I was crippled initially by the lithium mining. The timing felt uncanny.
In spring 2019 I’d put together a free challenge, a virtual invitation to gather in circle and consider how we might find a new way to right our relationship with earth.
150 or so people responded. I was thrilled, humbled and awed at the way the message took hold. In my tiny sphere, that’s a lot of readers and likeminded souls. We’d fill a sizeable church hall; I pictured us thronging on the hillside here where I live. Instead, we rallied in a Facebook group; a light in the darkness, a pocket of sanity amid the chaos. Together we shared our deep distress and dilemma at the destruction of the planet, and our own complicitness in it.
One of the actions we took was to identify the qualities we’d need to have, as surviving humans in a resilient future, and think about how we could integrate them into our daily lives. I knew that flying was one of the biggest contributors to emissions and the cheap Ryanair flights connecting our homestead in Portugal to family in the UK had been bothering me for some time now.
So on a trip to visit family planned for the week of the challenge, I travelled by train. The habit I wanted to cultivate – slow, meaningful travel. It was a journey of 24 hours or so, with a toddler.
One of the lessons I took from it was that the additional expense of a bunk on the sleep train would have been worth the cost. As it was, sharing one cramped seat in a packed carriage on the overnight leg to Spain was less than restful. I also managed to misread our Paris connection, necessitating a dash across the city to make the Eurostar. What would have been an easy sprint as a single traveller became a nightmarish, sweaty trial, clutching rucksack, toddler and buggy through endless Metro corridors – but we made it.
I arrived in England exhausted, wracked with anxiety about the people I was about the lead through this “challenge” – and coming down, I was to realise, with a grim flu-like stomach bug.
And then I heard about the lithium mines.
Portugal’s already Europe’s biggest lithium producer, but most of the current, small supply goes towards the porcelain and ceramics industries. With the shift towards renewables, in particular electric cars, thats changing. Lithiu is becoming one of the most sought-after minerals on the planet – and economically-challenged Portugal is sensing the possibility of a gold rush.
In May, the government announced plans for an international auction of lithium exploration licenses. Bidders were expected to commit to building a local lithium refinery. At that time, regions had already been selected for auction to global mining companies, with a potential ninth region under review. The regions under exploration included most of Central Portugal, where our farm nestles under the Serra da Estrela mountain range.
The potential impact of the mining is spelled out in this Wired article, reflecting on the global impact of our new lust for rare minerals.
“In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 per cent of the region’s water. That is having a big impact on local farmers – who grow quinoa and herd llamas – in an area where some communities already have to get water driven in from elsewhere.
There’s also the potential – as occurred in Tibet – for toxic chemicals to leak from the evaporation pools into the water supply. These include chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, which are used in the processing of lithium into a form that can be sold, as well as those waste products that are filtered out of the brine at each stage. In Australia and North America, lithium is mined from rock using more traditional methods, but still requires the use of chemicals in order to extract it in a useful form. Research in Nevada found impacts on fish as far as 150 miles downstream from a lithium processing operation.”
Not in my backyard?
I thought I wanted a zero carbon future. A future of renewable energy.
But I felt it in my bones, when I saw the images of the mines, lying in a bed in a brick house on a London street, longing for my adopted home. The outrageous moral wrongness of such a proposal. The fierceness with which I would fight it.
I think about the bats that dance outside our door at sunset. The buzzards; I can count six or eight of them in a day; the snakes and mice and crickets that scatter in the grass.
The carpet of wildflowers, the plantain and the mugwort, the wild roses and the trout in the river.
This place is precious to me, immigrant though I am. This land is, though I wouldn’t have used the word at one point, sacred.
And it brought me up short. Sent me into an inner turmoil of sorts. As Extinction Rebellion brought London to a halt, as people around the world linked arms and joined forces, I felt the ground crumble beneath my feet again.
The world was collapsing, and zero carbon felt like a solution.
And now, that solution felt like false ground.
I was falling again.
Finding solid ground
Sometimes, our bodies give us clues that our brains take a while to catch up with.
I wept. I wept because my logical mind was at odds with what I felt.
But as luck would have it, someone in the group I’d gathered what felt like a lifetime ago – though was only a week or so past – recommended a book I’d already stashed away to read.
I turned to it, and was astonished to find my very dilemma laid out within its pages.
Charles Eisenstein writes:
“Imagine that you are trying to stop a strip mine by citing the fuel use of the equipment and the lost carbon sink of the forest that needs to be cleared, and the mining company says, “Okay, we’re going to do this in the most green way possible; we are going to fuel our bulldozers with biofuels, run our computers on solar power, and plant two trees for every tree we chop down.” You get into a tangle of arithmetic, none of which touches the real reason you wanted to stop the mine—because you love that mountaintop, that forest, those waters that would be poisoned.”
In other words, my instincts to protect my beautiful home were the ones I needed to trust right now.
Yes, I believed in reducing, even halting, carbon emissions.
Because I wanted to save the mountains, the buzzards, the fish. Sacrificing the beautiful complex holy life-sustaining systems of earth to meet numerical carbon targets on a spreadsheet was an end which emphatically did not justify the means.
I realised that the change I was feeling called to instigate ran a whole lot deeper than simple substitution of one form of inductrial capitalism for another.
In Eisentstein’s words, again,
“Protecting and healing local ecosystems around the world is much more disruptive to civilization as we know it than weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.”
Going back to the start
You know, when I started on this path of resistance I wasn’t campaigning against plastic use or telling people to ride bikes.
I wanted to deepen my connection to the earth. To live more seasonally, that is to say simply. To stop pretending that life was one long, lights-on, 24/7 consistent factory production line.
I wanted to remember that my life ebbs and flows with each season; I wanted to feel the heat of August in my bones, I wanted to really inhabit the cold dark despair of winter.
I wanted to be reborn each spring, like the soft leaves of the oak trees, uncurling into the sun.
And I still think, really, that’s the route – the root – I want to burrow into. When it comes to changing how we live, and what we do. Reducing our emissions, rebelling against consumerism, working less and connecting more – these are all a side effect of learning to really listen to the land. Of beginning to cultivate a relationship with the rocks, the sky, the plants.
The noise and the politicians; the posturing and the technological advances; the exhortations to buy this instead of that. I grow tired of them. I don’t want to buy things.
I think the whole system’s on the verge of collapse, anyway, and I don’t know what that means for me or my children or yours.
And so, I slow down
I think perhaps we could all do with slowing down.
I cultivate the habits that I think will serve me, slowly, little by little. Day by day. I ask myself who I need to become, now that this world is changing. Who do I need to be, not to do harm, not to contribute to the problem. And who do I need to be to survive, to be resilient, to be someone who might be able to be some sort of refuge.
Paul Kingsnorth has written of his gradual shift from a kind of violent activism, to a belief that the world we’re in is in the process of collapse. That the best work we can do is try to find new stories – or reclaim lost, old ones – and in doing so change small communities, conversations, selves. Now, he says,
“I think actually that that’s what the work is—people doing things at really quite a small level—at a personal level—doing their small work.”
Doing my small work, telling the story of my connection to this land, and inviting those who connect with this idea to connect to their place, feels like the truest and wisest way for me to move forward at this time.
We’re not all battling lithium mining.
There’s injustice, exploitation and greed happening everywhere you look. In our own hearts, our own homes, our own families.
In taking the past few months to reflect and re-root, I’ve seen the choices I’ve made through fresh eyes. The garden I’m tending, the trees I’m planting, the strange lifestyle I’ve chosen and the community I’m part of.
All of them small pieces in a bigger puzzle, in the resistance I beleive I am a part of. In the quiet and sacred mycelium network spreading across the globe, which you are perhaps a part of too.
And so I found hope again. No simple answers, no one-size-fits-all strategies. But a love for my land that I’m willing to bet might save us, and a quiet knowing that your love for your land will do the same.
Connection, and faith.
Just in time for summer.