Marc Gopin and Tom Duncan
August 11, 2017
A good point was raised recently as we have all been piling on fossil fuel as the ultimate evil on the planet, whereas electric cars, self-driving cars and the sophisticated algorithms of a global taxi system could finally bring us to the end of the combustion engine. That would be a nice good riddance, but some are crying foul. Cobalt is essential for the new kind of cars, and it is a virtual certainty that the same extractive industry that brought us the horror of coal mines will bring us a horror of exploitation through the extraction of cobalt. Indeed, it is already happening in Congo. Imagine what the fossil fuel industry and the climate deniers will do with great headlines, screaming “Liberals drive feel good electric cars while torturing children”.
The tough question: Is it as ethical as we think to switch from fossil fuel extraction to cobalt extraction? The short answer is yes, but wait for the long answer too. The short answer is yes, because fossil fuels are leading to the extinction of much of life on earth by the vast majority of scientists’ projections. By sheer numbers of all of sentient lives at stake, all of the trillions of humans of the future, all of the animal life, we live in an emergency time when we must reverse global warming, and in fact we have the means to do so.
Speaking with the wisdom of the great ethical traditions, the utilitarian ethical calculus is clear in favor of saving the most lives, now and in the future.
But that still leaves a more principled or Kantian point of view deeply troubled by buying cobalt at the present time, and the principled ethicists should be, and should take action to change the situation.
First, a reality check. Much of the diamond mining, oil mining in Africa and the rare metals mining all share horrific conditions and environmental degradation.
Here then are the Kantian ethical recommendations.
1. These industries should be either cleaned up and made more socially and environmentally sustainable or shut down. No in between.
2. There are rare earth mines in USA, Canada and Australia that could serve electric cars, but the price is cheaper from other nations and so these mines don't operate. There needs to be a commitment from electric car and battery companies to sign up to an accord pledging they won't buy from these mines in the Congo, and impose heavy fines if they don't stand by the agreement. Same way the blood diamond campaign happened by building awareness into the supply chain.
3. Congo produces 65% of the world's cobalt, and that is a problem, since it will be irresistible to use their cobalt if the big money moves toward electric cars. So there is an issue of distribution of capital and how those decisions get made without reference to social and environmental impacts, which is not a problem exclusive to electric vehicles, it's a problem for all industrial markets of the world.
4. Instead capital needs to move in ways that serve social and environmental good, whereas till now capital has only the function of increasing more capital, no matter the consequence. Consequences such as the 40,000 children working in terrible conditions that most likely will kill them as young adults. It's a systemic issue, not singular to electric vehicles.
5. Nearly all types of mining are bad in terms of impacts. If you say all types of mining have horrible impacts, you then look at other impacts of their life cycle. It turns out that electric vehicles are 2x better than gasoline cars with life cycle emissions, and batteries are now 95% recyclable. So there will be much less mining overall once large amounts of batteries are in the marketplace circulation. Less mining, less exploitation. And electric cars have 3.7x less emissions when using 100% renewable energy grid. But lowering emissions in one part of the world cannot lead to enslavement and violence against people, children and the environment as a trade off in another part of the world, and so we must move forward with the switch, and at the same time fight for the ethical extraction of cobalt, as we have done with diamonds.
6. Finally, we need to stop outsourcing misery to the rest of the world, we need to bring home local manufacturing and therefore locally sustainable practices. It means we may pay more, but frankly the mining companies have been privatizing profits and socializing losses for decades. So the true cost is never accounted for, and that needs to change. The electric car is not the problem, on the contrary. But global extraction by the industrialized world from the developing world has often been a travesty, in terms of social and environmental costs, known in the mining sector and more broadly in capital markets as 'externalities'. Externalities cannot be allowed to accumulate in arrears on the social and environmental multi-capital balance sheet. We need competent economic plans that are both realistic in terms of global markets and fair in terms of local benefits.
Dr. Marc Gopin is Director of CRDC, and James Laue Professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, and Tom Duncan is a 15 year veteran of Environmental Justice Practice and Research, and Research Fellow at CRDC, and Director of its Back To Eden Project on a Sustainable Earth