About two-thirds of the way through Volt Rush, Henry Sanderson interrupts his description of the pack of corporate scavengers picking over central Africa’s copper belt to quote the first lines of V S Naipaul’s unremittingly bleak novel of post-colonial commerce A Bend in the River. ‘The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.’
In a book built around hard science and shoe-leather journalism – Sanderson was the Financial Times commodities and mining correspondent for six years – the literary excursus is unexpected. It’s nevertheless oddly congruous, in topic and in tone. Volt Rush, like A Bend in the River, is about progress’s secret kinship with collapse, and the dark paths dreams take as they turn into nightmares. Batteries, the hidden midwives of the renewables revolution, are here to save the world: that’s how Elon Musk sees it. But when viewed from the polluted deserts of Chile, the 24/7 factories of China and the half-ruined mines of central Africa, they seem like they’re here to condemn it.
Speculation meets geopolitics
We begin with a series of sacred cows, marked for the abattoir. The first conceit to the slaughter: solar, wind and tide energy are only as renewable as the batteries they depend on. Two: those batteries aren’t renewable at all. In fact, as Sanderson outlines in brisk, business-like prose, they’re reliant on a massive programme of resource extraction. Somewhere north of 40 times the amount of lithium currently in circulation – per year – will be needed to end petrol vehicles. Copper, cobalt and nickel will be required too, in unprecedented quantities. Quantities a host of variably ethical corporate entities are alternately keen to locate and happy to provide.
Sanderson’s second act starts here, in the shadowy borderland where speculation and geopolitics meet. China plays a starring role, predictably enough. Unwilling to disturb the pax americana with an expensive, and quixotic, arms race, the PRC buys up supply chains instead: butter over guns. A panicked, senescent EU, desperate to smooth the electric transition of Europe’s bloated car industry – one in 20 Europeans are employed by it – is a late but enthusiastic entry to the game. And, navigating the ragged, money-spinning edges of legality and ethics, the battle-scarred condottieri of international capital – like the malignant Glencore metals and minerals company – ride again.
The prize is the galvanic heart of a future world: one running on lithium, not oil. Elon Musk and his charmless cohort of entrepreneur-seers make futurist cameos here, though prophecies of sea-floor strip mines and desert-wide refineries sound like a threat, not a promise. Mining is infamously environmentally unfriendly; the likely impact of the ‘green revolution’ ought to give pause to partisans on the left, if scope alone doesn’t do the job. The industry doesn’t play nicely with people either, inflicting reliably horrific human damage with every pound of lithium we drag from the bloodied earth. An indirect future benefit for the climate is mortgaged on a great deal of direct ecological destruction in the here and now.
It’s an article of faith for some that capitalism can’t manage the climate crisis. Volt Rush demonstrates in anatomic detail how dated that view is becoming. Even the villainous Glencore is forced, by Volt Rush’s end, to reconsider its indurate love of coal. A ‘green’ transition is possible under the present system of affairs. Across the third world, as Sanderson demonstrates, it’s already beginning to unfold. But transition for whom? And towards what?
Sanderson’s smooth, limpid storytelling brightens the deadening business of commodities trading: attention to the bizarre, often unpleasant characters populating the industry gives his narrative a personable shine. It makes his eventual retreat into techno-optimism all the more striking. A grim story of profiteers and environmental collapse culminates in a homiletic reflection on the broad lithium-lit uplands opening up for the whole human race.
It’s an article of faith for some that capitalism can’t manage the climate crisis. Volt Rush demonstrates in anatomic detail how dated that view is becoming
But surprise – at least in this case – has to be tempered with the discomfort of self-recognition. Indefinite exploitation of finite resources; the maintenance, or expansion, of the extraction economy; the overarching, non-negotiable need to keep the industrial economy functioning as it has for two hundred years – the left might have more in common with Elon Musk than we’d like to admit.
‘Net zero’ presents itself as a clean break with the bad old carboniferous era but from the perspective of a Congolese child miner, or an indigenous Colombian, it’s more of the same. From the perspective of the natural world, exploited and destroyed in methods and regions previously unimaginable, it spells the escalation, not the end, of the disaster. The environmental benefits of the battery revolution, considered outside the arid realm of emissions statistics, seem dubious. To paraphrase the old Vietnam war saying: has it become necessary to destroy the environment in order to save it?
Nowhere is safe
The ‘green revolution’, confined to a shift in the focus of the industrial economy, leaves extant structures of power – and disempowerment – untouched. It prolongs destructive patterns of consumption, attenuates parasitic corporate cartels, intensifies paleo-imperialist exploitation of the third world. Worst of all, it stops us thinking.
An opportunity to radically reimagine humanity’s relationship to the natural world is being squandered. Instead, as Volt Rush comprehensively – if not always intentionally – demonstrates, we’re offered a future that looks much like the past. Lithium-sinewed, cobalt-limbed, breathing waste, drinking air: the system continues. So will the disaster.
In the final pages of A Bend in the River, one character warns the protagonist: don’t hope. ‘Nobody’s going anywhere,’ he says. ‘We’re all going to hell, and everyone knows this in his bones. Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where?’ Naipaul had no illusions about the world we’ve made for ourselves. Nowhere, he wrote, is safe.
Madoc Cairns is a staff writer at The Tablet