Vehicles of Extraction
By Paris Marx
After years of false starts, the electric vehicle (EV) finally seems to be picking up steam. Last year, the Biden administration announced ambitious targets to increase the adoption of EVs, along with funding for a number of measures aimed at making them more attractive to Americans. By 2030, the president wants half of all new vehicle sales to be electric. To encourage that, the government is providing financial incentives for drivers to buy them, installing new charging stations across the country, helping build the supply chain, and extending support to retool the factories that are manufacturing these supposed cars of the future.1 It’s a comprehensive plan for a large-scale effort, and industry seems to be on board.
In 1990, the California Air Resources Board mandated automakers to begin selling EVs, but after opposition from car companies, the oil industry, and the George W. Bush administration, it was reversed in 2003. This time, automakers seem to be taking the transition seriously. All the major companies are in the process of rolling out electric models and announcing ambitious targets for more, and some are even setting dates for the phase-out of the internal combustion engine that has powered our vehicles for the past century.
The oil industry won’t be happy to lose such a major source of demand, but the mining industry is eager to capitalize on the shift and use it to greenwash their extractive operations. EVs may not need to be filled with gas, but that doesn’t mean they’re clean, green driving machines. Their batteries are highly resource-intensive, requiring minerals from all over the world, and rising demand for EVs will produce a rush to increase extraction. Vehicle batteries account for much of the growth in mineral demand, and it won’t be extracted without serious consequences.
Following decades of delay, it’s refreshing to see political leaders finally beginning to recognize the climate crisis and the transportation sector’s contribution to it. But as interests converge around EVs, their environmental benefits are being exaggerated: the absence of tailpipe emissions is being used to paint them as a silver bullet for sustainable mobility and to distract from the many problems they don’t solve—and the new ones they’ll create.
In his influential work Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design Since 1880, the late British urban planner Peter Hall wrote that, “at the end of the 1920s, it was still possible to see the car as a benign technology.”2 The car had not yet cemented its dominance over North American streets, let alone those of Europe, and as a result its drawbacks were not immediately clear. Sprawling suburbs that enforced car dependency had not yet been built; automobile-produced air pollution caused by the mass adoption of cars was still decades away; cars were associated with touring instead of hours stuck in traffic; and their contribution to the climate crisis was an unimaginable concern. Still, their growing presence on city streets prompted a backlash.
When the automobile emerged, it found itself in competition with trains, streetcars, carriages, bicycles, and people’s own legs as the means for people to get around. Cars allowed drivers to go faster than other road users, but as they intruded into shared streets with rules and norms adapted to lower speeds, the death toll began to mount. In Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, historian Peter Norton documented that by the 1920s the disproportionate numbers of children and young women killed by cars spurred protests, demonstrations, and attempts to limit the speed and capabilities of automobiles. Ultimately, however, such efforts were not successful in halting the car’s takeover of the mobility system.
As automobile sales grew, and especially following the Second World War, a strong lobby formed that favored remaking communities and transportation infrastructure to facilitate—or even enforce—the mass adoption of the automobile. The automotive industry was at the forefront of this effort, but so were its suppliers (most notably the oil industry) and the new businesses that relied on the automobile. Meanwhile, suburban expansion served real estate developers, and the construction industry prospered with all the homes, roads, and highways that needed to be built. As these industries generated employment, particularly unionized manufacturing jobs, labor groups also got on board as the government subsidized the buildout of the automotive city and changed everything from tax policy to the legal code to encourage people to become motorists.
As the fossil fuel industry that powers our vehicles is responsible for environmental catastrophes, it becomes clear that we should rethink our dependence on the personal vehicle and our decision to build our communities in ways that force people to drive.
Manufacturing automobiles created jobs, building infrastructure generated economic activity, and the suburbs provided a means of wealth creation for certain segments of the population. However, there were and remain many drawbacks to mass automobility and the subsequent virtual abandonment of other forms of transportation across much of the United States. A significant decline in road deaths achieved in the early 2000s has been virtually wiped out. They’ve been soaring in recent years, reaching their highest number since 2005 with 42,915 deaths in 2021.3 On top of that, the air pollution generated by motor vehicles is estimated to cause an additional 53,000 premature deaths every year.4 Before the COVID-19 pandemic, commute times were actually getting longer as drivers spent more time in traffic and were forced to move further away from work due to soaring home prices.5 All that time behind the wheel also has detrimental effects on people’s health.6
Beyond the human cost, car ownership also has a high financial cost for the driver. In 2021, the American Automobile Association estimated that someone buying a new vehicle would pay an average of $9,666 every year when all the costs were accounted for. The bill is even higher for owners of trucks and SUVs, and it has soared as fuel prices have gone through the roof in early 2022.7 Even more crucial is the fact that transportation accounts for 27 percent of total emissions in the United States, while the fossil fuel industry that powers our vehicles is responsible for environmental catastrophes the world over,8 and it becomes clear that we should rethink our dependence on the personal vehicle and our decision to build our communities in ways that force people to drive. But the big question right now is whether focusing narrowly on electrification will enable us to achieve the necessary transformation.
EVs for the Few
When politicians and corporate leaders talk about EVs, it’s common for them to refer to the vehicles as “zero-emissions,” making them seem like the obvious solution to the climate impact of automobiles. But this conflates the lack of tailpipe emissions with an overall absence of emissions. The language is intentionally designed to mislead the public about the bargain we’re signing up for, leaving us in the dark about how little will really be solved by electrifying the vehicle fleet.
I want to be explicit about this point: in the vast majority of cases, the lifecycle emissions of an EV will be less than an internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV), but they may not always be as much lower as we expect. When an EV rolls off the assembly line, its emissions are higher than that of an ICEV because the production of its battery is an emissions-intensive process. After a certain number of miles driven, the lifecycle emissions of the vehicle will fall below that of an equivalent ICEV—the specific number depends on many factors, including the efficiency of the vehicle, the initial emissions profile of the battery, and whether the battery is being charged on a grid powered by fossil fuels or renewables.
However, the EV rollout has faced an important problem: many early EVs, particularly the much-hyped status symbols sold by Tesla, haven’t accumulated enough miles to make up for its higher initial emissions. For the most part, EVs are expensive, so many of the early buyers have been high-income individuals who do not use them as their primary vehicles. Not only were those wealthy drivers the beneficiaries of subsidies aimed at reducing the price of EVs, but since the vehicle’s real benefits come from replacing the miles driven in someone’s primary ICEV, they aren’t delivering the environmental benefits that we would expect.
The International Energy Agency estimates that the demand for minerals used in batteries will soar by 2040, including by up to 1,900 percent for nickel, 2,100 percent for cobalt, and 4,200 percent for lithium.
Norway is often held up as the standard-bearer for the EV transition, but when researchers at the University of Sussex and Aarhus University spoke to experts in the Nordic countries, they encountered significant concerns about the equity of the policy. One of the experts explained, “In the beginning, I thought the negative reactions to Teslas was [sic] related to envy or jealousy. But after thinking more about it, it’s a rational and emotional reaction. Why should we lose a lot of money for rich people getting a cheap, expensive, luxury car?” Another told the researchers that Tesla drivers have a high income, yet a Tesla Model X owner received subsidies equivalent to 30,000 trips on the bus or subway in 2016, showing just how much more the wealthy Tesla owner was valued above transit riders.9
Electrification will be a key part of any transportation policy that aims to significantly reduce emissions, but the decision to place so much emphasis on electric personal vehicles and to distract consumers from their drawbacks—if not outright deny them—is financially and politically motivated. Many of the same interests that promoted the automobile in its early years now see a potential benefit in a relatively swift transition to EVs and the expectation that people replace their existing vehicles on an accelerated timeline.
The auto industry will profit from selling millions of new vehicles, and there’s an expectation that will create new manufacturing employment as companies scale up production. Those industrial jobs are likely to be unionized, a bonus for politicians when they hit the campaign trail. Then there’s the manufacture of the batteries and the extraction of all the minerals that will go into creating them—which will be a boon for the mining industry.
The International Energy Agency estimates that the demand for minerals used in batteries will soar by 2040, including by up to 1,900 percent for nickel, 2,100 percent for cobalt, and 4,200 percent for lithium.10 That will mean the expansion of existing mines and the opening of new ones, and thus major profits for international mining companies. The push to move supply chains to North America and Europe is already spurring protests to stop extractive projects with human and environmental consequences. But the majority of the mining will continue to occur in the Global South, where the externalities will be out of sight and mind for Western consumers.
For example, EVs recently overtook smartphones as the biggest source of demand for cobalt, representing 34 percent of the global total.11 Most cobalt continues to be extracted from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and even though Elon Musk has talked about experimenting with cobalt-free batteries, Tesla signed a deal with mining giant Glencore in 2020 for cobalt to supply its German and Chinese factories.12 Cobalt extraction in the DRC has produced enormous harm to the environment, the miners, and the surrounding communities. Tesla was one of several companies sued by the families of children who were killed or injured while mining cobalt in the DRC, including at mines controlled by Glencore.13
A truly sustainable world will require us to reckon not just with our emissions but with the broader harm and injustice that has arisen from our capitalist system.
Lithium is another of the minerals necessary to the electric transition, and while there are efforts to increase its extraction in North America and Europe, much of the future supply is likely to come from the salt flats of South America, where existing developments already threaten the water supplies of local communities without sharing the benefits. The governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Mexico are seeking to secure national control over their lithium supplies so that revenues may be used to improve living conditions for their citizens, rather than just padding the bottom lines of multinational mining companies. Unsurprisingly, global capitalist forces, which have long reaped the rewards, are mobilizing to secure their interests.
A Just Mobility Transition
In 2019, Bolivian president Evo Morales fled the country after false allegations of electoral irregularities, which he later called a “lithium coup” by US-backed interests looking to gain control over the country’s reserves of the mineral. Musk added fuel to the fire when he tweeted, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.” In truth, it’s highly unlikely that Morales was deposed over lithium, but the event and its broader context does point to the power struggles in a resource-intensive transition to supposedly “clean” technologies.
The wealth of the global North has long depended on the colonial and imperial subjugation of the rest of the world to extract resources and accumulate riches. The auto industry, with its vast supply chains, is no stranger to this history. Yet as we face the need to reassess not just how we move, but the larger social and economic structures through which we move, we have an opportunity to build an environmentally sustainable world that transcends those historical precedents. The future being pushed by the automotive industry, the mining industry, and the political leaders who want to perpetuate the status quo will do no such thing. A mobility transition that merely replaces ICEVs with EVs will maintain imperialist extraction from the South to serve the North, just with some tinkering for a different resource mix.
A truly sustainable world will require us to reckon not just with our emissions but with the broader harm and injustice that has arisen from our capitalist system. This in turn will compel us to challenge automobility, as well as the physical environment we’ve built to support it, at a much more fundamental level. Instead of obliging everyone to buy their own vehicle at great human, financial, and environmental cost so that businesses can enrich their owners and shareholders, the state needs to make serious investments that allow us to escape our forced dependence on the automobile. People tend to forget the massive commitment that forced an earlier generation into cars and out to the suburbs: that energy now needs to be channeled into reversing those mistakes.
If we want to get serious about solving climate change and global inequality, we need collective mobility solutions that center reliable and affordable public transit, while ensuring people can safely and conveniently choose to take their bike instead of owning a car. But we also need to think beyond mobility to the communities we live in, locating services within a reasonable distance of our homes and keeping housing affordable so we can live in dense, vibrant neighborhoods without having to worry about landlords and speculators sending costs through the roof. Realizing such a vision requires more than investment; it forces us to transform the economic structures that profit global capitalists, replacing them with structures that support a good life for all.