The book I’m reading isn’t renewable at the library today because someone else has reserved it. “Great!” I write back to the librarians on the other end of the email chain. It must mean people are paying attention to this issue, hot off the presses, which the Xpress also took a look at in April, at least the campaign toward electrifying everything we ride in and on [“All Charged Up: Is Western North Carolina Ready for the Coming Electric Vehicle Surge?” April 5] and which Matt McClure had some questions about [“How Green Are Electric Vehicles?” April 26, Xpress ].
The book is Cobalt Red by Siddarth Kara, and it takes the wind right out of our battery-powered world, where some of us were just beginning to think maybe we had the fossil fuel issue solved, even if it was going to take another generation or two. No solution is as good as it seems in the beginning! Eventually, some kind of limitation is bound to set in. Let’s take the example of electric vehicles since there’s such a big push for them. And how many of us can live without our laptops and cellphones, for that matter?
While feasting in the gravy train of rechargeable batteries, we have become dependent on a process of mineral extraction — at the moment, it’s cobalt ore — trapped in underground veins, most especially in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kara’s book explains quite graphically how the people of the Congo River and its tributaries have been displaced, impoverished, forced into backbreaking, life-threatening labor, including their children, while the local leaders who learned their cutthroat style from the original predators in the Congo, the armies of King Leopold of Belgium and all the colonizers who followed in their footsteps, ignore the horror.
There are interviews with Kara online — much easier to learn the story than reading the comprehensive study he makes in the book. It doesn’t take much to be convinced. This is what we do, what we are doing. We are plundering the earth and its peoples so that some of us can have it easy for a while.
And one of the ways we try to make it easy for ourselves is to follow ecological choices when we can, like limiting our need for fossil fuels. Not easy, but switching to an electric car, well now, that doesn’t take much “doing” on our part at all. We can vote for electric vehicles for our buses and city vehicles. And we can keep following an endless downturn in resource expulsion, one that we are trying to ignore, instead of setting about the awful, overwhelming, incomprehensible work of redesigning how we live, where we go, who’s responsible — like we haven’t done in millennia, except maybe in small packages of people here and there.
How do we move en masse from our destructive patterns and habits, our expectations that science and engineering will solve it all, that some people will always be at the bottom, oh well …? To reduce the use of fossil fuels, we can try to live near or where we work. Share rides and vehicles. Learn to cook and heat again with wood or, better yet, with modern versions that work on twigs instead of logs. Nourish ourselves on gratitude that we didn’t go all the way to Armageddon riding our Priuses, taking photos with our phones, but learned to settle down and do less, just be less proud witnesses to the beauty of this world and the overwhelming hardships we have managed to endure and allow.
— Arjuna da Silva