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'Extractivism' debate continues: Beyond lithium (and other poisons)

The Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia are home to over half the world's lithium deposits.

By Don Fitz

April 17, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Policies that expand “extractivism” in progressive Latin American countries bring up a host of contradictions: How do the short-term benefits of financial gain from extraction compare to its long-term destructiveness? What options are available for reducing poverty without increasing mining, logging and GMO monocultures? Could the climate change effects of extraction actually hurt the world’s poor more than helping them? How can struggles against extractivism chart a path to economies based on human need rather corporate profits?

The lithium fantasy

Lithium mining shows the array of problems that run through “extraction” or removing elements from the Earth. Lithium batteries are essential for electric cars, which corporations push as an “environmentally friendly” method of transportation. When progressives give an approving nod to electric cars, they reveal a serious lack of understanding of difficulties that are inherent with toxic chemicals.

It is not unusual to read that lithium batteries contain no toxins and that mining the metal is “an environmentally benign process”.

In reality, lithium affects the use of water by organisms, especially those with nervous systems. Obtaining it via underground reservoirs of dissolved salts known as salar brines is harsh on creatures in any desert-like environment where it is extracted.

In order for batteries to function, lithium must be used with chemicals that are even more toxic. Friends of the Earth (FOE), Europe states: “The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.”

Electric vehicles (EVs) appear to have a lower environmental impact only if an evaluation limits itself to the use phase of the product (driving). This does not happen when the manufacturing phase is included because producing lithium batteries requires lots of electricity.

Though lithium mining may seem like a panacea to Bolivia’s economic difficulties, the long list of minerals that have been mined out in that country waves a caution flag. Lithium mining could last for a much shorter period of time than often anticipated because its use in electronic devices could cause demand for it to soar. Or, if a substitute chemical process were to be discovered, a crash in prices could pull the rug out from under lithium production.

Other effects of lithium mining cannot be quantified monetarily. These include the destruction of nature and the loss of cultures if indigenous people are pushed off of their land. Huge concentrations of lithium occur in “beautiful and ecologically fragile places, such as the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia”.

The greatest disaster of producing lithium for EVs encompasses all others: an electric car is still a car. The car is one of the most destructive machines that capitalism has foisted upon us. Rather than endorsing corporate advertisements, social justice activists should be working with genuine environmentalists who are designing (and, in some cases, implementing) transportation systems to replace the individually owned car.

Why extraction?

No one denies that there are good reasons for removing minerals from the Earth. Mining is the starting point of complex economic systems. It allows societies to produce goods that are needed for survival.

In a capitalist society, that creates jobs for working people. Distributing part of the wealth from increased extraction has greatly improved the lives of countless poor people in the “pink tide” (progressive, but not necessarily socialist) countries of Latin America.

In Ecuador, 15% of the gross domestic product (GDP) is now funding roads, health centres, schools and hospitals. Education spending has doubled since Rafael Correa came to power. “Anyone who has traveled to Ecuador can attest to the dramatic improvement in its roads. Poverty rates are now one third lower. Child mortality has fallen.”

Improvements in Bolivia have been no less dramatic. As a result of a four-fold increase in royalties and taxes, 80% of profits from extraction go to the government. This has led to a steep decline in income inequality, with Bolivia’s Gini index dropping from 0.56 to 0.47 in 2011.

Less well known are changes in Bolivia’s transportation infrastructure, which include a new municipal bus program and an outstanding urban cable car system called the Teleférico. Roughly 100,000 users go between La Paz and El Alto every day.

Why not extraction?

These very real advantages of extraction go hand-in-hand with major problems. Most overlooked is the inability of capitalism to separate producing goods that people need from the creation of gargantuan quantities of toxic junk that threaten humanity’s future.

A narrow focus on increasing extraction can result in the misguided belief that it is the only way to create jobs and wealth for poor countries. Becoming defensive about extractivist policies can lead to underestimating the poisoning of workers and communities.

Lithium shows how silent denial of negative effects can lend support to fake “green” options. No mineral is used in isolation. Its environmental and health consequences can only be measured accurately by evaluating the totality of its interaction with other substances and the social consequences of its being mined and used to expand consumerism. Dependence on any type of extraction leaves a country vulnerable, both to a sharp decline in market values and to effects of the mineral being exhausted or replaced by another substance.

The fundamental problem with policies of “pink tide” governments is not that extraction occurs but that extractivism as a method of obtaining wealth is increasing. In Bolivia, there is “intensified exploitation of the country’s natural resources, principally from fossil fuel production, mining, and the growth of large-scale, mono-crop agriculture”.

We all agree that extraction is required for producing life’s necessities. No one denies that a country that has been dependent on extraction for centuries cannot immediately wean itself. The “anti-extractivism” view is simply that activities such as mining should decrease, even if slowly. “Pro-extractivists” advocate that countries increase extraction rapidly, regardless of the consequences.


The most challenging question is whether increasing extraction today can lay the foundation for decreasing extraction tomorrow. According to the argument, increased revenue from extraction allows countries to diversify their economies into manufacturing and other areas, which leaves them less dependent on international capital. Ecuador’s director of planning and development Pablo Muñoz insists that “Reducing poverty is the government’s first priority, the second is changing the systems of production …”

Unfortunately, if the international price of an extracted commodity falls, a country focusing on extraction will have a difficult choice. In order to obtain the same return it will have to either lower wages or intensify the rate of mineral exploitation. Poor countries may not be as free from international financial institutions as is often implied.

Raul Zibechi documents that in June 2014, “Ecuador delivered half of its gold reserves to Goldman Sachs as collateral for a loan of $400 million dollars, thus a return to foreign financing, with no risk to the lender ...” Market forces can be devastating for forest protection. As the prices for commodities such as oil plunge, forest cover could be threatened by countries’ attempting to maintain economic growth by driving deeper into the jungle.

As of now, it seems highly dubious that a country can increase its addiction to resource extraction and wake up one morning with the addiction cured.

Exiting poverty

Many countries, especially Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, have used revenue from extraction to improve the quality of life of millions. But could there be other paths to the same goal? There are several interrelated questions:

1. Could there be enough wealth remaining in the hands of the richest 1% in “pink tide” countries to eliminate poverty by redistributing that wealth?

2. Could poverty be dramatically reduced by changing production to create what people need rather than manufacturing playthings for the rich?

3. Could poverty be dramatically reduced by redesigning manufacture to produce goods that endure rather than being designed to fall apart, fall out of fashion, or become obsolete?

4. Is there evidence that the amount of wealth added by extraction exceeds the value that should be subtracted by the tangible effects of poisoning land and people for centuries or millennia?

5. Is there evidence that wealth added by extraction exceeds the value that should be subtracted by the intangible effects of destroying native cultures and disrupting ecosystems for eternity?

For a rampant increase in resource extraction to be a viable policy, it would be necessary to demonstrate both that there are no economic alternatives and that the total improvements exceed the cost of increased illnesses, dislocations, human suffering, cultural extermination and species extinction.

Denial: economic reality

It is unfortunate when progressives deny (or ignore) obvious realities, such as there being limits on the amount of destruction that can occur before ecosystems and economic systems collapse. The usually knowledgeable Federico Fuentes claims that it is “ludicrous” to suggest that supporting extraction of fossil fuels by progressive governments means supporting burning them.

This extractivism denial makes it useful to review elementary economics.

1. If a country extracts fossil fuels to increase its income, it must sell those fuels.

2. In order to sell fossil fuels, the country must have a buyer.

3. Purchasers buy virtually all fossil fuels so that they can be burned.

4. Burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change.

When the Green Party of Greece first discussed merging into the left political party SYRIZA, it presented programmatic proposals that included “independence from fossil fuels within 20 years, addressing desertification by supporting forests, protection of fisheries ... SYRIZA accepted every one of the policies”. Two opposites could not be reconciled if SYRIZA-type governments spread throughout Europe and “pink tide” governments spread throughout poor countries. It makes no sense to advocate that some countries increase the production of fossil fuels in a world that desperately needs to reduce burning them.

Denial: climate change and the world’s poor

Climate change will lower food production. Many farms and coastal cities will disappear. Infrastructure will deteriorate. “The poor will face ever-increasing deprivation.” Most climate-related deaths “will be due to diminished food production, increased disease, heat waves, loss of employment, fires, floods and storms”.

Many of those in Latin America and the Caribbean will succumb to the spread of tropical diseases. Warming will likely increase not only well-known diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis. There are already over a 1 billion people who suffer “neglected tropical diseases” such as “river blindness” and dengue. These are mainly poor people in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. The horrendous plagues visited first upon the poor and then upon all of humanity are where climate change denial meets extractivism denial.

The very fabric of life could begin to unravel as ocean acidification and the “sixth great extinction” advance. We know that 80% of fossil fuels must stay in the ground if CO2 emissions are to raise temperatures less than 2°C. Otherwise, self-perpetuating and interconnected feedback loops will make the planet unbearable.

Denial often appears as a passive failure to address what climate change means for economic reorganisation. Extractivist programs designed to lift people out of poverty will almost certainly have environmental effects which grind them (or their descendents) into a vastly worse form of poverty.

Denial: struggle

Extractivism denial can take the form of trivialising efforts to challenge it. People across the globe are unfurling an incredible variety of tactics to oppose oil drilling, fracking, logging, land grabs, GMO monocultures, mining of coal, gold, uranium and many other types of extraction.

Some progressive extractivists heap scorn on genuine concerns. In a radio speech, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa emphasised “we will not let that childish left, with its feathers, its ponchos, destabilize the process of change”. Federico Fuentes believes that referring to “the enormity of movements” opposing extraction is “an exaggeration at best”. He says that Bolivia has many more protests over economic issues such as wages and basic services.

“Massive struggle” includes a massive power of ideas driving the struggle as well as a massive number of people who participate. In early struggles against US slavery, abolitionists were outnumbered by those seeking to ameliorate it. Abolitionists changed history—today, no one identifies with ameliorationism.

A few decades later, the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had 150,000 members at its high point while the reformist American Federation of Labor counted millions. The IWW occupies an “enormous” place in labour history because of its inspiration for a new society. In the late 1960s, Students for a Democratic Society had an enormous impact on halting US violence against Vietnam. The millions who voted for the Democratic Party had little to no effect.

When concerns over economic and environmental oppression merge with a common program for a better life in the future as well as now, their combined strength will be greater than either movement by itself. Right now, “it is the indigenous societies of the world, who are amongst the most oppressed, despised, ‘primitive’ and disadvantaged of all peoples, who are in the lead when it comes to ecological concern for the future of the planet”.

Clamping down

Many of the “pink tide” governments have been charged with silencing or manipulating opponents as they increase the rate of extraction. In particular, Rafael Correa is accused of centralising power by dividing social movements. In Ecuador, there are hundreds of indigenous leaders and activists charged with doing the same things as those who brought Correa to power.

Ben Dangl believes that there is a serious undermining of grassroots power in Bolivia. “A new Mining Law passed by the MAS-controlled congress … criminalizes protest against mining operations, and gives the mining industry the right to use public water for its water-intensive and toxic operations, while disregarding the rights of rural and farming communities to that same water.”

The government in Venezuela is admirably critical of US pressure, but not so much of its own oil extraction. When the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP20) planned to meet in Lima, Peru, in December, 2014, to adopt a toothless approach to climate change, the Venezuelan government invited 200 representatives to an alternative conference. Its method of reaching decisions was criticised as being top-down and ignoring views that could embarrass Venezuelan extractionism. The conference’s final document omitted the key demand of leaving 80% of fossil fuels in the ground and references to limiting global temperature rises.

The left may be strongly united in many struggles as long as a right-wing government is in power. Though distressing to many, it is hardly novel for the left to become divided when a progressive government takes the reins and some apologise for whatever mistakes that government makes.[1]

Remembering our spiritual grandparents

None of the leftist governments in Latin America has a perfect environmental record. Yet, the tremendous steps they have taken to overcome poverty and challenge US hegemony is something that progressives throughout the world support. It is no less vital to point out the very real problems that accompany increased resource extraction.

When first participating in anti-Vietnam War events, I remember older radicals claiming that to pull people out of poverty the USSR had to build nuclear power plants. Since it had abolished capitalism, nukes would be so safe that they could be built inside of big cities. Then there was Chernobyl. If the mistake of nukes reappears in the form of expanded resource extraction, history will not repeat itself as farce, but as catastrophic ecological devastation.

[Don Fitz is editor of Green Social Thought: A Magazine of Synthesis and Regeneration and produces Green Time TV in St. Louis, Missouri.]


1. One of the strongest supporters of extractivist governments is Federico Fuentes, whose position on opposition forces seems to vacillate. In a 2014 article he charged that countering pro-extractivism/anti-extractivism viewpoints “has been used to foster divisions”. After I quoted him in an article the same year, he responded that “surprisingly” I accused him of claiming that opposition forces were “divisive.” When I referred to his statement that “NGOs have been working to stoke rather than resolve tensions,” he responded that “Fitz falsely accuses me” of saying that opposition forces were “being ‘manipulated by anti-environmental NGOs.’” It is not clear if Fuentes has changed his position or does not remember what he previously wrote. See Fuentes (2014) and Fitz, D. (Fall, 2014). “Progressive Extractivism: Hope or Dystopia?” Green Social Thought, pp. 14–15.



Extractivism: An important and complex debate

The debate about the Latin American "pink tide" governments' relation to extractivism is complex. People write here on both sides of the issue making important points. Extractivism is really a problem for the whole world to solve, not just these few relatively poor economies. But given the dire consequences of extractivism (mainly, climate change) now threaten the wellbeing and survival of the current generation, in particular in the poorest countries. I don't think the stance of demanding the culpable rich countries take all the action is enough; the world needs leadership. Whether the domestic politics of any of these countries will permit them to take that leadership position I can't say, but we need all hands at the wheel now.

The Dead End of Extractivism

Extractivism can only ever be successful at allowing a tiny handful of countries escape from poverty, because it is only the scarcity of a resource that allows the State to tax it sufficiently to provide enough funds to abolish poverty in that particular country. If every poor country had oil to export, for example, oil would be dirt cheap and extractivism would provide no funds to divert to social causes.

The other problem with extractivism is that it is unsustainable. Every mineral resource on Earth is going to run out one day - and that day will be hastened considerably if extraction and use of those resources keeps increasing exponentially. Sooner or later, we have to give up on extraction and move to a 100% recycling economy. Because of this, the earlier we start decreasing extraction, the longer resources will last and the more gradual the transition to a recycling economy will be able to be.

I agree with the general

I agree with the general political stance of this article: I too think that "progressive" governments should be eschewing extractivism and pursuing social justice and environmentally-sound development policies instead. One of the worst examples of extractivism is in fact the gasoline subsidy in Venezuela, which cuts off a huge source of revenue to the government, leads to terrible problems with fuel smuggling and benefits the most the small minority that can afford cars. The price is a crazy 2 (US) cents a litre and is a major factor in the current problems facing the government. It now looks like this will be dealt with as a response to the current economic crisis, but it would have been much better if Chavez when he had the chance had stuck a big tax on petrol on environmental grounds (he could have used some of the proceeds to support public transport).

My criticism is that the discussion of lithium-ion batteries and extraction is technically lacking. Firstly, there is a link to an article on the health effects of lithium extraction which is chemically nonsense (talking about "lithium molecules" and lithium "gathering water resources", whatever that means). The article claims that lithium helps transport water across cell membranes, when this occurs largely by osmosis. In fact, it is not known what effect normally-encountered concentrations of lithium have and therapy (for the treatment of bipolar disorder, in the form of lithium carbonate) leads to concentrations that are 1000 times higher than usually found in the human body. This is not to deny that lithium extraction could harm miners, but that is something that could be dealt with by a strong union insisting on preventative measures.

It is also not right to claim that pollution in the manufacturing phase of lithium batteries overwhelms the pollution (carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates) saved in the batteries' use. This is even the case when the electricity source is mainly from fossil fuels. I stress that this "benefit" only happens when considering the whole life of the vehicle ( However - and this may be the reason for the comment in the article - a rapid changeover to electric vehicles would seriously increase GHG emissions, as the manufacturing phase causes the emission of five times as much CO2 as manufacturing standard cars - all due to the battery. So a much higher proportion of the pollution from electric vehicles is "front-loaded".

The other main problem with lithium for electric motor vehicles is that there is not enough of it - and that the attempts to use it for the world's cars will kick-start another huge, wasteful and polluting branch of industry which could only last a few decades. One car uses as much lithium as about 1000 laptops and there are at least 800 million cars in the world. This raises the question, rightly considered in the article, of whether in fact all these cars are needed, to which the answer is an emphatic no: the elimination of capitalist waste and urban blight will drastically reduce the requirement for cars (and for long working hours as well).

Finally, the observation in this article that lithium could be superseded in batteries is prescient and indicates the economic pitfalls of extractivism. Recently, an aluminium-based battery was invented: there is 4000 times as much aluminium in the earth's crust as there is lithium. That does not ease the environmental problems, though. Every year, the aluminium industry produces tens of millions of tonnes of highly alkaline "red mud" waste: in Hungary in 2010 a red mud pond collapsed, killing ten people and polluting 40 sq km of land.

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