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Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor on Community Organizing and the Impact of Lithium in California

The Salton Sea has been described as one of the worst environmental disasters in California history. The sea has been shrinking since the 1990s, and the increasingly exposed playa has led to pesticide-laced dust storms in nearby Imperial Valley. But amid this devastation there’s opportunity; today, thanks to new geothermal plants, lithium that was beneath the surface is now accessible for use in batteries and electric vehicles (EVs).

This is the backdrop for the upcoming sixth book collaboration between academics Chris Benner and Manuel Pastor: Driving Green Justice, which they worked on during a recent Bellagio Center residency.

The pair have been working together for 25 years. Chris Benner is a Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology, the Dorothy E. Everett Chair in Global Information and Social Entrepreneurship, Director of the Everett Program on Digital Tools for Social Innovation, and Director of the Institute for Social Transformation, all at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Manuel Pastor is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, where he also directs the Equity Research Institute and is the inaugural holder of the Turpanjian Chair in Civil Society and Social Change.

How is your work helping to address the climate crisis?

Manuel: The intellectual journey that Chris and I have been on together has centered on re-fashioning economics so it actually serves people. We want to take this dismal science that says there’s a world of scarcity, conflict, and individualism and open it up to the reality of mutuality, community, and belonging.

Traditional economics says that equity is antithetical to prosperity, but in fact, equity is essential to prosperity. Driving Green Justice is the first time we’ve directly taken up equity in the context of climate change and the transition to a clean-energy economy. We highlight why you can’t transition effectively and sustainably without taking into account the legacies of disadvantage, contemporary lack of participation, and potential future disparities.

Chris: Our connection to the climate crisis comes back to the inspiration and leadership of community organizations. Our work in the Salton Sea region started alongside the organization Alianza Coachella Valley, who asked us to help them craft an economic development strategy rooted in inclusivity for the broader region.

Lithium provides a tremendous economic opportunity for this community. It is essential for EVs, and the predicted demand for lithium will surge more than five-fold by 2030. But it’s not just lithium you need in EVs – you need other minerals like copper, cobalt, manganese, and zinc. So as we move from a fossil fuel-based transportation system to a materials-based transportation system, we have to ask how the communities living near these materials will be impacted by increasing extraction.

Manuel: And that’s what’s at stake in Imperial Valley. This region has been an environmental disaster zone, a place of real economic disadvantage – baked in by an agricultural industry that depends on low wages. This is also a place of structural racism, with the continued political disenfranchisement of a population that’s 85% Latinx. So the fundamental question is, will there be widespread community gains that right past wrongs, or will there simply be a repeat of what we’ve seen before: private actors benefiting from public policy without returning public benefits?

  • Traditional economics says that equity is antithetical to prosperity but, in fact, equity is essential to prosperity.

What breakthroughs need to happen for us to both avoid the worst impacts of climate change and prepare communities to adapt to the new challenges that will arise?

Chris: We need transparency across the entire value chain. The European Union is leading efforts to codify a battery passport initiative which embeds batteries with a digital identifier that includes basic information on production conditions and material sources. It’s the right idea, as it factors in basic human rights, child labor issues, and environmental conditions. Consumer preference can help ensure these things are enforced, but it really takes government regulation to ensure proper labor and environmental conditions are imposed at every step along the value chain.

These global transparency initiatives also need more community input. One idea that came out of our Bellagio Center conversations is the need to build partnerships between community leaders in the Salton Sea region and those in Argentina and Chile who work in communities connected to lithium there.

A critical concept that we’ve learned from these organizers and activists is that there should be no “sacrifice zones.” Communities have been told that they just have to accept the environmental damage from fossil fuel extraction and other types of mining. That shouldn’t be acceptable to us as a global society. We need to move to a decarbonized EV future without creating new sacrifice zones, while also empowering people along the whole supply chain.

  • If you lead without hope, you’re not leading. But hope can’t be false optimism, it has to be based on what’s out there, what’s practical, and what you can do to change people’s lives.

What keeps you up at night about achieving these goals? What makes you optimistic?

Manuel: If you lead without hope, you’re not leading. But hope can’t be false optimism; it has to be based on what’s out there, what’s practical, and what you can do to change people’s lives. We’ve seen the community organizations based in both Imperial and Coachella Valleys – the communities around the Salton Sea – wrestle with giant corporations to win concessions, including a tax on lithium extraction, a health impact assessment, and funding for efforts to link environmental remediation and dust suppression with expanded community economic opportunities. What gives me hope is exactly what these folks are doing and what they’re contesting.

What worries me are the fossil fuel companies that don’t want to make the transition, the wealthy individuals and corporations that don’t want to prioritize equity, and the mainstream environmentalists who think that equity issues are secondary. This last group are so excited about lithium and EVs that they’re not always thinking about sacrifice zones, who will get the jobs, or about the contradiction in the fact that U.S. federal policy is encouraging EVs and yet most of the factories will be in climate denial states. What worries me is the naive excitement about saving the planet that doesn’t center the people who live on it and their working conditions.

Learn more: For more information, read a piece Chris and Manuel wrote for the Nonprofit Quarterly, visit Chris’s Institute for Social Transformation page, or Manuel’s University of Southern California page. Find out more about the Institute for Social Transformation’s analysis of the workforce issues within the lithium supply chain.

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Bellagio Perspectives: Climate Change

Climate change is the challenge of our lifetimes. The latest Bellagio Perspectives features 11 climate-leader alumni who are driving a range of breakthroughs to tackle the climate emergency, from financing and governance to advocacy and on-the-ground activism.