Just recently, during the latest climate talks in Cancun, Bolivia took a stand and accused the developed nations of genocide for the country’s 300.000 yearly deaths as a result of droughts, floods, desertification, storms and rising sea levels caused by greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution.

Image by Jenny Mealing (source: Flickr)

Bolivia is paying a high toll for worldwide climate change. Fresh water supplies are shrinking as glaciers are melting while flooding and storms leave thousands of people homeless and with no access to basic subsistence needs. In Cancun, President Evo Morales accused other nations of a lack of ambition in the light of what needs to be done to stop climate change. Although he was diplomatically pushed to the side in the final stages of the United Nations climate talks, the President declared shortly after an agreement was reached that he was filing a complaint before the International Court in The Hague to review the validity of the signed agreements, which according to the President “offer no solution for control of the gradual increase in global temperature”.

Bolivia is one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America. The Republic, defined in the new constitution of the country as a “Social Unitarian State” joined forces in December 2005, when President Evo Morales was elected, with Cuba, Venezuela and Argentina in the struggle against neo-liberalism. After the devastating effects caused by privatization of key industries like gas and oil in Latin America in the 1990’s, the vote for Evo Morales and his political party MAS (Movement Towards Socialism) was the result of a growing demand of nationalization – or reclaiming – of these industries.

The election of Morales was a vote against the pro-imperialist, neo-liberal policies of the ruling class and a demand for change. Above all, those who voted for him were demanding that gas and oil reserves be used for the benefit of the mass of the population rather than the multi-national giants, which have economically raped the country.

The idealistic and political differences between a socially engaged Bolivia and a capitalist driven developed world is nothing new and nobody would really care about it, where it not that Bolivia holds half of the world’s known reserves of lithium, a crucial ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries necessary to power up electric cars. And as with gas and oil, Bolivia is planning to nationalize the mining of this light and volatile metal, accepting enquiries from mining companies but requiring that those investing would also fund a Bolivian-based lithium-ion battery industry.

Meanwhile the capitalist and consumption driven developed countries are trying to find ways to reduce the cost of lithium-ion battery production, in an attempt to mass-market low-cost electric vehicles currently too expensive for most. I’m sure the current “high cost” associated with the production of the batteries does not even take into account a number of externalized costs associated with their manufacturing such as toxic waste management, CO2 emissions, health treats to factory workers, recycling or waste disposal of batteries after use etc… If these costs were to be taken into account the price of lithium-ion batteries would clearly sky-rocket, but at the same time that price would reflect the real cost associated with their production.

Did you know that electric cars are nothing new and that the sad reality is that they lost the battle to the internal-combustion engine in de 1920-30’s? While in 1897, electric vehicles found their first commercial application in the U.S. as a fleet of electrical New York City taxis, 30 years later mass production of gasoline vehicles by companies such as Ford Motor Companies and growing petroleum infrastructure had overthrown the electric cars business for good.

One might wonder why, after more than 100 years, capitalist countries are suddenly feeling the urge to get electric vehicles on the roads. Are all these countries green at heart? I doubt it. Are they jumping on the popular green movement to make money out of it? In part I suppose they are. But most importantly, countries running on gas and oil want to reduce their dependence on it as much as possible, especially if the oil the country itself produces does not meet the oil consumed. This is certainly the case for the U.S., where oil dependency issues have been on the agenda for a while now and where consumption is twice as high as inland production.

So I’m thinking the U.S. must have a gigantic lithium reserve if they think they’ll solve the issue of dependency with electric cars. Oddly enough, it doesn’t look that way. According to Wikipedia the U.S. has about 38.000 tons, in comparison with 5,4 million tons for Bolivia. Is it just me or is there something wrong with the math here?

But that’s not the whole picture. According to a June article in The New York Times

the United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral – including lithium – deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

I’m not gonna go there and start discussing the implications of this “finding” for the U.S. economy. Instead, I’m going back to Bolivia and it’s lithium reserves.

By nationalizing the mining of lithium, President Evo Morales is potentially changing the course of things and sending out a signal that it’s time to start adapting to another kind of economy, in line with the fight against climate change. The lithium reserves should first and foremost provide economic return to the countries holding them, and not the multi-national mining conglomerates that want to come in and profit.

Lithium mining is not without dangers; it’s toxic, corrosive, bad for the environment, dangerous when inhaled or when it comes in contact with skin or unborn babies. Just for those reasons, Bolivia should get a fair, democratic price for it’s lithium reserves and developed nations should understand that lithium-ion batteries and hence electric cars won’t be cheap, just because they aren’t.

In a way this discussion is a beautiful metaphor for the whole climate change dilemma. Why are developing nations requesting compensation and accusing developing nations of inertia towards climate change and it’s effects? For the same reason that Bolivia is protecting it’s lithium reserves from greedy investors.

Abusing Bolivian workers and the Bolivian environment to provide Western countries with cheap electric cars really can’t be the way to go. Instead of asking the international community to compensate for all the wrongs our consumption societies did and are still doing in poorer developing nations, we all as consumers should understand and accept that “stuff” costs money and that it’s about time we start paying the right price for things.