For over 100 days now, protestors have occupied Thacker Pass, NV in opposition to plans for the largest lithium mine in the United States. I joined this occupation for two weeks in early April, and I think the story of Thacker Pass could help us understand what it would take to become more resilient on the national and global scale. We could think of Thacker Pass as testing the depth of our vision for a resilient future. That is, when we say that a resilient system can “absorb disturbance and re-organize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks” it might be that Thacker Pass asks us which ‘essential identities and structures’ are we trying to maintain?—and which are ‘undergoing change?’
The Way We Work
Are billionaire multinationals that profit by violating human rights and destroying nature part of our ‘essential identity’ or is this something we’d expect to be ‘undergoing change’ in our movement toward a resilient future? This is a thorny question, because our entire economic system is based on the assumption that corporations have rights while the natural world doesn’t, and that assumption shapes nearly everything we do. I think this is the question that Thacker Pass asks of the resilience movement.
Resilience is a systems concept, and so we have to be resilient on different levels; a deeply resilient system must be resilient at every meaningful scale. This means we need to 1. Maintain our health; 2. Prepare within extended family units; 3. Foster community resilience in neighborhoods, cities, and states; and 4. Navigate massive amounts of confusing information about national and global politics and ecology—all while not stressing out about it too much (see 1). Certainly we have experts to guide us and distill the important points at all these levels, but it’s still a lot to ask!
Thacker Pass from a viewpoint in the Montana Mountains to the North. Nearly 6,000 acres of the old-growth sagebrush habitat shown in this image would be destroyed by the proposed project, and since lithium is found throughout this area, future expansions are likely to destroy the entire visible landscape (more than 15,000 acres).
It’s quite reasonable to respond to this complexity by specializing and focusing our resilience work on the local level where we feel more effective, but the way we work at the local level denotes an implicit understanding of what is or should be happening on the other levels. So we’re not completely off the hook. Our local efforts imply certain assumptions about which structures will remain ‘essential’ to the national and global scale, and which structures should go away.
For instance not so long ago, I was involved in a local initiative to install large numbers of rooftop solar panels in my community. This obviously builds some community resilience, because solar infrastructure doesn’t rely as heavily on large and fragile systems for its operation. But this action materially supports (and hence implies) global economic systems that produce solar infrastructure (everything from lithium and cobalt to trucks and roads). So we’re implying a certain analysis of resilience at all levels when we act at any level; each level is interdependent with the others.
If we view the occupation of Thacker Pass as a resilience project undertaken at the national/global level—and my experience there tells me that it is—I think it probably calls into question a great deal of the action currently taken in the name of resilience at local levels. The Thacker Pass lithium reserve is quite important—projected to provide 25% of the world’s demand—and this occupation might be the largest and longest protest against environmental destruction caused by the solar, wind, and electric car industry. The project has compelling human rights dimensions as well: indigenous people are organizing themselves to protect Thacker Pass in part because their sacred and cultural sites are threatened, but also because mining inevitably results in pollution and depletion of groundwater, loss of wildlife and range that they depend on, and missing and murdered indigenous women.
About eighty people from Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Reservation, Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, and other tribes in the region gathered at Thacker Pass on April, 10 to pray, share food, donate to the cause, and demonstrate their opposition to the lithium mine.
What does it mean when we promote projects like the one I described earlier (to build resilience through coordinated solar installs) if this kind of work requires global structures that violate human rights and destroy nature? Aren’t we just maintaining these violent aspects of our system as ‘essential identities’ that remain unchanged and produce fragility in spite of our resilience work?—and does that mean we aren’t doing resilience work after all?
Resilience at any level requires the basic functioning of many interdependent parts. Most of us recognize that families who hoard canned goods, bottled water, guns, and toilet paper aren’t actually very resilient. Preparation on the family scale is obviously important, but it isn’t sufficient, because community resilience would be necessary to sustain even the most prepared families for a meaningful length of time.
Likewise, as our social structures continue to collapse, a single neighborhood in an increasingly chaotic city is unlikely to hold up—although a truly resilient neighborhood might maintain itself for longer than a single family. The resilience of any system is much like that of an organism with interdependent organs and different levels of organization. Each level has to hold together.
It’s clear that billionaires who profit by destroying the natural world and violating the rights of marginalized people create fragility at all levels and shouldn’t be regarded as part of our ‘essential identities and structures’; and as long as we base our actions on this implicit relationship between corporations who have rights and a natural world that doesn’t, our efforts toward resilience are doomed to failure. It eventually won’t matter how much toilet paper you have or if your whole street is off the grid. Local systems simply can’t withstand continued corporate destruction of the natural world and exploitation of marginalized people on such a grand scale.
I think that Thacker Pass is a compelling project that asks important questions about our national/global identities and structures: if protecting corporate rights to destroy nature is an ‘essential aspect’ of our legal system, what does that say about our approach to the legal system in building a resilient future? These broad questions ripple down into the way we must work on the local level. Of course, there is great danger that a powerful multinational like Lithium Americas Corporation will successfully crush the resistance at Thacker Pass before it is able to meaningfully impact resilience work as a whole. (There are multiple lawsuits, but at this writing it appears that construction on the mine could begin as soon as May or June). If there were a time to allocate some of your resilience work toward the global and national scene, that time might be now, and the place might be Thacker Pass.
Teaser photo credit: As the snow melts in early April, many spring flowers and grasses begin to emerge in this desert landscape. Photo by Paul Feather