Charlie Macquarie

Open Up This Pit


ISSUE 100 | HOLES | JUL 2022

Andreas Feininger, photo of Bingham Copper Mine, Utah

Maybe you’ve seen them too. Or maybe you haven’t. They’re easy to miss sometimes—so exceedingly vast that they blend into the landscape as just another geologic feature rather than sticking out like the anthropogenic excavations that they are. They are the source of the raw material for so much of the stuff that fills our lives, yet they are remote and strangely difficult to really see.

I’m talking about open-pit mines—the pits that result when minerals are extracted from a giant fucking hole rather than a bunch of little tunnels dug underground by a weathered prospector and his burro. In the state of Nevada, where I grew up, these pits are innumerable, and they exert an odd gravity over their surroundings. Seeing one from across the valley, I always look for the most promising dirt road veering off the highway and bounce through the sagebrush to get as close as I can. To consider the void. To look at the rocks. To check out the scene.

The scene is usually bad, but there’s something helpful about reporting on it as such. This I learned from another important part of my Nevada adolescence: the punk scene mosh pit. Anyone who has ever seen Bafabegiya play at Fort Ryland, ridden (and eaten roadkill) in Scalleycat, or had their ribs broken at an Iron Lung show would probably want to throw me out the window for even thinking this needs to be said, but a punk scene across the Great Basin does exist. Indeed, in some places it is thriving. I came from a happy and kind family, and punk felt dangerous, weird, and interesting. Before the friends I met through punk, no one I knew had ever wanted to ride bikes for hours to get to the best swimming hole, walk train tracks writing our names on boxcars, or cart a generator to the edge of an open-pit mine to put on a show.

Reading the scene reports—location-specific updates on bands, venues, record stores, and other items of interest—that I found in punk zines gave me something like a teenage enlightenment. These were the kinds of things I actually wanted to know about the places I had never been—what were the strangest-tasting sodas that Miami had to offer, or what was it like to eat a slice from every pizzeria in Manhattan? The scene report was a helpful way to get close to the gnarly particulars: the bad, the violent, the weird, the sad, the good, and the funny too.

Now I use the internet to look that stuff up. I have a sticker on my laptop that reads, “If it isn’t grown, it has to be mined.” It feels passé to say so these days, but I love my laptop. The shit you can do with this tiny little thing is incredible. And it isn’t some small toy like a phone is. A phone you can easily lose in a toilet, but a laptop has some heft. You can throw it like a frisbee, and if it hits a cop it could really do some damage. And if it survives that, you can always develop back problems hunching over it at night trying to do some hacker shit.

But still, that sticker…

It is trite but it is accurate. The stickers were made by the Nevada Mining Association (NMA), and I would see them all the time growing up in Nevada. Though the NMA seems to have moved toward more subtle language—they don’t distribute these stickers anymore—there’s something appealing about the bluntness of their old tagline. Not just laptops, but SO MUCH STUFF is not grown, and so it has to be mined. I like bicycles much more than laptops—they even have fewer carbon emissions, though they still have some. All that steel, aluminum, plastic, and grease carrying me on my merry way is most definitely not grown. The urgency of impending death by climate change (for most of us) brings home the NMA’s clumsy tagline even more. An energy transition away from fossil fuels will necessarily require some minerals, and we will have to mine, at least a little bit, to get them. I hate it, but there isn’t going to be any way out of this rapidly warming carbon death pit without mining. And mining is pretty bad.

Sure, all those big machines and drills and holes and rocks and explosions are cool and stuff—I love that shit, to be honest. But mining is also atrocious. It’s the epitome of maximized extraction, staggering capital accumulated on the back of Indigenous people and endemic species. Horrific violence acted out to secure territory for extraction. And holy waters and lands turned into waste piles of leach rock, toxic chemicals, and poisoned pools of water.

I don’t live in Nevada anymore, and once I moved I stopped meeting a whole lot of people who cared to know what was out in the middle of the Great Basin. It could very well be the source of your laptop or your Tesla battery, although the Teslas don’t make it out there very often. The people who do live in the Great Basin—the punks, sure, but also the ranchers, farmers, haul-truck drivers, geologists, desert rats, community and environmental organizers, and especially the Indigenous people—have never had the illusion that such out-of-the-way places can be ignored but for their extractive capacity. They have all seen the pits—many see them daily. In attempting to honor these folks, I offer you some reports on the scene.


Bingham Canyon: Scene Report

Active mining

Visitor information

Goshute land

Utah

40°31'24.6"N 112°08'54.8"W

Charlie Macquarie, photo of Bingham Canyon, Utah

This baby is a real trend-setter, the home of so many superlatives it’s impossible to beat, a great place to start—this is THE PIT. It was one of the first open-pit mines in the world, depending on who you ask. It is also one of the deepest, depending on who you ask. And it has the distinction of being home to the largest “mining-induced landslide” in the world, depending on who you ask. At this point you should just stop asking.

Facts are facts, however, and the fact is this pit is huge.

The Australian multinational company Rio Tinto mines copper here. This scene was really heating up back in the Oligocene, about 33 million years ago, when a molten “crystal mush” pushed its way up into existing rock and fluids heated by those mushy-ass crystals dissolved copper in the surrounding rocks and deposited it in high concentrations upon cooling. Yes, this was back when both geology and punk were good, and it’s been downhill ever since.

We’ve been mining copper for a hella long time; we even named the Bronze Age in honor of copper-smelting technology and the mines that go with it. In fact, Rio Tinto the company is named after Rio Tinto the river in Spain that 5,000 years of mining has rendered almost completely devoid of life, except for the colony of freaky extremophiles, who are thriving.

Though no longer used for our armor, the copper from Bingham Canyon is still widely used in building, plumbing, and especially electrical wiring. You might think, as I did, “Wires are pretty thin, so we must not need to mine too much of it.” Well, joke’s on you, punk, because we mine A LOT of it—1.2 million tons of the stuff last year alone.1 Over the lifetime of Bingham Canyon mine, Rio Tinto has gotten about 2.7 million tons of copper out of the pit.

You’d think that after all these years of copper production things here would start to wane, but this puppy shows no signs of slowing down, extremophiles and all. Just like a Good Clean Fun show, this pit will not quit. Demand for copper is only increasing, and so the mining companies just keep digging—copper recycling accounts for only a small percentage of what we use, and that number is not growing quickly.2

If the pits keep getting bigger, you might as well come through and take a look! You can skip the official visitor center—it slid away in 2013 with the largest mining-induced landslide in the world anyway. Drive instead (open-pit mines seem only to be accessible for drivers, surprised?) up the Butterfield Canyon Road into the Oquirrh Mountains and go to the overlook above the mine, where you can truly take in the magnitude. You’ll find more desert freaks up there, and you can ask them yourself just how they got their rusty Oldsmobile all the way up the rough dirt road to West Mountain.


Candelaria: Scene Report

Inactive

Visitor information

Numu (Northern Paiute) and Newe (Western Shoshone) land

Nevada

38°09'21.2"N 118°05'08.3"W

Charlie Macquarie, photo of Candelaria, Nevada

You used to be able to take a train to Candelaria. And if you’re one of those smelly train-hopping weirdos, you could probably have hopped that train too—riding into town like a princess on a silver chariot en route to your precious fortune. But be careful—whoever said punk’s not dead had never been to Candelaria because even though it’s abandoned this pit is huge, and you could fit a lot of punks in it. The train station even blew all the way down a hill shortly after construction was completed, trapping several hobos who had been sleeping inside. The size of this pit may be appealing, but look out, train punks—you might never ride back out of town again.

It’s a shame the train doesn’t go here anymore because hopping trains is a lot more efficient than trying to decarbonize with electric vehicles or similar such nonsense. Now you’ll have to wait for them to mine enough lithium in other places in Nevada so that you can drive your scumbag Tesla eight hours to get here and then run out of batteries when you arrive. That’s OK—you don’t need to leave. The pit is big enough.

Punk may not be dead, but just like Ronnie Reagan and his MX Missiles—another cockamamy scheme that aimed to bring trains to Candelaria, albeit ones carrying ballistic weapons—the scene here is kaput. OK, so it was Jimmy Carter who pushed the missiles and the Mormons who eventually killed the plan, but the joke needed to be made.

Back when things were really kicking, they mined silver here. And back even further, about 251 million years ago in the Lower Triassic, hot fluids were dissolving silver out of the overlying rocks left and right and depositing it straight into the veins of galena and jamesonite in the local shale.3

Setting aside the fact that 26% of silver mined in the US will go to “physical investment” (i.e., it just sits there in chunks that are worth money 😬), a lot of silver (38% of domestic production) does go to a pretty wide variety of uses that are actually, well, useful, including antimicrobial bandages, bearings, soldering equipment, inks, mirrors, photovoltaic solar cells, and water purification, to name a few. It’s also the reason your catalytic converter gets stolen so damn often.4

Unless you live in Mina, the nearest town, it’s going to be a long drive to get here. It’s still worth the visit. The scene may be dead, but standing in solitude considering the pit is part of the point. Someone will probably start selling tickets soon, so take advantage of your free moments with the hole while you can. Witnessing the pit, you might remember that the many pasts of these worked-out veins do contain some useful nuggets, just like the many uses of silver. The train, for instance, reminding us that there used to be a low(er)-carbon transportation network connecting even the most remote parts of the Great Basin. The troubling part is, if the scene thrives again at Candelaria, it probably won’t be because of the useful technologies we might find in the history of this pit but rather because the whims of the market have dictated that these miniscule amounts of silver can again build someone’s massive wealth. Only then will it be worth deepening the holes.

But anyway, Candelaria is still worth the trip even if you can’t hop the train. Notable spots on the way include “The Sump,” where you can find fluorescent agates (leave the fossils in place, folks!) and the US Army Munitions Depot at nearby Hawthorne, which contains, among other horrors, the US Government Mercury Stockpile.


Goldstrike: Scene Report

Active mining

Visitor information

Newe (Western Shoshone) land

Nevada

40°58'53.6"N 116°23'06.3"W

EARTHWORDS, safety sign at Goldstrike, via Flickr

All industry associations do a great job of talking up their field as the best thing since sliced bread, but it’s hard to beat the Nevada Mining Association on the metal that pays their bills:

Of all the minerals mined from the Earth, none is more useful than gold. Its usefulness is derived from a diversity of special properties. Gold conducts electricity, does not tarnish, is very easy to work, can be drawn into wire, can be hammered into thin sheets, alloys with many other metals, can be melted and cast into highly detailed shapes, has a wonderful color and a brilliant luster. Gold is a memorable metal that occupies a special place in the human mind.

Do you have any question that we absolutely must keep mining fuck tons of the stuff? After reading those lilting words, there is surely no doubt that we need to keep digging until we find salvation at the bottom of a hole. I wish I could write like that. Don’t read too much of their webpage, though—it’ll really start to work on you. I say that as a critical guy™ myself. “Yes, mining has some kinks to work out,” they’ll have you thinking, “but did you know we use gold in all kinds of functional ways too? Well, don’t be so quick to write it off, you idiot.” Well you can quit it with that fantastical technocratic mumbo-jumbo because it turns out the final use for 21% of gold is “physical bar.”5 That is just what it sounds like: a fifth of all the gold blasted out of the Earth will be made into ingots so it can sit there in some high-security warehouse doing nothing.

The gold mined here is part of the Carlin Trend, a huge deposit running across much of the northern half of Nevada, and boy is it trendy. Carlin-type gold—also called “micron-sized gold” or, laughably, “invisible gold”—is gold that’s deposited in microscopically fine grains undetectable to the naked eye. The gold in the Carlin Trend was probably left here about 20 million years ago, kicked off by the intrusion of Oligocene dikes—one kind of rock deposited (usually as molten) into cracks in another.6 For at least 100,000 years, hydrothermal activities were dissolving gold from ancient sedimentary rocks and bringing it up through faults to deposit in shattered carbonate rocks7—much like the way my Catholic relatives deposit their guilt as well.

Seventy-four percent of all the gold mined in the US is mined in Nevada, and most of it comes from the Carlin Trend. The gold that doesn’t get turned into bars mostly gets made into jewelry and coins (57%) or held by central banks and other institutions (14%).8 As my friend and mining industry watchdog activist Bob Fulkerson succinctly put it, all this mining is “essentially for trinkets.” Gold mining in Nevada used to be dominated by two companies, Newmont and Barrick, but recently they performed the economic alchemy of combining their operations to form a new company called Nevada Gold Mines so that there would be no competition, and no unions for their workers, either.9 A lot of gold has indeed been struck here, but don’t you dare try to strike yourself…

Imagine being a mineworker and organizer, scraping together your union and your contract so that you can have dignity in your work while you drive and dig and drill and wrench for years in a massive dusty pit so that billions of dollars of gold can be made into bars and just sit there in a high-security warehouse as a stand-in for some arbitrarily made-up value. Then one day your boss says to you out of the blue, “Union? What union?” No wonder most of the reviews are one star. When you’ve been treated like trash and fired without cause or made to sit idling in your truck at a mine gate for hours on end, there’s plenty of time to pull up Google and give the bosses a piece of your mind.

Gold illustrates in the best way the weirdnesses that arise from the raw value propositions and speculations that drive mining (and resource extraction under capitalism more generally). Gold shares the manufactured scarcity of diamonds, but it’s more like a boring commodity at the same time. The number of utilitarian uses for gold is miniscule, and the output from all this blasting and digging and processing and trucking is simply “economic value,” pure and arbitrary and utterly made up. In the Carlin Trend, the gold can’t even be seen by a human until it’s been put through all these processes. Not only is the gold here “invisible,” but it’s almost like the whole concept of gold has been conjured out of rocks by the culture of the market. We can’t see it, and we don’t have a use for it, but it is “valuable,” and so in the words of Billy Woods, “Don’t wait—dig the pits.”

I’ve sometimes been resistant to using the language of mineral mining with reference to cryptocurrency. The former involves too much material infrastructure and material affordances to be meaningfully compared to something completely virtual, or so I reasoned. But looking at the Goldstrike pit forces a reconsideration. Forty-five percent of the gold mined in the US this year will simply be stockpiled as representation of arbitrary value,10 operating no differently than a virtual currency. Gold may exist simultaneously as a material stockpile and as a vehicle for speculation, but its value lies completely in the latter. And of course there’s the fact that cryptocurrencies, like all digital technologies, have many material affordances: the cheapest energy for your mining rig might be right at the wellhead.

Oh yeah, if you want to visit this place, maybe just forget it. It’ll probably make you depressed. You can watch the virtual tours instead, but that will make you even more depressed.


Weed Heights/Anaconda: Scene Report

Inactive

Visitor information

Numu (Northern Paiute) land

Nevada

38°59'12.5"N 119°12'15.5"W

Charlie Macquarie, photo of Weed Heights, Nevada

Hehehehehe. Weed Heights.

This pit is a toxic lake. That’s all.

Just remember, all these pits are gonna end up like this eventually.


Rhyolite Ridge: Scene Report

Proposed/speculative

Visitor information: you’re on your own, or perhaps just watch this

Numu (Northern Paiute) and Newe (Western Shoshone) land

Nevada

37°48'32.7"N 117°51'34.6"W

Patrick Donnelly, photo of Tiehm’s buckwheat, via the Center for Biological Diversity

Do you like trucks? Then you’re gonna love this. You’re going to need a truck if you want to feel like you belong in this scene (but you can skip the spiky jacket.) I’m just an armchair observer when it comes to mining, but I’m pretty sure most of mining is driving around in trucks. Sometimes the trucks are big ones, but mostly they are small, like pickup trucks. In Nevada, you can tell if a truck is a mining pickup because it will have a thin layer of mud on it—there is rarely enough water for mud anywhere else except at a mine, where they pump as much of it as they please out of the ground11 and spread it intentionally to keep dust down and make their trucks look cool and muddy. I love how even Tesla needs to use diesel pickups every once in a while.

Speaking of electric vehicles, Rhyolite Ridge is supposed to be for mining lithium. This pit doesn’t exist yet. Hopefully it never will.

If you’ve gotten this far, you probably already know that lithium is booming (don’t click that link, it’s just a stupid article about lithium stocks in Forbes to prove to you that lithium is booming). The vast majority (74%) of lithium is used for batteries, especially the huge ones in electric vehicles. There’s currently only one active lithium mine in the United States (it’s also in Nevada) and so most of the lithium that’s used here is imported.12 Lithium is high on the list of critical minerals that are making military and supply chain people shit bricks since we have to import most of them from places like China😱 (though most of it comes from Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina in the Puna de Atacama13).

The lithium at Rhyolite Ridge is deposited among Searlesite, an interesting mineral in itself named for “pioneer” John W. Searles. Searles Lake, which he claims to have “discovered,” was also home for more than 70 years to the annual Gem-O-Rama, in which various desert freaks were invited to wade across Searles Valley Minerals’ evaporation ponds collecting pink halite. The annual extravaganza has sadly been permanently canceled, probably due to Searles Valley Minerals being purchased by a venture capital firm, which of course ruins everything, but which also, of course, is just part of the world of economic abstraction in which mining necessarily operates under capitalism. The lithium and Searlesite here at Rhyolite Ridge were deposited in the sediments at the bottom of an ancient lakebed, though it’s not that ancient (probably about 6 million years ago)14 compared to the other deposits we’ve talked about.

There’s only one problem with the planned pit. Actually, there’s 99 problems, but the one I’m going to talk about is Tiehm’s buckwheat, an extremely rare species of flowering plant (yes, it’s beautiful) which grows across only 10 acres of land in the Silver Peak range of Nevada.15 Those 10 acres happen to overlap almost exactly with the proposed hole at Rhyolite Ridge. Needless to say this is even worse than a Slayer🤘 show–the entire species of Tiehm’s buckwheat would not survive this pit. Guess this scene isn’t so welcoming for everyone after all, but dang if we aren’t used to that by now.

The company hoping to mine here is called ioneer. They didn’t bother to capitalize it either, and for a long time I wondered what exactly the missing first part of the word is. Turns out, it’s supposed to be “pioneer,” which is bad enough, but it also makes me think of other people that you also don’t really want to meet, like a buccaneer or an engineer. Anything that ends in “–neer” is probably going to fuck up your life. ioneer plans to drill and blast rock from a roughly 250-acre pit and truck it to a processing facility a mile away (yes, their trucks will be totally cool and muddy). There, it will be crushed, mixed with sulfuric acid (at this stage, similar to kombucha brewing for all you hippies, it’s called the “mother liquor”), centrifuged to remove boric acid (another product the mine will sell), and finally precipitated with soda ash to get lithium carbonate.16

Lithium, man. It’s true that we’ll need some of it for anything resembling a decarbonization process if we’re ever even able to get to that point. It’s also a greenwashing consultancy’s wet dream. ioneer has a great page on its website that demonstrates the way mining companies frame their lust for lithium now that the stuff is booming. Their corporate story regales us with the tale of how they are “trying to be pioneers developing the ions that are critical to the future of the world.” It’s a perfect storm of hype and memetic viability, barely feasible economically but successfully propagated as such through social media, that has bred an army of Lithium Guys™ who pop up online like the people who defend Elon Musk or own NFTs. All of a sudden you can’t get away from these hipster businessmen in brightly patterned shirts posting selfies with mining executives and rattling on about the glory of this most exalted element. If we all just learn to love the blockchain, they chant, we’ll soon be able to ejaculate lithium, and then climate change will come to a beautiful end in a sentient-AI-directed consensual orgy.

Tiehm’s buckwheat won’t be so lucky. Not in this fantasy, at least. But who cares? It’s just a plant! We are thinking chunks of human meat, and we need human progress for human thriving, right? As known hater Joey Santore says, I understand that we gotta grow the tumor. Plants be damned.

But enough darkness. Tiehm’s buckwheat may not actually be damned. Thanks to the diligent work of the Center for Biological Diversity, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to protect the buckwheat’s “critical habitat” under the Endangered Species Act. If the proposed rule does go into effect, the Rhyolite Ridge mine would almost certainly be unable to move forward.

Good riddance.

If your Tesla has any battery left after that drive out to Candelaria, it’s not too much further to Rhyolite Ridge, so head over here and take a look. From there, it’s not far to the only active lithium mine in the US at nearby Silver Peak, and on the way you can stop at the Fish Lake Valley hot well, where they tried to drill for oil and got a hot spring instead. While in Dyer, the closest town, pop into Esmeralda Market for a sandwich. Just don’t tell them you were rooting for the buckwheat, otherwise it may come to blows.


Thacker Pass: Scene Report

Proposed/Speculative

Visitor information

Numu (Northern Paiute) land

Nevada

41°42'30.2"N 118°04'07.3"W

Famartin, dust storm near Thacker Pass, via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

The lithium craze won’t end with Rhyolite Ridge–it’s only one of countless such mines being proposed just for the state of Nevada. The lithium scene is the worst kind: the rich people want to be there, and they’ve got a share to sell you, too. Unfortunately, the pit at Thacker Pass is a lot closer to actually being opened up.

The mine being proposed here by the company Lithium Americas is in the remnants of a giant supervolcano that collapsed in on itself after the eruption was over, creating a caldera–a word that is reminiscent of a witch or perhaps a band made up of the kind of spiky punks who only wear shorts in winter and only wear pants in summer. Also like a bad punk show, this particular caldera started out with a bang about 16.3 million years ago but ended up with an empty pit in the middle not long after the shit kicked off. Over the course of a measly few hundred thousand years the rain slowly beat down and eroded and generally fucked up the volcanic rocks, bringing them (and their lithium) down to rest in a lake that formed in the middle of the empty volcano crater. The clay from the lake bed has been brought back to the surface in more recent volcanic uplifts, and this is the stuff that Lithium Americas wants to mine.17

According to them, it’ll be pretty easy. First they’ll have to scrape off the layer of sagebrush and overburden, which is about five meters thick. After that, they’ll just dig the ore right up, cart it over to the mill, and dunk it in some sulfuric acid to “attack the ore and liberate the lithium from the clay,” yielding the final product of lithium carbonate.18 The whole thing has such a revolutionary ring to it, though it’s certainly a wack revolution–no doubt leaving a dictator in its wake.

Of course, they’re also going to have to scrape off the layer of Western Shoshone/Newe and Paiute/Nuwu sacred cultural and natural heritage, and as you might imagine, many Paiute-Shoshone people aren’t too stoked about that. They also aren’t too stoked about the land being torn up generally, the air being fouled with exhaust and mining junk, the water being used up (mining lithium always seems to use a shit-ton of pumped groundwater–3,224 gallons per minute, in this case!), and perhaps most worrisome of all, the racial and gendered violence that inevitably follows the man-camps and transient labor that mining relies upon.19 The Paiute-Shoshone-led People of Red Mountain has collected and organized this lack of stoke into a growing resistance movement gathering support from Nevada tribes, publicizing the effects of lithium mining on Indigenous peoples, and erecting protest camps at the site of the mine and the proposed housing for mine workers.

On US public lands, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issues (most of) the permits that allow mines to move forward. One of the most important documents in the permitting process is the Record of Decision reached as a result of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for a project. The process for permitting a mine can take so long that many projects never even reach a record of decision, and indeed the BLM website uses an uncharacteristically exuberant exclamation mark to indicate when a decision has actually been decided. FEIS documents are supposed to be exhaustive, but instead they’re just exhausting, and it’s revealing to see what they make space for and what they do not. In the FEIS for this particular mine, which is in excess of 600 pages, the section titled “Native American Religious Concerns,” which encompasses all concerns that Native American tribes in the area may have, is a mere page and a half long.20

Our country’s energy transition is moving forward on the backs of Indigenous people. And it’s mostly hype and bad ideas. Every website for a company hoping to mine lithium touts its proximity to the Tesla Gigafactory in Reno–the main facility where Tesla builds the batteries for their cars. There are at least 56 proposed lithium mines in Nevada alone. All for… cars?!? IT’S A STUPID IDEA! WE COULD HAVE JUST KEPT THE TRAIN TO CANDELARIA.

This horrible vision for an energy transition seems to somehow drag forth a profound lack of imagination from some veins of the resistance to this mine too. I’m talking specifically about the degrowth-touting Deep Green Resistance affiliate Protect Thacker Pass. Deep Green Resistance/Protect Thacker Pass are radical environmental organizations whose core mission is to bring “[recognition] that industrial civilization is incompatible with life on this planet,” which is a pretty good point when you think about it. Unfortunately they also happen to have a pretty nasty anti-trans streak running through their work,21 and as “radical feminists” and “gender abolitionists” they are staunch in their assertion that trans women remain “people born male and socialized into masculinity.” This has come to a head in their refusal to allow trans women in women-only spaces they facilitate.22 It’s bad enough to have to fight against a future envisioned solely by Lithium Guys™, but now these fools come along and they’re only able to offer a future that’s…free of trans people? I suppose it’s also free of Teslas, which would be great, but they lose me (and most of their other allies) with the anti-trans bullshit–FUCK THAT!

You’d think that a movement standing in “solidarity with Indigenous people” would honor their stated concerns, like the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit people (MMIWG2S) that is central to the work of People of Red Mountain. That last part should be hard to forget–it has a number, which catches your attention! Somehow Deep Green Resistance managed to skip right over it. People of Red Mountain has cut ties with Protect Thacker Pass and even temporarily removed all protest camps from the proposed mine site23 (though they have since returned).

Indigenous tribal history and sovereignty raises a fundamental question: given that the United States has relied on Indigenous expropriation to carry out basically all energy pasts and continues to do so in envisioning energy futures, does this country have a right to an energy transition at all?24 If our decarbonization doesn’t honor Indigenous stewardship and the rights of other species besides our own, if it relies on mineral extraction at the expense of Indigenous life and freedom, what rights can this country claim to carry out that transition? And obviously there’s the complication that the US is largely to blame for the problem in the first place. We fucked it up for everyone else. Granted, the “we” is largely just mining and petroleum executives–maybe they should go ahead and sit this one out in the pit.

Even further beyond the question of whether or not the US has any right to anything, anywhere, at any time, is the question of whether an energy transition like the one developing right now at Thacker Pass constitutes a transition at all. Indigenous dispossession has been the operating procedure for US government policy and US extractive industry since the country was in diapers. Look where that got us. How can we expect an energy “transition” that continues this same unbroken lineage of shame and betrayal to lead to better results? Spoiler alert: the lithium executives don’t actually care about the results.

The economic and technical structures buttressing the mining industry and its fantasy of a minerals-driven energy transition are actually pretty creative–you’ve never seen such banking! If any movement is going to offer a compelling alternative, it will have to be equally creative. People much smarter than me have thought a lot about such movement building, which in my opinion is well summed up by the Transnational Institute and the London Mining Network:

For those who have historically focused on holding the mining industry to account at points of production, focusing on questions of labour and environmental impacts, there is a challenge to link with those who, in the context of the climate crisis, are challenging the very model of capitalism arguing for entirely new ways of organizing production and consumption (such as decommodifying transport, energy, healthcare, etc.). Forging such alliances may be challenging, but necessary in order to shift power away from the transnational companies seeking to control, and profit from, transitions minerals.25

Personally, I just love reminding everyone that electric cars are utterly worthless as a climate solution.

So this time, leave your fucking Tesla at home, or better yet in a landfill (just recycle all that lithium first). If you head out to Thacker Pass, you can thank the Nevada Rail Coalition for working to make your visit more feasible by public transportation, and when you get there go check out the Virgin Valley Opal Mines and make a stop at Bog Hot Springs. While you’re at it, make a donation to the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe and the People of Red Mountain.

* * *

I never get tired of looking at pits. Take active mines, for instance–I’m thrilled with a formal visitor center where I can listen to someone talk to me about “the minerals that make modern life,” have my picture taken in front of the giant haul truck tire, and join the little kids picking through the ore samples dumped in the parking lot. Abandoned pits–far more numerous–are even better. All the enabling infrastructure–the buildings, the trucks, the electric lines, the water pipes–has been scraped away and carted off somewhere else, and what’s left is the incredibly lonely sound of occasional rock fall filling the hole back up. The quiet, empty pit at the end of a long dirt road is a visceral reminder of all the bad ideas that came and went, leaving some ripped-up earth and making someone who lives somewhere else very rich.

Indeed, the significance of the pit is sometimes to be found in what you don’t see. Mining is carried out not just through advanced geotechnical sensing and measurements but also (and especially) through advanced and fantastical economic sensing and measurements, and probably more of the latter than the former. The shape, depth, and location of the proposed pits at Thacker Pass (and most modern mines) are software optimized26, based a little bit on where the minerals are located under the ground but a lot more on investment strategies, cash flow targets, et cetera.

At the front of many technical mining documents is a “cautionary note regarding forward-looking information,” required by Canadian securities law (for all the mines being located here in Nevada, Canada is where the corporate mining scene is really jumping off) and reminding all those sharp investors that the future is not known. Just like cryptocurrency, mining investment is pure speculation, even if it is carried out by people who take a little more pleasure in the affordances of the material world and the shape of the pit. The excavations being planned in these documents are based as much, maybe more, on economic black magic as they are on geologic structure or geographic planning.

Hopefully you’re reading this in comfort, but somewhere someone labored on Indigenous land to dig out the stuff that made the hunk of minerals you’re reading this on. Any extraction process is messy, and the hole will be around long after the mining company goes away. The interesting, aggravating, oppressive weirdness about mining is the interaction between the physical activity of the act itself and the abstracted economics of the logics that drive it. Mining work is intensely physical–pits are dug, rocks are blown up and moved around and crushed and pulverized, chemistry is altered. But the logics that dictate how the work of mining happens–even down to the shape of the pit–are utterly abstract, driven by available capital, commodity market prices, investor portfolios. The minerals themselves are never rare, but the location where the money to be made exceeds the work that has to be done is a little less common, and that is where you’ll find the pit.

* * *

THANK YOU! I don’t even know some of these people, but I need to thank them. Thank you to Alison Jean Cole, Yadira Ibarra, and Liat Berdugo for helping me to truly believe what I thought might be true: that geology is cool and fun. Thank you to Jael Holzman and Ingrid Burrington for helping me to understand that it was worthwhile to be a weirdo, rather than a geotechnical engineer or venture capitalist, and to be interested in mining. Thank you to Erica Dawn Lyle for demonstrating the beauty and freedom of punk writing. Thank you to Elisabeth Nicula for introducing me to this publication and getting me thinking about scenes, fungibility, and the void. Thank you to editors Erica X Eisen and James Baxter for the immense time they have put into the impossible task of trying to make this piece of writing make sense. They’ve all seen the pits.

1 This figure is for copper mined in the entire United States. “Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022.” Report. Mineral Commodity Summaries. Reston, VA, 2022. USGS Publications Warehouse.

2 “Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022.”

3 Page, Ben M. “Geology of the Candelaria Mining District, Mineral County, Nevada.” Bulletin. NBMG Publications. Reno, NV: Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, 1959.

4 “Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022.”

5 “Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022.”

6 Coope, J. Alan. “Carlin Trend Exploration History: Discovery of the Carlin Deposit.” Special Publication. NBMG Publications. Reno, NV: Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, 1991.

7 Radtke, Arthur S. “Geology of the Carlin Gold Deposit, Nevada.” USGS Numbered Series. Geology of the Carlin Gold Deposit, Nevada. Vol. 1267. Professional Paper. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1985.

8 “Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022.”

9 Bowlin, Nick, and Daniel Rothberg. “Gold Country: A Precious Metal, a Mining Mega-Corp and a Captive Workforce.” High Country News, January 1, 2022.

10 21% to “physical bar,” 14% to “central banks and other institutions,” and 10% to “official coins and medals and imitation coins.” From “Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022.”

11 Mines use a LOT of water, and frequently the limiting factor for a mine is water. But unlike you and me, a mine doesn’t pay the water utility for that shit. The right to use water from a watercourse or pump it from the ground is called a water right, and in Nevada and most western states it can be bought and sold as an ownership right that is completely separate from the land where the water exists. Most large mines have some kind of water right giving them access to the water they need to operate, and as long as they use no more than allowed under their water right they are under no obligation to reduce their use, regardless of drought conditions. For more, see here.

12 “Mineral Commodity Summaries 2022.”

13 Blair, James J A, Ramón M Balcázar, Javiera Barandiarán, and Amanda Maxwell. “Exhausted: HOW WE CAN STOP LITHIUM MINING FROM DEPLETING WATER RESOURCES, DRAINING WETLANDS, AND HARMING COMMUNITIES IN SOUTH AMERICA.” Natural Resources Defense Council, April 2022.

14 ioneer Ltd. “Lithium-Boron Project: Regional Geology.” Ioneer Ltd: The Rhyolite Ridge Project (blog). Accessed July 3, 2022.

15 Donnelly, Patrick, and Naomi Fraga. “Petition Asks Federal Officials to Protect Rare Plant’s Habitat From Nevada Mine.” Center for Biological Diversity, March 29, 2021.

16 ioneer Ltd, “Lithium-Boron Project: Regional Geology.”

17 Ehsani, Risa, Louis Fourie, Andrew Hutson, Daniel Peldiak, Rob Spiering, John Young, and Ken Armstrong. “Technical Report on the Pre-Feasibility Study for the Thacker Pass Project, Humboldt County, Nevada, USA.” Burnaby, BC, Canada: Lithium Americas, August 1, 2018.

18 Ehsani et al., “Technical Report on the Pre-Feasibility Study for the Thacker Pass Project, Humboldt County, Nevada, USA.”

19 People of Red Mountain. “About Us – People of Red Mountain,” 2021.

20 U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of and Land Management Humboldt River Field Office. “Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project: Final Environmental Impact Statement.” Final Environmental Impact Statement. Winnemucca, NV: U.S. Bureau of Land Management, December 4, 2020.

21 Holzman, Jael. “How an ‘Anti-Trans’ Group Split the Fight against a Lithium Mine.” E&E News, January 27, 2022, Greenwire edition.

22 Deep Green Resistance. “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).” Accessed July 19, 2022.

23 Holzman, “How an ‘Anti-Trans’ Group Split the Fight against a Lithium Mine.”

24 For some background on this: Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays: A Tribal Voice. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.

25 Barbesgaard, Mads, and Andy Whitmore. “Smoke and Minerals: How the Mining Industry Plans to Profit from the Energy Transition.” Issue Brief. Amsterdam/London: Transnational Institute and London Mining Network, June 15, 2022.

26 Ehsani et al., “Technical Report on the Pre-Feasibility Study for the Thacker Pass Project, Humboldt County, Nevada, USA.” For more on the software in question, see here.

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