Lithium Dreams, Crisis of the Anthropocene

4 June, 2023
Even as we continue the search for fuel efficiency while pushing economic development, the world faces an increasingly severe climate crisis. The small coastal nation of Chile finds itself at the center of the debate, as it weighs the future of lithium mining.


Francisco Letelier


In April of 2023, the government of Chile announced that it would nationalize its lithium deposits. The country has the world’s largest known reserves of the “white gold” used in batteries for electric vehicles, cell phones, and computers. Chile is responsible for roughly a third of world production.

“Our challenge is to transform Chile as the world’s principal lithium producer, increasing wealth and development while at the same time protecting the biodiversity of the salt flats,” says Gabriel Boric, the young president of Chile. With the establishment of the National Lithium Institute, Boric plans to, in his words, “create new investigations on ecology, geology, and social sciences concerning the salt flats, their bio diversity and the communities that live within them.”

Until now, private companies granted leases by the government of Chile have mined lithium. Among them is SQM, a company connected to the son-in-law of former dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet died in 2006, 17 years ago — the same amount of time he ruled Chile with an iron fist. To this day, however, the mining of lithium is still subject to laws embedded in a constitution drafted by Pinochet.

Last year, as 36-year-old Boric, a socialist, started his term in office, Chile was drafting a new constitution that would replace the one promulgated by the Pinochet regime. For many Chileans, including me, that ambitious document would curb foreign investors, restore privatized human services and the social security system, and protect water sources, rivers, lakes, and forests. The proposed new constitution was unique in all of the Americas and perhaps the world, granting nature certain rights, and setting aside vast tracts of wilderness for recreation and conservation. It described Chile as a “pluri-national state, comprising various ethnic groups and languages.” A national referendum, however, rejected the constitution and sent legislators back to the writer’s room.

In the aftermath of the ambitious but defeated new constitution, many cited the inexperience of the legislators and the unrealistic future outlined in the draft.

The constitutional draft squarely faced the troubling realities of the Chilean nation but also of the planet, putting ethics and principles before profit and economic growth. Economic growth is always a magic incantation, especially in nations like Chile, where despite economic development and plenty of resources, the well-being of most Chileans is in jeopardy. With a growing distance between the rich and poor globally, many nations continue to pursue a better future in the way they always have, despite the evidence of social unrest, diminishing resources, and the devastating effects of climate change and extraction practices. Einstein was right when he said that you cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war. In the same spirit, it can be said that you cannot prepare for a climate catastrophe as you continue to engage in the practices that created the crisis.

A rough salt flat with volcanoes in the distance, photographed at the Salar de Atacama in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile, at sunset (photo Sara Winter).


The Rights of Nature

A central theme of the draft constitution was the recognition of the “Rights of Nature.” The proposal proclaimed:

Nature has legal rights. The state and society have the obligation to protect and respect these rights, including rights of regeneration, maintenance and restoration of its functions, ecosystems and biodiversity. The state, through its institutions should guarantee and promote the rights of Nature, through the constitution and its laws.

Granting rights to entities outside humanity is perplexing. Recent speculation about the growth and use of artificial intelligence has led to not unfounded fears, but it certainly has not taken us by surprise. Long predicted in fiction, movies, popular culture, and myth, our brave digital world has been calling it forth for generations. Recognizing the consciousness and intelligence of Nature has been part of human culture since the beginning, but industry, technology, and science have wrought a change in most humans, even in those who profess to love the earth. Although scientific research continues to underline the interconnections between all living things and the environments we live in, most humans are reluctant to actually grant intelligence to natural entities.

Nations everywhere protect animals, forests, mountains, and rivers, but only two nations in the world have actually granted rights to Nature in their national constitutions. Bolivia and Ecuador recognize Mother Earth/Madre Tierra/ Pachamama in legal terms, but implementing those ideas can feel impossible in a world where nature is considered a “resource” to be owned, used, and degraded. Those who argue for conservation, protection, and consideration also often view nature a “resource” —something to be stewarded and maintained for our continuing enjoyment. To take it further, to grant rights and ascribe sentience to rivers and forests, to mountains and oceans, is a brave step into a different world.



Chile’s lithium reserves lie in one of the most beautiful and unique places of Planet Earth, a location that carries thousands of years of cultural history and millions of years of mineral wisdom in what is today northern Chile; here you find a unique geography of salt flats (salares) and high plateaus shared with Peru and Bolivia in the Atacama Desert. The world’s oldest mummies have been found along the coast of this region. The shrouded bodies of the once thriving Chinchorro culture call through millennia with tantalizing mystery. These were a people closely tied to both the ocean and the land, who over 4,000 years adapted to the environment and climatic conditions. The Chinchorro mummies are over 7,000 years old, thousands of years before Egyptians developed their own funerary practices.

Francisco Letelier, “Sueño Lican Antay,” digital illustration, 2019 (courtesy of Francisco Letelier).

Those who visit these places have powerful experiences. Meteorites streak across the sky, and reports of UFOs and extraterrestrial encounters are common. San Pedro de Atacama is a small town steeped in centuries of history that attracts visitors from all over the world. Some are drawn to lunar landscapes shining through faceted salt crystals, winding canyons, and distant volcanic peaks; others are drawn to the exquisite clear skies that allow you to look deep into the past. Radio telescopes dot the skyline. Lines made on the earth, night winds whispering along ruins and stone; the desert conspires with the powerful hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus and the Huilco Tree used for millennia by the people of the Atacama, who call themselves the Lican Antay in their Kunza language, which is presumed extinct. The practice allowed them to take on the power of birds and animals and use the limited water and arable land to leave behind a legacy of terraced agriculture that prevented water runoff while they herded llamas and alpacas, which can withstand high altitudes and arid conditions. The first to enter Chuquicamata and use its copper, these miners endured Inca, Spanish, and Chilean invasions, but lithium fever is the biggest threat to have come to the Atacama. Lithium mining taps into the underground aquifers that play a vital role in the fragile hydrology at work in these lands.

Satellite photographs of the Salar de Atacama glitter with patches of turquoise and yellow, and white lines bisect patterns of what seem to be jewels from space. Over time, the patches have grown pools of lithium brine, pumped from underground. 200,000 liters of brine will yield a ton of lithium carbonate — an extraordinary amount that the complex hydrology of the salares cannot maintain. On the ground they are not jewels, and although it seems that new technologies will reduce water use and toxicity levels, the fragile glimmering salt flats that reflect the sky in immense lagoons, the iconic flamingoes, appearing as in a mirage, feeding in shallow lagoons of brine shrimp — will slowly disappear. Just as the arid dry climate preserved the bodies of those who lived here in the past, it continues to preserve old water just below the surface, replenished in cycles much too slow for global demand and possible profit.


Extraction is the tragic curse of smaller nations. To have a large supply of something the world wants means that an industry must be developed, typically with help from private businesses and richer nations seeking profit. Nationalization of the resource is only part of the challenge. Mining is both toxic and dangerous, and profit and development are most often bound together with violence. Success at extraction only leads to more; it is what humans do. Gold first, then silver, and then copper were mined in Chile before and after the arrival of the Spaniards. Considering the mountains of gold and silver extracted from Chile and its neighbors Peru and Bolivia, it’s easy to see how the template of extraction was set early on.

The nationalization of vital resources seems an essential component of economic health for a nation, but special rules and logic are invented to justify and perpetuate extraction from the earth. “In the name of progress” can be translated to “In the name of profit and power,” or “Lucro y poder.”

Chile’s conquest of the Atacama Desert provides some insight. The largest reserves of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) exist in the arid regions shared by Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. Just as today those nations compete for the lithium market, the nitrate industry in Bolivia, Chile, and Peru was growing to meet the demands of the world in the late 1800s. Nitrates weren’t only good fertilizer; they were also a main ingredient in gunpowder, and each of these countries had its own agenda.

What started as a taxation dispute between Chile and Bolivia became the War of the Pacific, fought by Chile against Bolivia and Peru from 1879 and 1883. Both Bolivia and Peru gave up territory when Chile won the war. Its new territories served Chile well. The country established itself as a “mining country” and benefited from the nitrate boom.

Artificial nitrates were developed following World War I, and the world market for saltpeter collapsed. To this day, forgotten relics from the boom dot the arid landscape of northern Chile. They join the Chinchorro mummies as something that becomes small against a daunting landscape, reminders of how far humans have strayed from sustainable relationships with what the Earth has to offer. Abandoned towns, castles, and roads mushroomed in less than a couple of decades, and were then abandoned. The Chinchorro built systems that lasted thousands of years.

Allende and Copper

Even before the rush on nitrates, deposits of bird Guano (bird droppings) had made a brief but important appearance as a fertilizer wanted by the world.

Spain occupied the Peruvian Chincha Islands in April 1864 in order to profit from the guano trade. Although Chile and Peru collaborated to expel Spain, they quickly became enemies over nitrates. After the invention of manufactured nitrates and the collapse of the nitrate market, Chile found something it could mine with a bit more longevity, as copper rapidly acquired its role in the economy.

Chuquicamata world s biggest open pit copper mine Calama Chile photo martin schneiter
Chuquicamata is world’s biggest open pit copper mine, Calama, Chile, (photo Martin Schneiter).

For decades, Chile has been one the world’s largest manufacturers and exporters of copper. Large mines have become self-sustaining settlements with their own cities to house their workers, their own water and electrical plants, their own schools, stores, railways, and in certain cases even their own police forces. Chuquicamata today is the largest mine in the world and the largest man-made hole on the planet. Most Chileans of my generation are emotional about copper. We are taught that it represents us symbolically and we feel a special connection to the red metal. President Salvador Allende talked to the nation about the salary or “Sueldo of Chile,” and I grew up with the names of the big mines etched in my consciousness like patron saints; El Teniente, Chuqui (Chuquicamata), El Salvador, La Exotica.

Allende made good on his campaign promises and followed through on the complete nationalization of copper in 1971. Although nationalization and land reform had begun in preceding administrations, it was Allende who struck the final blow to the infamous Kennecot Utah Copper Corporation, and to the Anaconda Copper Corporation.

The copper corporations, along with ITT (International Telegraph and Telephone), spent fortunes and collaborated with US intelligence to prevent Allende from being elected and afterwards from assuming the presidency. They failed, but they did manage to help establish a network that would spread disinformation, suspend goods and services from US manufacturers, and create a social climate of fear during the short-lived Allende presidency. United States intelligence agencies and private corporations fomented the conditions that would provide a pretext for a military coup. The Senate Committee to Study Governmental Operations and Intelligence activities, led by Senator Frank Church (1975) investigated and published what is known as the Church Report, describing a range of covert U.S. activities which influenced the course of political events in Chile. Two years later in 1973 — 50 years ago this September — the coup took place. Allende was dead and his government overthrown.

During the violent 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who took over the presidency, Chile became the first country on the planet to privatize its water, as copper was de-nationalized. Today, close to 70% of production and exports of Chilean copper are controlled by private corporations, the majority of which are foreign. After the fall of the military government in 1990, and for 30 years of a market-driven democracy, the desire of private corporations to own all parts of Chilean earth was sustained by the privatization of most goods and services.

We now know the defeat of the constitutional draft earlier this year owes much to the media companies and others who worked together in a disinformation campaign that echoed previous tragic moments in Chilean history. Those who opposed the constitution messaged Chileans that the chaos and turmoil that had engulfed the country since the civil insurrection of 2019 would continue. They characterized social movements as a masked mob of looting youth, blamed the boogeyman of communist tyranny for the phenomenon. They depicted themselves as defenders of religious piety, and pointed to the dismal economies of Venezuela and Cuba as possible outcomes.

Disinformation ran strong as opposition media delved into the personal lives of members of the Constitutional Assembly who supported the proposed document, casting doubt on the process and qualifications of those charting the future.

Defeat is always numbing, and many of those who enthusiastically participated in supporting the first draft retired from the arena. Others, however, understood that the country had voted to change the constitution and that if one draft was rejected, another would be submitted to voters.

It is against this recent backdrop that lithium has been nationalized. But the “white gold” fever, caused by the white, soft, and lustrous metal lithium, comes at an altogether different historical moment from when we attempted to nationalize copper. As the world confronts the devastating effects of human-propelled climate change, finding alternatives to fossil fuels is often a desperate race to find the holy grail. Everyone wants to come up with mechanisms that will help perpetuate our extraction-based ideas and our consumerist societies. Many fail to consider the ecological price we will pay as we move into the everyday use of “alternative energy.” Even as information becomes available about the carbon footprint of hybrid or electric cars, most continue to believe that they provide more solutions than problems. Lithium, it is said, can be recycled. Old cars will cough up their white gold so that other vehicles can keep on rolling.

Many are learning that in order to rely on alternatives, we must get used to the new deserts we are creating. Some of us live near wind or solar farms or have seen the ecological and human consequences of hydroelectric plants.

In the Mojave desert, one of the world’s largest concentrations of solar power plants, the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone extends over 150,000 acres and is growing rapidly. Now, residents choke on dust as many realize that like the Atacama, the Mojave is not so empty, and is instead, a fragile place with rich indigenous history, its own particular woodlands and species and a place where many make their homes.

There will be no return to Eden, even if we find energy alternatives.

Increasingly, we take our cue from the very companies that caused the Anthropocene crisis in the first place — and that now tell us they have the solution. Fossil fuels provide diminishing profits, so instead, companies like Microsoft and Chevron now call themselves “sustainability innovation leaders.” Terra Praxis, a nonprofit that works with large companies, including Microsoft, vies for a future with a “rapid, low cost and repeatable repowering systems with advanced fission, fusion and geothermal to decarbonize coal plants and eliminate one third of global carbon emissions while supplying affordable, reliable and emissions-free energy to billions of people.”

Ultimately, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of humanity has not contributed to the carbon footprint that follows the species. It’s always a good time to look at the wealth generated through extraction; if profit motives and economic systems perpetuate poverty and environmental neglect, they will continue to keep the planet and its billions from the promised garden even if we achieve reliable and emissions-free energy.

Salar_de_Atacama courtesy francisco letelier
Salar de Atacama. Lithium mining taps into the underground aquifers that play a vital role in the fragile hydrology at work in these ancestral lands (photo Francesco Mocellin).

No matter what form the future takes, it will rely on lithium, and lithium extraction relies on huge amounts of water. In the Atacama Desert, native people and ancient cultures have adapted over centuries to the driest climate on the planet, but they are now threatened by an industry that takes the water and leaves toxic dust in its wake. The copper industry in Chile has already left behind several zones known as National Sacrifice Zones, blighted lands where toxins reign, plaguing nearby towns as well as native flora and fauna. But there is nothing like an Anthropocene scare and a vital resource market cornered to create an illusion of optimism and patriotism.

In the cities of Chile, people talk about “growing the economy” to fulfill the needs of people. Our ancestors may be Chinchorro, Mapuche, Inca, Lican-Antay, Spanish, Palestinian, or German, or we may be Chilean mestizos, but many believe a transcontinental acumen gives us a special connection to the land, the earth and the world, as if the red metal of copper or the white gold of lithium fuels our blood.

Our fantasies are further propelled by the legacy of colonialism, mountains of wealth extracted and taken to far off lands. We want to be the new cartel that will dictate prices and turn the supply on — or off, if anything disquiets or threatens our tenacious hold on our stuff.

In this sense, we are the new “momios,” or mummies. At one time, the Chilean left challenged the conservative interests of the country by calling them “momios,” implying that they were incapable of change, that they were desiccated shells of outmoded lifestyles; but now the affliction strikes all, both rich and poor, both right and left. Somehow, we think that solutions will be found by doing what we have done time and time again, extracting them from the earth. In other places this might be seen as the definition of insanity.

When talking about lithium, it’s not unusual to hear people say that since the world is in such an enormous crisis, no matter where the lithium lies, it must be used to help us avert future crises for humanity. But we are in crisis now and cannot have a well-assured future; we will have to take risks and do things in new or perhaps ancient ways. It’s not about pessimism or optimism, about glasses half full or half empty. It’s a good idea to take a look at societies that weathered thousands of years of social and climatic change. Some fortunes and ways of life will have to disappear or pivot, end or transform. A.I. will only corroborate this fact, and lithium will only fuel us to the place where we must make hard decisions.

Last month, the Republican party of Chile led elections with a majority of delegates in the constitutional assembly that will rewrite the constitution. The fate of the nation, the fate of deserts, oceans, and the Andes may be in the hands of those who voted against any change at all in the first place. But the questions of the Anthropocene crisis do not entirely depend on the capacity for good or for tragedy of those who hold power in short cycles. Our chauvinistic species imposes a view of reality within institutional structures and on what many of us believe is possible.

The earth connects us beyond our economic dreams, beyond the impossibilities of greed, the difficulties of socialism, and trickle-down fantasy. We have an opportunity to return to the earth as seekers, as explorers, as partners with life. We will have to put down the cell phone and the shame of poverty, and instead again talk to the Earth itself as if it listens and responds. We will have to think about the future of our grandchildren, the deserts, the salt flats, and remaining forests, all the while desperately seeking a way to be sustainable humans on a planet that can still make a place for us.


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