Thacker Pass Dispatches: Electric Cars Won’t Save the Planet. Direct Action Will.

The ecological foundations of life on this planet are crumbling, and more cars are not the answer.


I used to believe that electric cars would save the planet. Like so many others, I saw the TV commercials. A family rolled smoothly through green forests in their shiny electric car. The air was fresh, the car was spotless, the people were happy. Global warming was nothing but a memory. It seemed like human and nature were in perfect harmony.

Like all advertising, of course, this was a lie. The marketing campaign to convince us all that electric cars are good for the planet has been incredibly effective. But in reality, there isn’t evidence for this.

Consider this: no country has seen a decline in carbon emissions attributed to adoption of electric cars. In fact, as electric car use has grown over the past decade, global carbon emissions have grown as well.

The obvious retort is that this is correlation not causation. But I believe there is a strong causal link. The logic is simple: electric cars are expensive luxury items that are only affordable for the wealthiest 10% of the global population — even accounting for government subsidies. The average new electric car costs $55,600, according to Car and Driver Magazine. That’s almost $20k more than the average new gas-fueled car (which are also expensive luxury items).

Still don’t believe a car is a luxury good?

How about this: average per capita global income is about $4,000, which means the average person on the planet would have to work for 14 years to afford an electric car, assuming they don’t spend a dime on clothing, food, rent, medical, or anything else during that time.

For most of our existence on this planet, we didn’t have cars. Go back a generation, or two, or three, and your own ancestors didn’t have cars. The vast majority of people in the world – more than 6 billion — do not own a car today.

Cars are optional luxury products. And every new car, electric or otherwise, that is produced comes with a long trail of ecological destruction. Follow each part of a car – tires, hubcaps, brakes, mirrors, steering wheel, motor, frame — back to its origin. You will find poisoned rivers, bulldozed forests, toxified air, and dynamited mountains.

Take the iron ore which is the raw precursor to the steel in the frame of the vehicle. The largest iron ore mine is located in the heart of the Amazon rainforest and is responsible for thousands of square miles of deforestation, among many other atrocities. And we should never forget that steel manufacturing requires coal — not as an energy source, but as a chemical additive in the alloying process. That’s right: the frame of your electric car is made partly of coal — and those greenhouse gases still end up in the atmosphere, making the steel industry one of the biggest polluters on the planet.

Oil and gas is also used to create the plastic products used for the interior trim, dashboard, foam seats, seatbelts, and other parts of all cars, electric or otherwise.

Then you have the issue of carbon emissions. A few months ago, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda said that “the more EVs [electric vehicles] we build, the worse carbon dioxide gets.” This reflects the simple reality is the vast majority of the energy consumed on this planet – more than 84% – comes from oil, gas, and coal. Only about 5% comes from “renewable” energy sources (which have their own serious associated ecological problems) and that number includes biofuels — the practice of cutting down forests, shredding them, and burning them. Hydropower and nuclear account for the remainder, and are two of the most destructive human technologies ever invented.

This means that the more cars that are produced, electric or otherwise, the more of Planet Earth — our home, and the only known habitable planet — is destroyed. Carbon is not the only harm caused by car culture. Far from it. That is why I oppose not only fossil-fuel powered cars, but also electric cars.

We don’t need cars. We do need clear air, water, and food. Consider this: two thirds of the oxygen on the planet is produced by plankton, and global plankton populations are collapsing to the tune of more than 40% in the last several decades.

For 18 days, I have been camped out in winter conditions at 5,225 feet in northern Nevada, protesting against a proposed open-pit lithium mine here as part of a group called “Protect Thacker Pass.” We have experienced 50 mph winds, single-digit temperatures, a three-day blizzard, equipment failures, and the Bureau of Land Management threatening us with fines.

The irony of the BLM threatening to fine us under a law designed to protect the land and stop squatters from setting up shop is not lost on me. They make these threats on land they have condemned to total destruction for half a century.

Lithium Americas, the corporation that plans to bulldoze and dynamite 5,695 acres of old-growth sagebrush steppe here at Thacker Pass, is doing so to make a profit by destroying a mountainside to produce expensive luxury goods.

Like other extractive corporations and their well-paid corporate sponsors, Lithium Americas has set themselves against life on this planet. Their profitable delusions are more important to them than Greater sage-grouse than clean water than the biological integrity of the only planet known to support life. As the saying goes, only when the last tree has been felled will they realize they cannot eat money. Or lithium.

Some argue “but aren’t electric cars better? Isn’t this a way to reduce the damage?”

The answer is clearly no. Electric cars do not harm the planet any less than gas or diesel vehicles, they simply cause a different sort of harm: instead of the Gulf Oil Spill, we have the bulldozing of an increasingly rare desert habitat. A wound is a wound is a wound.

Out here on the mountainside, my friends and I have taken to repeating the saying that “the planet will not be saved from the couch.” What we mean is that direct action will be required.

The term “direct action” was first widely used by the revolutionary union IWW, or the Industrial Workers of the World, in 1910. It refers to the practice of working directly to achieve social change, rather than using politically-mediated methods such as voting or petitions.

Direct action calls for people to take matters into their own hands, and its power lies in its ability to get results. As the saying goes, “direct action gets the goods.” But this is an oversimplification. In any given campaign, a range of different actions could be considered ‘direct action.’ Some people use the term to refer purely to non-violent direct action, mostly various methods of blockades, disruptions, and sit-ins. But people’s history is a long chronicle of direct action—most of it much more radical and militant than modern conceptions of direct action.

Image provided by Max Wilbert

The greedy shareholders and executives of Lithium Americas corporation will not rest until they have made their billions. In other words, they will not leave this place alone unless they are forced to do so. Direct action provides a framework for us to force them to stop.

The pre-eminent theorist of non-violent conflict, Gene Sharp, describes non-violence as a form of warfare. As in violent war, there is a matching of forces; there is strategy; there is confrontation.  How else would you describe open-pit mining but as a war on the living planet, complete with explosives?

The dominant culture has long been waging a war against the living planet. The battle for Thacker Pass is just one fight in this war. The reality is, if we are successful in stopping these men, the government will send armed men. How is this different from the colonization of these lands in the mid-1800s? Men with guns come for the mountains. The story remains the same.

Our task, then, is clear. It is to stand for the forests, the sagebrush, the grouse, and the oceans who cannot fight for themselves. It is to be a voice for the voiceless — or at least, for those whose voices are ignored (you cannot spend long on the mountainside, under the cries of the golden eagles, and say they do not speak). Our task is to defend this place and to ensure, as my friend Derrick Jensen has written, that this war will have two sides.

Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, co-authored with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, will be released in March.

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.

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