keywords: economics, natural resources, reportage
The problems created by humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels are widely appreciated, and governments and businesses are now pursuing renewable energy and electric vehicles as the solution. Less appreciated is that this new infrastructure will require the mining of vast amounts of metals, creating different problems. In Volt Rush, Financial Times journalist Henry Sanderson gives a well-rounded and thought-provoking exposé of the companies and characters behind the supply chain of foremost the batteries that will power the vehicles of the future. If you think a greener and cleaner world awaits us, Volt Rush makes it clear that this is far from a given.
As Sanderson explains in his introduction, his aim in writing this book is to equip readers with the background knowledge needed to ask critical questions regarding our transition away from fossil fuels. Without it, we risk falling prey to feel-good narratives and corporate greenwash. Though not apparent from the title and flap text, Sanderson focuses on four metals important in the batteries of electric vehicles. Lithium is one of the substances that will be in high demand, and I am reviewing this book in tandem with Lukasz Bednarski’s Lithium, but as Volt Rush makes clear, cobalt, nickel, and copper are equally vital. In the process, Sanderson visits battery manufacturers in China and elsewhere, lithium mining operations in Australia and Chile, the problematic cobalt and copper mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and nickel mines in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. He also considers the controversial final frontier of deep-sea mining, the possibilities and limits of recycling and reusing batteries, and the prospect of reopening mines in Europe (an idea Pitron also proposed in The Rare Metals War). Volt Rush has an excellent structure, with clearly-themed chapters logically flowing into each other.
Sanderson furthermore provides a pleasant mix of history, biography, and economics that keeps the book from getting bogged down. The concept of the electric car is far older than you might think, going back to the 1890s but lost out to the internal combustion engine. Explaining how batteries could make a comeback a century later and reshape the geopolitical playing field involves an accessible history of the lithium-ion battery. The economic story behind the four above-mentioned metals involves corporations you likely have never heard of. But where a book like Earth Wars failed to engage me, Sanderson enlivens the economics and geopolitics with biographies of the founders and directors of, and in-person visits to, some of the world’s largest battery manufacturers and mining companies.
One thing Volt Rush did very well was leaving me with a better understanding of the outsized role of China. The combination of domestic consumption by a population of over 1.4 billion people and of China having become the factory floor of the world, means that it is harvesting and importing natural resources from around the world. China has decisively inserted itself into all mining sectors discussed here. Many companies have been left dependent on China, whether for the processing and refining of ores or for the resulting components that go into consumer products. Sanderson’s forte lies in reporting on this without falling into sinophobia.
“[This book equips] readers with the background knowledge needed to ask critical questions regarding our transition away from fossil fuels. Without it, we risk falling prey to feel-good narratives and corporate greenwash.”
In general, I appreciated the neutral tone of Sanderson’s reporting. He sticks to the facts without constantly inserting himself in the narrative—and this while there is much here that is upsetting. The scale of the mining operations beggars belief, and Volt Rush provides numerous examples of both the huge environmental and human cost of mining: the deforestation involved in strip mining; the energy-intensive nature of digging up and crushing rock; the waste products of ore refinement that get dumped on land or at sea; or the child labour involved in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The profits from these activities frequently end up lining the pockets of a few politicians and businessmen, and Sanderson’s portrayal of the shady world of ruthless commodity traders, in particular Glencore, agrees with what I read in The World for Sale. This said, the author will not refrain from calling out obvious greenwashing and corporate bullshit.
Throughout the book, Sanderson hits what I think are several relevant notes that reveal the deeper roots of the problems associated with the new mining rush (your reviewer writes as he reaches for his soapbox). He points out how increased efficiency is frequently negated by increased consumption (Jevons Paradox) and the evil of planned obsolescence that further undermines any attempt at careful use of Earth’s resources. He quotes former DEFRA chief scientist Ian Boyd that “emissions are a symptom of rampant resource consumption” (p. 212) and points out that in the next 25 years we will consume more copper than we did in the previous 5000 years “as the population increases and gets richer” (p. 174). And yet, despite hitting these notes, I feel that in his conclusion Sanderson fails to connect the dots. And that is despite initially sensing he is walking into a trap: “It was a seductive idea: we could change the world by slightly altering our current lifestyle with a marginal amount of sacrifice” (p. 1). Despite bringing in Peter Dauvergne’s concept of ecological shadows of consumption. Despite lithium expert Alex Grant’s comment that we have created “a game of ‘carbon whack-a-mole’ where we eliminate the CO2 emission from burning petrol, but substitute them for emissions elsewhere” (p. 66). Despite the revealing public admission by Glencore’s Ivan Glasenberg “that he didn’t believe that the world could produce enough cobalt to satisfy long-term electric car demand” (p. 112). Even when the answer stares Sanderson in the face as he writes that “growth based on extraction cannot be infinite” (p. 246) and quotes from Vaclav Smil’s book Growth, his solution is conscious consumerism. Wait, after you just wrote a book exposing how enormous the resource requirements are, and how broken and destructive the supply chain is? Now, I realise that my thinking in this is too radical to be palatable to most people, but Sanderson shies away from outright saying that overpopulation and overconsumption are the twin engines driving the numerous problems he uncovers.
“Volt Rush left me with a better understanding of the outsized role of China […] reporting on this without falling into sinophobia.”
Thus, I disagree somewhat with the cautiously optimistic tone of this book, and in particular with Sanderson’s conclusion that “the transition to electric cars, renewable energy and batteries will create a greener, better world” (p. 244). To me, this is effectively advocating for a technofix. Science and technology have an important role but will not be enough by themselves; I have elsewhere highlighted calls for a culture of self-limitation and ought to give the topic of economic degrowth some proper attention. I also think Sanderson falls into the trap of climatism by focusing solely on CO2 emissions and how electrifying the world’s vehicle fleet would counter this. Tailpipe emissions are but one problem; light and noise pollution, particulate pollution from tyres and brakes, habitat fragmentation, roadkill, and the materials required for road construction and maintenance are some others. The problematic word to focus on is “fleet” and that is not something electrification will solve (Bicycle, anyone? asks your Dutch reviewer). Finally, as Abundant Earth made clear, language shapes our perception, and by continuing to write of “green” and “clean” technologies, Sanderson inadvertently risks perpetuating the very greenwashing he calls out in his introduction. My reviews of both Abraham’s The Elements of Power and Pitron’s The Rare Metals War made it clear that, to quote the latter, “clean energy is a dirty affair“, so about time reporters dropped those two words.
And now I will step off my soapbox. Despite some personal reservations regarding Sanderon’s outlooks and conclusions, I found Volt Rush to be an incredibly informative and well-researched book that covers many relevant topics. The writing is top-notch and engaging, and the book fully succeeds in its aim of equipping the reader with the background knowledge needed to ask critical questions.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review:
You are absolutely right when you say “Now, I realise that my thinking in this is too radical to be palatable to most people, but Sanderson shies away from outright saying that overpopulation and overconsumption are the twin engines driving the numerous problems he uncovers.” Although this was emphatically pointed out 50 or more years ago (the Ehrlichs, Donna Meadows, and umpteen others since) because of political correctness few dare mention it in the popular press these days. Thank you so much for sticking to your guns on this.
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