Thacker Pass is a Spiritual Battleground
"If there is no struggle, there is no progress."
I’m Max Wilbert, co-author of Bright Green Lies, founder of Protect Thacker Pass, and biocentric community organizer. I use this site to educate and advocate for biocentrism, and to explore topics like sustainability, community organization, ecological overshoot, and greenwashing.
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“Have our spirits decayed to the point where the only actions we will take are in the pursuit of self-interests and self-preservation? What happened to the time when we willingly committed acts of self-sacrifice for generations we haven't even met yet? Does this not speak of the need to transform our way of being and thinking?"
— Sakej Ward (Mi’kmaw from the community of Esgenoopetitj; Burnt Church First Nation)
Some people see the battle over lithium mining at Thacker Pass as a parochial dispute over habitat and indigenous rights in a small, remote corner of the world—and it is. But at the same time, there are other layers to this story.
The situation at Thacker Pass is a new frontier in the extraction economy. As the costs of oil become unavoidable and extracting it becomes more expensive and polluting than ever, the search for a "replacement" is causing very similar environmental harms, pollution, and destruction of communities. The same old patterns of abuse are playing out once again.
But there is a deeper level.
The situation at Thacker Pass is emblematic of a struggle playing out in society that mirrors the soul of every human being: the struggle between our destructive impulses and our higher selves.
This is a topic that I increasingly find myself grappling with as I reflect on our campaign to defend this land.
Some of my friends argue that material changes precede cultural and spiritual ones; or, to put it another way, that until we’re no longer dependent on a system that is killing the planet for survival, we won’t see mass shifts in consciousness and spirituality. There is a sense in which this is true, especially if we agree with Jack D. Forbes’ proposition that religion is what we do—that every action is a prayer. Judged by their actions, most people worship gadgets, apps, video games, and television shows, and give very little to the natural world. It’s no wonder; the dominant culture rewards ecologically selfish and destructive behavior, and punishes the opposite.
Still, it is incontrovertible that change inside individual human beings is a prerequisite for action. Look at any historical resistance organization, civil rights movement, or liberation struggle, and you will find individuals undergoing deep and intensely personal spiritual journeys. These often spill out into cultural renaissances and political revolutions.
Will we make the choices we know are right, or will we succumb to base drives like greed?
How can we transform fear into faith?
Uncertainty into courage?
Paralysis into action?
This transformation is an internal process. The fight to Protect Thacker Pass began inside me decades ago as I learned to escape the challenges of adolescence and found transcendence in wild places, and it solidified in 2020 as I turned my intention towards Thacker Pass and visited the land for the first time. I wrote about my first experience in an article I’d like to share with you now.
The Cost of a Battery
Originally published in Earth Island Journal on February 1, 2021
I sit on a clifftop in northern Nevada, an hour into the desert from the nearest town —Winnemucca. It is dawn. Big sagebrush carpets the broad saddle in front of me. Its sweet smell rises to my perch. Birds wheel over the mountains to the north. The sun rises dusky red through wildfire smoke on the eastern horizon. All I can hear is the wind. It caresses my skin, still warm in early fall. All I can see is wild. But within a few months, all of this could be gone.
This place, Thacker Pass, is the site of a proposed $1.3 billion lithium mine. Lithium Americas, the corporation proposing the mine, plans to turn Thacker Pass into an industrial extraction zone stretching across more than 17,000 acres. The open pit alone would cover two square miles, and that’s just for the first stage of the mine.
Exploration areas included in Lithium America’s planning documents could triple that size, and tailings piles, processing facilities, and treatment ponds would sprawl across more land. According to project documents, the mine would burn 11,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day, and rely on more than 75 semi-truck loads of sulfur (waste from oil refineries) as the key chemical ingredient in processing the ore.
The mine, if built, would use and pollute more than 1.5 billion gallons of water per year, dropping water tables and potentially drying out 14 springs that are the only home of a springsnail species called the King’s River pyrg. It would impact golden eagles, pronghorn antelope migration routes, and the best greater sage-grouse habitat left in Nevada.
The demand for lithium is driven partly by the rise in personal electronics that use lithium-ion batteries, but mostly by skyrocketing demand for electric cars. The irony is not lost on me: millions are pinning their hopes for saving the planet on electric cars that require the destruction of this land.
Looking across the landscape, I imagine this quiet sagebrush desert turned into a mountaintop removal mine. My body shudders, my pupils contract, my heart beats faster. I feel fear for this land. These stark vistas, these star-spangled nights, these coyote mornings are threatened.
Breathing deeply, I close my eyes and sink into the land. The mountain whispers to me, speaking of its past and its future. My consciousness dwindles, and I merge into a being far vaster and older than my body can hold.
For 16 million years, there is stone and there is wind and there is water here, at the place now called Thacker Pass. There is the drumbeat of pronghorn hooves on soil. There is the patter of pygmy rabbits. There is the soundless flight of burrowing owl. There is the slow orbit of an ant around her nest, and there is the howl of coyote in the blue pre-dawn. There is the slow circling of golden eagle, and the flick of cutthroat trout’s tail downstream, where the waters of the pass rise to form creeks and rivers. There is the sound of sagebrush leaves opening and roots burrowing an inch deeper into stony soil.
Empires rise and empires fall, romances bloom and fade, humans toil and laugh and fall into their graves for thousands of generations, and through it all there is stone, there is wind, and there is water. There is the coming and going of humans, their laughter, their campfires, their moonlit kisses and breathless hunts, their slow shaping of obsidian into blade.
In my vision, greed comes, wearing the flesh of human beings and armored in corporate law. Greed eyes the mountain and sees not the pronghorn or the burrowing owl or the ants venturing out from their colony, but only what he can take by breaking it all — by violating stone and wind and water, by transgressing of 16 million years of sacred silence.
Greed sees that this mountain is full of lithium — the new white oil. Greed is a good storyteller, and he speaks of jobs and opportunities and investments, of stock options and shareholder returns, and electric cars. He speaks of saving the world.
Right now, greed gathers his men and his machines, his drillers and borers and furnaces, his explosives and his chemicals and his politicians and his bankers. And he schemes, and he plans, and he wheels and he deals. He waits for his moment to press the plunger down, to close the circuit, to shatter the mountainside.
If that happens, 16 million years of sacred silence will be shattered by the thunder of explosives. Pronghorn will turn, poised, quivering for the chase. Rabbit will freeze, not a hair stirring. Owl will hunch in her burrow over her soon-to-be-born hatchlings. Even the scurrying ants will stop as one.
In this future, explosions zipper and ripple their way down the mountainside. The mountain shudders as its body is shattered. Eyes shut tight, my body convulses as if the explosions were tearing my own flesh apart, a staccato execution, bullets tearing through flesh, bones shattering, organs pulping, nervous system frantically calling out to parts no longer connected to whole. My skin breaks out in sweat.
The neighboring peaks watch the dust rise over the corpse of their brother, and far above, prairie falcon circles over her desecrated hunting grounds.
Trucks arrive to cart away the broken fractured flesh of the mountain, carrying it to great furnaces, piling in stone and bone and the crushed bodies of ant and burrowing owl, the bodies of ancestors, and incinerating them in a great charnel pit sacrifice to progress. Stone becomes lithium becomes batteries becomes money. Wallets grow fat as the mountain grows small. Greed takes his money, sacks of it, heaps of it, mountains of it, and places it into his sleek electric car, and drives away with it and never comes back.
Maybe, in another 16 million years, the thunder of pronghorn will be back, and burrowing owl will wing soundlessly through the night again, and ant will orbit her nest, and maybe pygmy rabbit will dance between the sage, and grouse will strut their leks, and human beings will laugh around campfires once again.
And maybe not. Maybe this mountain will only live once. Maybe this is our only chance, not just for this mountain, but for all the mountains all over the world. Maybe the moment before the silence is shattered by explosives is the last moment, and the sounds of stone and wind and water, of pronghorn and lizard and burrowing owl, of ant and coyote and human laughter, the sound of prairie falcon crying out her victory over the mountainside — maybe they will never come again.
I sleep out in the open. It’s a clear night. The moon rises, drowning out the tumultuous stars. I stay up to make a small offering to a sagebrush grandmother, a great bush taller and far older than me. I bury an acorn from a white oak tree back in Oregon in the loose soil under her limbs, then lay down and fall asleep to the smell of her.
Another vision comes. I dream of a woman leading three hundred people to stand and defend this land. My dream-heart soars. We cast off false prophets and divest from their machine gods, and make our stand. Born of the flesh of the Earth, we gather to defend her skin. Warriors, poets, scientists, parents, children; we converge on the mountainside. We make coffee in the morning, and stand, shoulder to shoulder, against the mine. Will you be one of us?
When I awake, I unzip my sleeping bag, stand up, and take two steps east before finding the first feather. It is the primary feather of a prairie falcon, desert cousin of the peregrine. Then a few steps to the west, another: red-tailed hawk. Then, to the south, Raven. And to the north, Phasianidae — a sage-grouse? My mind rebels. I can hardly believe the coincidence.
But of course, it was not a coincidence.
Have you ever experienced something that is inexplicable? And yet at the same time, something that feels fated? I spoke to the land, and the land spoke back. The message was clear. Find in yourself the speed of the falcon. The adaptability of the hawk. The intellect of the raven. The stately dance of the sage-grouse. Here, we must draw a line. Here, we return to the land, to the source, and we begin to work to pay back the debts that can never be repaid. Here we find our honor.
I do not know if this mountain can be saved. But I know that in capitulation there is the death of the soul, and in fighting we fight not only for pronghorn and prairie falcon, burrowing owl and our brother coyote, but for our own wild souls. And in fighting, we have a chance to win, to turn back the land destroyers, no matter how “green” they claim to be, and keep the wild land of Thacker Pass wild.
The choice of whether or not we will win is not up to me. It is up to you.