Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Burro Sitting on a Lithium Mine

I came across this story on the BBC when I was clarifying some facts about Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni for a page on my Andean Observer website.

It turns out that below the surface of the salar lies about 50% of the world's commercially viable lithium deposits. As anyone who has compared a lithium battery to a normal alkaline battery will be aware, lithium stores energy better than alternative substances. Lithium batteries are the preferred technology for new fully electric and hybrid cars being produced by Toyota, GM and other companies. With demand for lithium set to increase rapidly, auto makers are eager to see its production stepped up.

Ironically, impoverished Bolivia once again has something that the rich world desparately wants.

The BBC article itself is quite a good, well-balanced piece. But the guy who writes the copy doesn't get to do the captions, and I can imagine Damian Kahya not being particularly impressed by the note under a photo of salt mounds on the salar that Bolivia's lithium reserves could bring wealth to the country.

As the article points out, wave after wave of resource extraction certainly has not brought wealth to the altiplano. Bolivia is a classic illustration of the 'resource curse', where a surfeit of natural riches within a country produces only massive inequality, corruption, conflict and environmental damage.

Bolivia's government is not enthusiastic about opening up the salt flats to mining. The BBC reports Minister for Mining Luis Alberto Echazu as saying:

"We will not repeat the historical experience since the fifteenth century: raw materials exported for the industrialisation of the west that has left us poor."

This is fair enough. Bolivia's original experience with mineral riches was the mass enslavement of indigenous workers in the silver and tin mines of Potosi. Times have moved on since the 16th century, but the current simmering conflict over gas revenues demonstrates that turning resource wealth into benefit for all is far from a straightforward proposition.

Of the countries 'cursed' with mineral riches, Chile (copper) and Botswana (diamonds) are the notable exceptions where this wealth has contributed to sustainable development. And even in the best cases the unhealthy dominance of a single product produces economic and social distortions. Chile's military still benefits from a law developed during the Pinochet regime which awards it a guaranteed percentage of the revenue from the national copper mining company, and the military's disproportionate strength continues to cast a shadow over local democracy and the regional balance of power.

Bolivia's government is planning a small-scale lithium mining pilot project which will be under local control. The BBC article suggests impatience from the auto companies that this will not lead to enough production quickly enough to satify their demands.

Although it's good that car companies are now getting over their reluctance about developing electric vehicles, this isn't as progressive as it might look. I'm not all that sympathetic to 'no more growth' environmentalism, but in this case the pattern that environmentalists warn about is all too evident. The problems of peak oil and global warming caused by historical modes of western oil consumption are being 'addressed' by moving on to exploit another finite resource extracted from another environmentally fragile setting.

In essence, the purpose of escalating lithium production would be to allow people in the rich world to swap one addiction for another and carry on driving their cars around in the same way as before. In Bolivia, where functional roads are few and far between, and private cars extremely rare, there's an understandable lack of urgency about this objective.

With its 10,000 square kilometres of shimmering salt, the Salar de Uyuni is one the natural wonders of the world. It's not even economically 'idle', but is a focus of tourism which leaves visitors in awe their surroundings and gives reign to the imagination. It would be a tragedy to see such a unique place despoiled by mining.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

That Was Kind of Tough

Hair missed a long-overdue cut. Routine shopping trips to buy replacement clothes and toiletries were put off or never happened. Visits to the gym were missed or squeezed into ineffectual half hours between lectures. Numerous invitations to concerts, movies and dinner had to be turned down with an anti-social mumble about "assignment due in on Wednesday". Food preparation was haphazard: regular overloads on fish and chips or Chinese were balanced by the odd day when I subsisted mainly on weetbix and milk.

Perhaps most worringly, ideas for blog posts appeared and were considered, and then were quietly shelved.

The past eight months I've been doing three-quarters of the papers part of a Master of Development Studies, as well as working four days a week in a fairly demanding job in the bureaucracy. It's one of the harder things I've done. That might make it sound like I've had a remarkably easy life, but I'm referring more to stretching my mental limits than to any physical or emotional hardship.

I kind of feel like my brain has been under a heat-lamp for the past several months, and as it has cooled has shrunk and wrinkled, like sensitive fabric in a tumble dryer. For the first week or so after handing in my last assignment I could hardly develop a coherent thought, let alone write it down. I sat down to compose simple emails to friends or family then got up after starting blankly at the screen for ten minutes. When I was studying, sleep was disturbed; within a moment of waking for any reason, my consciousness immediately resumed worrying away at the problematic paragraph that had been abandoned the night before. After the end of term, although I was dog weary, I still couldn't sleep properly either, as my mind tried stubbornly to latch on to some alternative source of stress.

My flatmate Noam says this is normal and that he spent a couple of months in this state after finishing his PhD. I'm hoping that my intellectual capacities, such as they are, will return after a bit of rest and what what we are seeing here is not an early descent into senility. After all, I still need to do a thesis.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Exercising Our Democratic Rights

On Saturday morning shortly after eleven o'clock, I went with my flatmate Noam and his girlfriend Rachel down to the Aro Valley community centre to vote in the New Zealand general election, before we even got our food and coffee.

It was a sunny day with fluffy clouds framing the hills, and a light chill lingering from the previous day's southerly storm. There was a steady stream of people making their way to and from the voting booths. Lingering outstide the community centre, I heard at least four different languages being spoken. People were smiling; the atmosphere was relaxed and almost festive.

Inside were two rows of tables staffed by mostly young people, while fresh-faced observers with combed hair and wearing different-coloured party rosettes milled around with clipboards. The left side was for people who were registered in the Wellington Central electorate while the right hand tables took care of those with the slightly more complex task of making a special vote.

We had little ATM-sized cards with our names and addresses, which we'd cut out along the dotted line from the letter in the 'enrolment pack' that all registered voters had been sent about a week previously.

The girl at the desk took my card, looked up my name in the enrolment book, carefully crossed it out with a ruler and pen, and handed me a voting slip. I took the piece of paper behind a flimsy booth assembled from folded cardboard, took a fat orange marker pen and ticked my preferred party and electorate candiate, then dropped the folded paper into the 'Wellington Central' box on my way out the door.

The whole process took about three minutes. It was no more complex than making a bank deposit, notably simpler than mailing a package, and as reassuringly low-tech as either. You have to admire the dedication of those who stood hours in line on a weekday to vote in the US election, and the gravitas that gave the whoel event. But in its efficiency and low-key pleasantness, election day in New Zealand was 21st-century democracy.

About the results, perhaps the less said the better for now.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

(Some Kind of) Change Is Gonna Come

The world is not going to change overnight. The United States remains in large part a socially conservative, insular, exceptionalist place (though hardly worse than New Zealand on the first two counts or, say, France on the last).

The patchwork quilt of American perspectives and passions is illustrated by some of the propositions that were added to the ballot in various states. Arizona, Florida and California voted for bans on gay marriage. Nebraska voted decisively to 'end affirmative action', while a similar vote in Colorado was too close to call. Colorado also rejected a proposition to define human life as beginning at the moment of conception -- though 27 percent of people voted in favour. From the liberal corner, Michigan voted to permit medical marijuana and (only just) stem-cell research, while Washington passed by a 60-40 margin a proposition that would allow doctor-assisted suicide.

Even if he wanted to, it's unlikely that Obama could sign up to the International Criminal Court, end the War on Drugs, or drive a fairer, less unilateralist approach to international trade and intellectual property law. Obama himself might be portrayed as an uber-liberal by his detractors, but his stated policies would position him as a pretty dry centrist in most parts of the western world. Managing the fallout from the financial crisis, starting some kind of orderly extraction from Iraq, and making a few baby steps towards health care reform are already herculean-enough tasks for a first term. A little progress on alternative energy and non-paranoid immigration policy would be an added bonus.

Caveats aside, let's face it, it feels like a dark, heavy cloud has lifted. At the very least, the sane and rational people are back in charge. The sensible, generous, optimistic side of America was in the ascendancy at last week's election, with outsiders in the unaccustomed position of drawing inspiration rather than despair from events in the US. The dark specter of racism hasn't exactly been ended by Obama's victory, but the symbolic value is enough to get people digging out their Sam Cooke.

The turn for the better should mainly be of benefit to US citizens themselves, who can be a little more confident that the executive arm of their government will show a little more sincerity and humility in pursuing its core objectives. But that might also mean that some other countries are a little less able to project their own pathologies onto an imperial scapegoat.

Should Obama grow weary of the inspiring speeches, be slow and cautious in his reforms, and generally turn out to be little other than a studious, lawyerly technocrat with a good command of the English language, that will still be a massive improvement and a cause for hope.