Environment Foreign Policy Media Criticism Teddy Ostrow

WSJ Sells Lithium Neocolonialism as Climate Necessity

Lithium mining in Northern Chile by Andrew O’Brien. Via Flickr

By Teddy Ostrow / FAIR

True to its name, the Wall Street Journal never fails to lay bare its corporate sympathies. In a recent feature headlined “The Place With the Most Lithium is Blowing the Electric-Car Revolution” (8/10/22), the Journal warps anti-neoliberal and Indigenous resistance to ecological destruction and resource plundering into pesky obstacles to green capitalist innovation.

The Wall Street Journal (8/10/22) underexposes its photos of a lithium mine in Chile—the way corporate media traditionally indicate a socialist dystopia.

The story is one of corporate tragedy: The so-called “Lithium Triangle,” a region that covers parts of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, is flush with the white metal that is integral to electric vehicle (EV) and battery production. But EV companies don’t have the full access they want, as Indigenous groups and leftist governments resist these foreign multinationals from taking the spoils and harming the environment while they do it.

‘A major bottleneck’

Reporter Ryan Dube deserves credit for quoting one Indigenous leader and one environmentalist about their concerns with lithium production in the region. These South American Indigenous populations reside in what climate justice groups have termed sacrifice zones, or what Thea Riofrancos (Logic12/7/19) has called the “extractive frontiers of the energy transition.” Lithium production in places like Chile’s Salar de Atacama induce water shortages, threatening the environment’s biodiversity and the livelihoods of those surrounding the salt flats—and often in breach of Indigenous peoples’ right to prior consultation and consent.

Thea Riofrancos (Logic12/7/19) critiques “‘green extractivism’: the subordination of human rights and ecosystems to endless extraction in the name of ‘solving’ climate change.”

But these quotations and brief descriptions are eclipsed by pro-production voices, and language describing their resistance as “setbacks,” or a “challenge” to the “battery makers [who] desperately need” the lithium. We are told that the resistance is “stifling” production. That production has “suffered” as leftist governments seek “greater control over the mineral and a bigger share of profits.”

The muted treatment of Indigenous and environmental groups’ concerns works to reduce the “Lithium Triangle” to just that—its lithium. Indeed, the article warns that the entire South American continent could become “a major bottleneck” for the EV industry.

According to the Journal, the collection of countries that compose this “Saudi Arabia of lithium” are not equipped to reap their own land’s valuable resources. The article quotes Benjamin Gedan, acting director of the Latin American program at the US government-funded Wilson Center think tank (who FAIR—4/30/19—noted in 2019 expressed support for regime change in Venezuela):

Latin America specializes in killing golden geese, and one of the quickest ways to do so is through resource nationalism…. This boom could very quickly turn to bust if bad policies are brought forward.

This narrative is as patronizing as it is old. European colonists justified their genocidal conquest of the American continents by claiming Indigenous peoples weren’t properly using the lands they were living on. Today, EV companies and sympathetic analysts claim entitlement to South America’s lithium reserves because its emergent leftist governments won’t cede control of the resource to Western capital interests.

‘Ultimate cautionary tale’

The latest corporate worry is on Chile’s election last year of leftist President Gabriel Boric, who seeks to create a state lithium company to compete with private corporations. The country’s proposed rewrite of its dictatorship-era constitution (FAIR.org8/1/22) also has multinationals biting their nails, as it would expand Indigenous and environmental rights over mining.

Indeed, the Chilean popular uprisings in 2019 that prompted the country’s ongoing reforms were in part driven by the inequality and harm caused by the nation’s two private lithium producers—one of which has been run by the billionaire son-in-law of the former dictator Augusto Pinochet (Bloomberg6/23/22).

But Gedan and the Journal crown Bolivia, the country with the largest proportion of Indigenous people in South America, as the “ultimate cautionary tale” for resource nationalism. The article notes Bolivia’s lackluster lithium production since its former president Evo Morales nationalized the industry in 2008, with hopes to eventually make the country a battery and EV manufacturer itself.

Missing from the history lesson were the barriers Morales’ socialist government faced as a Global South country subjected to economic underdevelopment as a commodity exporter for richer nations. Most recently, that included the right-wing, US-backed coup of Morales’ government in 2019 (FAIR.org11/15/19), which—though contested—some believe was driven by multinational corporations who opposed his administration’s lithium production policies (Jacobin10/7/20). In any case, the coup illustrated the ruthlessness with which the US rejects Latin American governments that dare question Western control over their political and economic systems.

Evo Morales (Jacobin10/7/20): “The coup was directed against us and for our natural resources, for lithium.”

The Journal’s Dube also seemed to forget that the Morales government’s nationalization of hydrocarbons played a key role in the country cutting poverty by 42% and extreme poverty by 60% (CEPR, 10/17/19), among other internationally praised achievements. Indeed, Morales’ plans for an EV and battery industry in the country was a means to break its dependency on its highly successful state hydrocarbon sector.

Revolution for whom?

Most curiously missing, however, is critical discussion of the so-called “electric-vehicle revolution” the headline warns South America is “blowing.” A revolution for what? Electric vehicles for whom?

The piece fails to describe the alleged importance of EVs in mitigating the climate crisis. The word “climate” isn’t even used once. While lithium mining will be critical to putting the brakes on the climate catastrophe, it is debatable whether a revolution of individual electric cars will be our savior—rather than, say, a more equitable and much less resource-consumptive expansion of public transportation (Jacobin6/10/22).

But perhaps the absence of climate context is truer to the motives of EV companies’ race for Latin America’s golden geese, wrecking environments and lives in the process: corporate profits.

Emergent leftist governments in South America are resisting Western corporations’ meddling because they know that the communities most directly impacted by lithium mining won’t be the ones driving the Teslas at the end of the supply chain. The “revolution” was never for Latin America.

Western multinationals and their boosters at the Journal may long for a return to the “open veins of Latin America,” as Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano described the region’s outflowing plunder by colonial and neocolonial powers. They may view violating Indigenous rights and destroying ecosystems as the costs of doing business.

Open Veins of Latin America, by Eduardo Galeano

But the Indigenous groups and anti-neoliberal movements fighting to keep those veins closed—or open on their own terms—are not the obstacles. The Wall Street Journal shouldn’t frame them as such.

Teddy Ostrow
Teddy Ostrow

Teddy Ostrow is a freelance writer, editor, factchecker and former intern at FAIR. You can follow him on Twitter at @teddyostrow.

8 comments

  1. If we humans find a way to continue “business as usual”, i.e… never ending growth and profit, we will destroy what’s left of the only planet we have and become just another extinct species.

    Climate change is but one symptom of many, all of which are existential in nature, of overshoot. There are presently at a minimum … six billion too many of us inhabiting this planet.

    I have a feeling that this will not end well for our species. I do not see anything being done that actually matters, and we are out of time to begin.

    1. Thanks for stating what will be seen in retrospect (if there is anyone to retrospect) as the most important realization in human history: that humans are part of, and dependent on natural systems.

      There are a few rare exceptions, but it seems that few people fully appreciate how antagonistic our relationship with the biosphere is, and how much irreversible damage has already been done, much less the ramifications there of.

      I suppose we can’t blame people raised in a society mostly cut off from nature, but that will be of little comfort as humanity faces severe resource crises.

  2. It’s outrageous that the US’s foreign policy makers think it’s outrageous that anyone would call out their “doctrine” that contends every resource on earth automatically belongs to them. The rest of the world should simply not allow any Americans near their resources. (Elon Musk, too, thinks he can disregard any claims by indigenous people that they have a right to their own lithium. He has said as much.)

  3. The first wave of European conquest that opened the veins of Latin America by the conquistadores was sanctified by the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. This second wave is being conducted by the sons and daughters of the colonizers who, too, were sanctified to murder the indigenous heathens and steal their land by the Doctrine.

  4. Technologies pushed by Wall Street globalists are solely
    those of greedy profit, monopolistic control and technocratic enslavement programmatically obstructing or denying access to basic human needs.

    If they did serve people it would have been 99% less pain and suffering in this world and societies would have been more self-governed , more self-sustainable, more equal, more equitable and and much more egalitarian fulfilling basic human needs we all have like healthy food, safe shelter, companionship and individual and collective creativity. That’s all we as human beings really need. Everything else is brainwashed bullshit.

    Globalization of capital is epitomizing political and economic dependence that borders slavery denying basic need of individual and collective community; full autonomy and self determination.

    Do we need cars any type cars gas or electric ? No we don’t really need them.

    Appropriate Urban planning of local economically self sustainable communities with full socioeconomic integration would reduce need for human travel and goods movement by 99%. Moreover, result of human centered community Urban design aimed at maximizing proximity of people, production and services like learning, healthcare etc., remote communication can easily reduced by 99%.

    So we don’t even need all those stupid smartphones either.

    Native peoples all over the world should not give an inch to those fat globalist pigs of Wall Street who want to destroy millions of native lives and their self sustainable habitat to steal from them what rest of us really don’t want or need.

    Unfortunately people’s who advanced this kind of sustainability focused on human needs are smeared as terrorists and dangerous radicals and sent to prison or killed as they are truly enemies of murderous globalists.

  5. Well, that’s what capitalism does. Bernie Sanders told everyone how it’s done when he said it’s all about collusion. Rich men sit in conference rooms looking at charts and maps and reports that tell them where things are that they might want. Then, they make plans to get what they want. They’ve been doing it for centuries upon centuries all over the world. They did for well over 300 years to have the property we call the US. I’ve seen it with my own eyeballs, and it’s pretty horrifying.

    I don’t know why we bother to analyze all the different ways they do this apart from us being helpless to change it, and we have to talk about something. Plus, some people make money talking about it endlessly. Critiquing the depravity is a job in the depravity, occupied by the supposedly “good” guys in the society.

    From the outside looking in, it all appears to be one thing to me. The critics are not the enemies of the capitalist death machine, they are the same family fighting among themselves in an ever expanding problem that won’t end until we’re all dead, which will be soon.

  6. there is a false implication in this—there is no difference between WSJ position and that of the ordinary Americans

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