Environmental ethicist Katie McShane compares our reverence for species to this term free. Everyone believes in it, but no one knows what it means. “Even if you agree that it has value, it won’t tell you what to do when this value conflicts with my needs,” she said.

Comparing the value of things and weighing the costs and benefits of a thing has become an increasingly urgent task for environmentalists. Sometimes those competing things have a place in nature; sometimes, people claim to improve human life. Or the entire planet. If the mines of Rhyolite Ridge are digging for gold or copper, it may be easier to overlook its value. Everyone benefits from raw materials, but it’s easy to say that you don’t need gold or dollar value is not the most important thing. With lithium, denial is even harder. Both Donnelly and Fraga agreed that this country—the entire world—needs to get rid of fossil fuels. The southwest desert is full of lithium and sunlight, so the transition to green energy may bring a new level of industrialization to its landscape. Mines and solar power plants will compete with rare buckwheat and desert tortoises. But without those mines and power plants, the desert would still be affected. Although desert conditions are harsh and seemingly barren, deserts are fragile places where life is vulnerable to higher temperatures and more frequent droughts. Conditions require us to formulate an ethical equation: what is the value of the mine and the value of the factory?

All mines have a dirty side, regardless of whether their products are “green” or not. They can damage the landscape or pollute the water supply or emit greenhouse gases. Historically, mining companies have rarely cared about these impacts and only followed the regulations to a minimum. But Alex Grant, a technical consultant working with these mines, explained that lithium miners face additional pressure to act responsibly. For example, buyers of electric cars may be concerned that 25% of their car’s life cycle carbon impact comes from the battery supply chain. As a result, automakers seeking to improve their reputation for climate-friendliness are increasingly relying on lithium suppliers to reduce coal burning and seeking certification that their mines will not damage waters and habitats.

It is impossible to make all costs disappear. As Grant sees, there is no choice but to mine lithium. The status quo of fossil-burning cars is not an option. What are the expectations of the opponents of lithium mines? Back to the horse and carriage? “We don’t need every project,” he said. “Some of them may have impacts that we shouldn’t accept. But we will need a large part of them, that’s for sure.”

Every project seems to have its own set of costs, and some people think these costs are unacceptable, which makes it more difficult to decide which projects should be allowed to advance. In the northernmost part of Nevada, Thacker Pass, another large-scale lithium mining project close to excavation, was blocked by disputes with indigenous groups and ranchers over water rights and pollution issues. This is also true in places such as Chile and Bolivia. For decades, people have been talking about alternatives that seem more ecologically attractive, such as the salt water near the Salton Sea in California, but the technology and financing behind these projects are uncertain. Maybe we can look at the ocean; the scale of lithium provided by deep-sea mining can make any land mine seem insignificant. But it can be said that the environmental cost of this method is not even well known, and may be huge.

In this case, the fate of a humble flower seems to be a very small matter, because lithium can be obtained so quickly, and there are few additional complications. For a long time, mining interests, ranchers and developers have always believed that the process of listing endangered species should consider economic costs, such as the loss of value of the mine or the cost of maintaining the species to sustain life when it seems that natural forces can exclude them. .

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