SIXTEEN MILLION YEARS AGO, a volcano erupted over the Yellowstone hotspot near the present-day border of Oregon and Nevada. The blast expelled 1,000 cubic kilometers of rhyolite lava as the land collapsed into a 30-mile-long, keyhole-shaped caldera. Magma, ash, and other sediments entered the keyhole, and for the next million years the clay-rich land rose and reformed like bread dough in a proofing drawer. Water mixed with the clay, bringing to Earth’s surface a swirl of chemical elements like uranium, mercury, and another metal that, when isolated and cut, shines silvery white — lithium.
Today, above ground, the McDermitt Caldera is a remote landscape of rocky outcrops, high-desert plateaus, and meadows of wild rye. As in much of the Great Basin, desert plants fill the “currents, tides, eddies, and embayments” of this “sagebrush ocean,” as writer Stephen Trimble once described it. Lithium rests beneath this dynamic sea.
On the southwest edge of the caldera, in Humboldt County, Nevada, nestled between the Double H Mountains to the south and the Montana range to the north, Thacker Pass rides the crest of a sagebrush wave. The pass is a corridor for herds of migrating pronghorn and mule deer. Overhead, golden eagles hunt for kangaroo rats. Below, greater sage grouse perform their mating dance. In the nearby springs and drainages, an endemic snail called the Kings River pyrg and the imperiled Lahontan cutthroat trout persist on precious water.
And on the chainlink fence of a small weather reading station, in the middle of this ancient place, a banner flaps in the wind: PROTECT THACKER PASS.
On January 15, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a lithium mine at Thacker Pass, the site of the largest known lithium deposit in the United States. Through its subsidiary Lithium Nevada, Vancouver-based Lithium Americas plans to dig a 1,000-acre open-pit mine to tap into the estimated $2.6-billion resource over the next 45 years.
The same day the BLM released its decision, Max Wilbert and Will Falk packed camping gear, firewood, tire chains, and a month’s worth of food and stove fuel, and hightailed it the 450 miles from Wilbert’s cabin outside of Eugene, Oregon, to northern Nevada. They hung signs and set up camp in the middle of the proposed pit, and planned to stay until the construction crews came.
“I just don’t believe we can save the planet by blowing it up.”
“It’s clear this place is on the chopping block, and we can’t let it go unopposed,” Wilbert told me as he and Falk walked me around the perimeter of the future mine. It was late February, and our boots crunched through a thin layer of ice that had formed on the mine’s access road. Coyotes howled from across the pass.
Wilbert, a wilderness guide and grassroots organizer, and Falk, an attorney and essayist, have a history of occupying threatened places. From the Unist’ot’en pipeline protest camps in British Columbia to the tar sands of the Tavaputs Plateau in eastern Utah, they’ve blockaded oil wells, gas pipelines, water pumps — any corporate abuse of natural resources. Lithium mining, however, represents a new wave of corporate extraction — one driven by a surge in demand for the “white gold” required to produce lithium-ion batteries. These batteries make possible electric vehicles and green energy storage — two major components of the transition to a green energy economy.
But at Thacker Pass, Wilbert and Falk — and a growing list of ranchers, farmers, tribal members, and environmentalists — have argued that this transition to a clean energy future has, so far, been anything but clean, or just. They assert that the mining industry is simply greenwashing old practices and exploiting the political climate that favors green energy, while using the laws that have enabled dispossession and destroyed environments for over a century. Their struggle also highlights a conundrum green energy proponents are grappling with: From catalytic convertors to photovoltaic solar panels and more, most of the low-carbon technologies deemed necessary for a green energy transition need non-renewable natural resources — metals like lithium, copper, platinum, and rare earth minerals — for their hardware. This means that so far it has been impossible to decouple these technologies from mining, which by its very nature is ecologically destructive.
“I used to believe that [renewable energy] technology was like fairy dust that would save the world,” said Wilbert. We walked up to the edge of a pit the size of a swimming pool, where Lithium Americas had already started testing its extraction methods. “I just don’t believe we can save the planet by blowing it up.”
SOON AFTER THE RISING SUN hit the Double H, I unzipped my frosted sleeping bag and made my way to the campfire. Wilbert was already up, making himself coffee at a wood pallet table loaded with kitchenware. The up-tempo reggae of Everton Blender played from a small speaker. “It must be warm where they recorded this,” another camper muttered from his unkempt beard as he held his hands to the fire, attempting to shake off the cold after the 15-degree Fahrenheit night.
At that time, five weeks into the protest, eight campers were sleeping in tents and vehicles atop Thacker Pass — all part of a rolling roster of activists who had come to the pass from all around the West, for various reasons. “I just wanted to see this place before it was destroyed,” one camper from Montana told me by the fire.
It was apparent from talking with Wilbert, however, that his fight is bigger than Thacker Pass alone. Wilbert was “politically schooled” as a teenager in Seattle in 1999, when tens of thousands of labor union activists, socialists, and anarchists clashed with police outside a conference of the World Trade Organization, and “revolutionary politics were spreading through the city.” Since then, he’s remained staunchly critical of a system heavily influenced by Wall Street. “We’re living in a time of environmental genocide,” he said. “Governments and corporations are not only failing but actively accelerating us further into a crisis.”
Falk, too, shares Wilbert’s ardent distrust for the status quo. In 2017, he and other attorneys filed the first federal rights-of-nature lawsuit in the United States, seeking personhood for the Colorado River. Falk’s team withdrew the lawsuit under threat of sanctions by the Colorado Attorney General, who described it as “frivolous.” Since then, he’s decided that a nonviolent direct-action approach — physically blocking development — is his best strategy.