The world needs lithium but Princeton should not be profiting from environmental destruction and the desecration of sacred Indigenous lands at the Thacker Pass Mine
Until August 10th, 2022, Princeton University was the fourth-largest single investor in Lithium Americas Corporation, owning 2.4 million shares worth more than $70 million. Princeton has now sold 90% of those shares but still holds approximately $4,00,000 worth of the stock. Lithium Americas is about to build the Thacker Pass lithium mine despite its track record of community abuse, environmental destruction, and violation of the principles of free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous communities in the vicinity of its mine in Argentina.
Thacker Pass is a sacred site that has been occupied by Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone people since time immemorial. The mine threatens a massacre site where Paiute men, women, children, and elders were killed by the U.S. Army in an attack in 1865. Native people have said "destroying this place is like bulldozing Arlington National Cemetery" and have been fighting to protect the site.
Moving away from high energy consumption is a fundamental part of saving the planet but it is not enough. The climate crisis and the existential threat it poses to the entire planet mean that we need lithium for batteries and we need it urgently, not just for private electric vehicles but also for public buses, wind turbines, post office vans, grid storage, communication and multiple other elements of the decarbonization which is finally getting off the ground.
But lithium mining needs to be done in a new way - not like the centuries of extractive resource exploitation which brought us to this point. The least environmentally damaging method of lithium extraction should be the default now, even if that comes with a higher price tag. Research into new technology to extract lithium must be underwritten by the lithium industry. Intensive research and development of related materials like graphene that hold the promise of dramatically increasing the efficiency of lithium batteries is essential. At the same time, the recycling of lithium from used batteries all over the world needs to be ramped up immediately.
On the ground, local communities must benefit materially everywhere lithium has been, is being or will be mined. Environmental standards need to be the maximum for water and land protection, not the minimum. Consultation is not consent. Indigenous communities and other local residents must be heard. Sacred sites must be respected. Profits must be set aside for remediation, not dividends. Intensive training and jobs should be offered to the local population and man camps should be prohibited.
No one wants a lithium mine in their backyard but for planetary survival we all need lithium right now. The people who should be compensated are the people sharing their backyards to help us all move towards a just, green future. Investors like Princeton should not be making a profit off of lithium mining - that money should be ploughed back into the community – into environmental safeguards, local benefits and the search for less destructive paths to decarbonization. Lithium Americas is not committed to new, safer and more environmentally responsible methods nor is it engaging with the community most directly impacted. Princeton must divest fully from Lithium Americas Corporation.
August 17, 2022