Socialist Alternative

Lithium: a new energy battleground

The slow take-off of lithium extraction in Cornwall, with the discovery last year of “globally significant” lithium deposits, should remind socialists in England of the importance of mining in the modern economy, and thus its position in relation to unions and how a socialist economy would be organised.

Lithium is headed towards being a critical metal as it is the main element in batteries, for many technologies from phones to cars. A domestic supply of this is important for the UK government, noting the recent  overturned (US-backed) coup in Bolivia in connection to lithium. Any transition away from fossil fuels, be it capitalist or socialist, may be dependent on lithium supply. 

With automation and improvements in technology, we see fewer and fewer workers being termed miners in the traditional sense in the UK. However, workers are still crucial in mineral mining, as the companies promising jobs to Cornish locals, suffering in one of the most deprived areas of the UK, well know. 

Geologists are a useful case study of mining workers in the modern and western economy. Geologists are critical for this industry – working in locating, valuing mineral deposits, and recovering the land after mining has ended. However, there are very few geologists in unions. This has resulted in regular long hours (sometimes 12-hour shifts) and truly little job security. It is a frequent occurrence for geologists to be laid-off with the slightest downturn in global markets in regard to the price of metals. This is often excused with “high income high risk” hand waves. Consider, these are the most “valuable” workers to a company due to inability to automate this work and consider the conditions for the average contractor.  Outsourcing of services from large companies to small consultancies is common in the exploration industries, leaving the door open to worker exploitation also.  There are already reports of some workers going days without pay due to financial mismanagement at one British lithium exploration company. 

Mining is also a critical front from an environmental perspective. In contrast to the tunnels and small engine houses that dot the Cornish countryside, the open pit mines outside St Austell are visible from space. The huge ecological footprint of these traditional mines is obvious, in spite of chairmen and CEOs of these companies (e.g., British Lithium) saying they are “quite small”. While some environmental standards are fulfilled, there is no need to open new mines when solid lithium is available in currently active kaolinite clay mines. Environmental footprint covers displacing wildlife to potential groundwater contamination. 

If the world continues to move toward an electrical economy, lithium could become an important battleground for British workers. Unionising this burgeoning industry should be a priority for socialists in the south west. 

Union control and a socialist approach to the mining industry should aim to dramatically improve worker quality of life and minimise environmental impact. Especially as there are alternatives to dangerous and damaging open pits, such as extracting lithium from hot ground water, before returning the water to the rocks. Only a united struggle of workers in the mining industry, coupled with the demand for public ownership, can ensure that the environment and the rights of workers are put forward.

In recent years, capitalism has taken a turn toward electric vehicles in an attempt to appear “green”. But even switching to electric cars fails to get to the heart of the problem – that being capitalism’s drive to exploit ever more of Earth’s natural resources. The vast ramping up of lithium mining has led to its nickname of “white oil” and is unsustainable.  We need a socialist Green New Deal including mass investment in green public transport to eliminate the need for cars altogether, as well as genuinely renewable energy. Ultimately we need international socialist change that can ensure we produce things on a sustainable basis that meets the needs of all, rather than those of the capitalists, whilst protecting jobs and living standards for workers currently involved in lithium mining.