life (as individuals, institutions, and societies) or give up on single-occupancy cars is rooted in colonial capitalism and imperialism.46 The luxury and convenience of the global north and former colonial powers is prioritized above the survival of Indigenous communities like the Lickan Antay and Kolla.

Strengthening Transnational Indigenous Solidarity

Indigenous Altiplano communities have sought to defend their ancestral lands and their rights as Indigenous peoples against the looming threat of extraction via national and international legal routes. The rural communities of the basin of Salinas Grandes and the Lagoon of Guayatoyoc spent a decade claiming their right to “free, prior, and informed consent” in accordance with Federal and United Nations laws.47 They published “Kachi Yupi,” explicit protocols of what this process would look like for their communities.48 But they tell us that the result has been the repeated siding of provincial and federal courts with corporations and government financial interests and recent intrusions onto their territory by geoprospectors, despite there being an existing case in the Inter-American Court system.49 These communities say that because their protocols have been ignored by both local and federal government institutions, they now stand together in reaffirming their sovereignty and economic autonomy by saying “NO!” to lithium mining on their ancestral lands. “No comemos baterías,” they declare as one of their rallying cries, “we don’t eat batteries.” Their commitment as water and land protectors has led these Indigenous communities to diversify their strategies of resistance beyond legal tactics, part of what led them to connect with us: CIEJ, in San Diego, California.

The movement to protect planet Earth from the environmental and human costs of lithium batteries has the potential to unite marginalized people of color and Indigenous peoples across the world. Lithium batteries require other materials such as graphite mined in China, which has significantly polluted cities and diminished air quality.50 In the Democratic Republic of Congo, cobalt, another key material in battery products, is extracted using child labor with dire health impacts.51 In Nevada’s Clayton Valley, which is traditional territory of the Timbisha Shoshone, settler encroachment and mining brought mass death, continual displacement, and destruction of sacred sites during the gold rush. Now, as the only site of lithium production in the US, the Timbisha Shoshone and their traditional territories continue to bear the brunt of extractivist “solutions”—a situation about to worsen given current plans for expansion of lithium production into Death Valley National Park.52 Although the resilient Timbisha Shoshone nation continues to revitalize their culture and regenerate their communities despite the havoc wreaked by mining, theirs is a future that Indigenous peoples of the Andean Altiplano wish to avoid.

In San Diego, a region wounded by the US-Mexico border and occupied by numerous bases of the military industrial complex, CIEJ is redefining what science and innovation could look like in a world that doesn’t consume its ancestors nor limit the environmental possibilities of its future generations. At a local level, this interrogation brings us to consider the San Diego River, which is now Highway 8 that stretches from the Pacific coast to Arizona. Early on, the water of the San Diego River was drained to facilitate the expansion of cities, farms, and paved roads that were built with the mined sand and minerals of the exposed riverbed itself. Today, the last undeveloped section of the riverbed located in El Monte Valley, a sacred and historical site for Kumeyaay people, is threatened by a sand mine development project.

When Lickan Antay and Kolla community members visited San Diego to share the impacts of lithium mining on the peoples of the Andean Altiplano, we took them to meet Kumeyaay water protectors and other residents who are resisting the proposed sand mine. The encounter connected the struggle against lithium extraction for powering electric vehicles with the struggle against sand extraction for building the highways on which those vehicles would run. It brought together Indigenous communities of the Global North and South committed to protecting water, or puri in the Indigenous Lickan Antay language of Kunza, and the human and non-human lives that depend on it.

On the way from the airport back to the city, one of the Lickan Antay representatives contemplated the shallow river whose resilient spirit continues to resist erasure underneath the six-lane-wide freeway above it, with its endless single-occupancy vehicles inching along in rush hour traffic. He turned to us and said, “I came here looking for help from you. But now I can see it’s you who needs help from us.”

A Call to Action

The issue of lithium extraction is urgent and requires action by all those who see themselves in solidarity with Indigenous peoples like the Lickan Antay and Kolla, as well as with the planet itself. In conversation with the communities impacted by lithium mining we have gathered a set of considerations for scientists, shifting their gaze from extraction-based “green” solutions towards initial alternative possibilities for addressing climate change. We also include summary points on decolonial feminist science approaches and the ways that technological innovations can be used towards new ways of living and networks of conviviality.

  • Radical ways to address global climate change: from a transportation standpoint, soft narratives to address climate change include investing in public transportation systems, increased bicycle usage, and the ability to work flexibly or remotely. Radical ways of addressing climate change include drastically divesting from capitalist, colonialist life. We need to imagine and create a new world that may not have highways or cars in it, but instead has quality education, work, food that’s hyperlocal, strong medicine and healing networks in high proximity to our homes–material, socioeconomic, political, social, and land-based reconfigurations. Our day-to-day existence must be rethought and reshaped in terms of time, place, and purpose, while foregrounding current ways of decolonial and non-colonial living that already materially exist outside of green cosmopolitan desires and that can serve as models.
  • Critique the green-washing of capitalist extraction, even when it masquerades as politically progressive. Critique green capitalism and organize for solutions beyond tokenization, including changing local and global social, economic, and political structures, and the nature of our relationships with the environment.
  • A call to research action: scientists seeking to practice decolonial feminist research methods must begin to disengage from the limitations of capitalist research funding models, and, where disengagement from capitalism is not yet possible, find ways of doing scientific work in solidarity with decolonization and liberation despite the strings attached to research funding sources.53 One of our goals with this account has been to provide such an example, hoping that it will move forward a conversation about meaningful alternatives to extraction.
  • Create tools for conviviality: technological innovation should be driven by problem solving for liberation, and for mending the tears in our social fabric created by capitalism and systems of oppression. We envision a field of innovation that makes tools and technology more convivial and less extractive, following the concept of Tools for Conviviality, where technology is limited to that which supports an enriching balance of individual autonomy and social connection between people as well as a harmonious relationship with the environment.54 These relations to technology are not to replicate current racialized, gendered, sexualized, or classed power dynamics, but must imagine the possibility of a new social fabric beyond current structures of oppression.
  • Respect for Indigenous knowledges: we wish to see a more widespread practice within the scientific community to critically engage with and respect the epistemological roots of Indigenous science and worldviews, while recognizing the fraught history between Indigenous peoples and colonial science. We encourage the scientists and researchers reading this article to listen to and build equitable reciprocal relationships with communities directly impacted by oppressive structures and processes.

About the Authors

The San Diego-based Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice (CIEJ) is a space for integrating scientific approaches with the resistance and liberation movements of grassroots and Indigenous communities at the forefront of environmental racism. They approach environmental justice through feminism, decolonization, anti-racism, and intersectionality. Working as accomplices to communities in resistance, they organize to support struggles, expand solidarity networks, and redirect scientific tools and resources to empower movements fighting for dignity and autonomy. They embody a wide variety of identities, disciplines and skillsets. They engage with multiple realities, worldviews, cosmovisions and strategies committed to survivance and the creation of “a world where many worlds fit.” Find them at the-ciej.org and join their network.

References

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  2. We do not pretend to represent the full spectrum of politics, goals, or strategies of Indigenous Altiplano people. This piece centers the communities we are in relationship with, in Chile and Argentina, who sought international science collaboration via the TransAndean Lithium Project with our colleague Dr. Luis Martin-Cabrera as part of their decolonial struggle. Decolonization, as understood in the field of Native Studies, is the repatriation of land and life and the regeneration of Indigenous politics beyond the nation state and against capitalism. In Bolivia, the state led by an Indigenous president controls lithium and other natural resources; however, this model of development, working within the nation-state and capitalist economy, is not decolonization.
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    “Onto-epistemologies” refers to theories of both knowing and being.

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