Thacker Pass and the “Green” Mining Boom

By Max Wilbert

I sit perched atop a cliff, overlooking Thacker Pass in northern Nevada. The sun nears the horizon to the west. Mountains loom at my back and on the far side of the pass, in front of me. There are no trees — just endless sage rolling toward the horizon; this is the sagebrush ocean.

Discordant, a vision of the future flashes into sight. Bulldozer treads crush the sagebrush and churn the soil into mud. The sagebrush is replaced with a vast open pit. The growl of heavy machinery replaces the yips of coyotes. The glow of the milky way is drowned in the backwash of floodlights. Trickles of melting snow are replaced with trickles of sulfuric acid and toxic runoff from vast tailings heaps.

On January 15th, on the same day the Bureau of Land Management approved the Environmental Impact Statement for Lithium America’s proposed $1.4 billion open-pit lithium mine here, a small group of us established a protest camp to stop this vision from becoming reality. We mean to stop the mine, and so we have setup camp directly on the proposed site of the open-pit mine.

You might already be wondering, “Why are people protesting lithium? Isn’t it true that lithium is a key ingredient in the transition to electric cars, and moving away from fossil fuels? Shouldn’t people be protesting fossil fuels?”

I am a strong opponent of fossil fuels, and have fought against the industry for over a decade. I’ve fought tar sands pipelines, stopped coal trains, and personally climbed on top of heavy equipment to stop fossil fuel mining from going forward. In terms of the impact on the planet, there’s little difference between a lithium mine and an open-pit coal mine. Both require bulldozing entire ecosystems. Both use huge amounts of water. Both leave behind poisoned aquifers. Both are operated with heavy machinery fueled by diesel. The lithium mine here would burn more than 11,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day, and use sulfur from oil refineries as the key processing ingredient. And it would suck up more than 1.4 billion gallons of water per year.

And so, water protectors—the children of Standing Rock—converge.

Here at Thacker Pass, birds flit overhead, calling to each other, flying to their nests. The ears of a pygmy rabbit twitch in the shadow of a sagebrush. A kangaroo rat noses out of his burrow. This place is a critical migratory corridor for pronghorn antelope, and part of the best remaining habitat of the Greater sage-grouse, who hang on despite 97-99% of their population being lost. There is even an endemic species here – a rare snail who lives only in fourteen springs that burble up beneath the tall cliffs on this southern flank of the Montana Mountains.

I breathe deeply, and smell the wild scent of sage and snow on the west wind. 

The plan to destroy all of this life is the toxic fruit of the new green economy. Demand for lithium is driven largely by the growth in the electric vehicle (EV) market. GM, Telsa, Nisson, BMW, Jaguar — major car corporations all around the planet are investing heavily in EVs. The election of Biden has caused a boom in lithium mining stocks, fueling the industry with fresh infusions of cash.

Lithium Americas is a bi-partisan earth-destroyer, however; the Trump Administration fast-tracked this project, pushing through the permits despite serious opposition from local communities who are deeply worried about hundreds of semi-trucks traversing quiet country roads, toxic materials passing by the community school daily, wells going dry, meadows turning to dust, and what water remains being poisoned with arsenic, antimony, and uranium.

If the environmental movement will not oppose this, who will?

Global warming is a symptom, not the root of the problems we face. Any solutions that do not perceive this basic truth will be, at best, incomplete. At worst, they will perpetuate ecocide and drag us deeper into the 6th mass extinction event, as we see here.

The green economy is a continuation of the fossil-fuel powered war on the planet. And so, just as when colonizers arrived in this land in the 1850’s and began to cut down the pine-nut groves of the Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone, and used the wood to smelt silver and gold ore, armed men are coming to blow up the mountains, steal the water, and leave behind a toxic wasteland.

The methods of imperialism have grown more sophisticated. Where before, U.S. armies would simply invade a nation and take what they wanted, now imperialism is primarily economic. Military tools are more discreet: drone strikes, cruise missiles, special operations forces. So it goes with the war on the land. Our vision has been blinded by bright green lies, those most important tools of greenwashing.

What will our future look like? Will it be a fossil-fuel apocalypse? A solar-powered greenwashed dystopia? 

Or will we find a third way, a way to fundamentally change our culture of consumption, to abandon our energy addictions, to degrow our economy, to dethrone the technocrats of capitalism and dismantle the industrial war machine that decimates the planet? Will we find a way to adopt a more local way of life?

The answer to that question is up to us.

I do not know who will read this, but I do know that my heart rebels against the destruction of wild nature — my kin, these species who share the same DNA as you and me. My friend Will Falk says that “in defending the living planet, too often we ask ‘what can I do,’ rather than asking ‘what needs to be done?’” And so here we sit, asking “what must be done” to protect Thacker Pass — and by extension, the entire planet. Our fight against greenwashing has begun in earnest, here. Earth destroyers are relentless, so we must surpass them. Like at Standing Rock, we need people from all walks of life to rise to protect water and defend this place. 

This story is a signpost: peace between human beings first requires peace with the land; without peace with the land, conflict is almost inevitable. We can’t save the planet by destroying it. Transitioning away from fossil fuels and fixing humanity’s broken relationship with the planet will require a more critical approach. 



Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide. A third-generation dissident, he came of age in a family of anti-war and undoing racism activists in post-WTO Seattle, and 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, was released in March. Get involved and learn more about the campaign at https://ProtectThackerPass and by following #ProtectThackerPass on social media.