The Duty of Philosophy | Thinking about the habitability of the planet instead of its exploitation

Twice a month, The duty challenges enthusiasts of philosophy and the history of ideas to decipher a topical issue based on the theses of a prominent thinker.

Exploration for new lithium deposits is booming in Quebec. Our subsoil is full of minerals considered essential to the energy transition. Lithium, this new “white gold”, occupies a prominent place in the list of critical and strategic minerals (CSM) in Quebec. However, these projects for new “transition mines” give rise to disputes and underline the paradox of digging deeper in the name of safeguarding our planet. If the energy transition is a necessity, are we going about it in the right way to switch to this world without carbon emissions?

In his book Changing society, redoing sociology (2006), the French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist Bruno Latour proposes to rethink society and the social, to get out of our certainties to reassemble what surrounds us. He explains the actor-network theory, also known as Actor-Network Theory (ANT).

This theory focuses on the dynamic connections between « actants », that is to say human and non-human active entities. These actants act as mediators to transform, modify and push other actors to act. From this perspective, carbon dioxide (CO2) becomes a non-human actant. Its presence in increasing quantities in the air modifies our social relations and our relations with nature: we favor local purchases, we reduce our meat consumption, we favor the use of electric cars. The ANT makes it possible to rethink the opening of lithium mines in Quebec by questioning the actors who swarm around these new underground galleries.

The coveted lithium

Let’s set the scene for this play whose outcome is not yet known and whose actors are multiple. The history of lithium mining in Quebec is not new. In October 1965, the Quebec Lithium Corporation closed its lithium mine, which had been in operation since 1956 in Lacorne Township, following an employee strike and falling ore prices.

In this post-war and early Cold War period, there was obviously no question of energy transition. The priority was growth and increased production, synonymous with development and progress.

The situation has changed significantly since then. In a global context of energy transition, but also of geopolitical tensions and energy self-sufficiency, lithium is today particularly coveted for the production of electric car batteries and the storage of so-called “green” energies. In the technocentric and interventionist discourse, this energy transition is presented as the salvation that will make it possible to replace fossil fuels and achieve carbon neutrality. Faced with the alarming observations made for decades by scientists, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), isn’t it ultimately a question of ensuring the survival of our planet?

To achieve this, many are those who defend the idea that MCS, in particular lithium, are needed. It is therefore necessary to open new mines to meet the exponential demand (the increase in lithium demand expected between 2018 and 2050 would be 488%, according to a World Bank report published in 2020). But these mining projects come up against local opposition from citizens, who are particularly worried about the environmental impacts.

Today, in France, Serbia, Portugal, but also in Quebec, citizens are mobilizing to demand more transparency and to oppose the operation of new lithium mines. Without social acceptability, the opening of these mines is threatened and, consequently, the survival of our planet too, according to the logic of the technocentric discourse surrounding the energy transition. How to get out of this impasse, this snake biting its own tail?

Deconstruct Shortcuts

Eco-anxiety is spreading, we want to take immediate action, but we don’t really know how to go about it in this world where everything is linked. We therefore take shortcuts by quickly going through the causes (we produce too much CO2) to solutions (extract more ores). But are we asking the right questions? Aren’t we too easily stuck in a solution that seems acquired: to decarbonize and save the planet, let’s support the energy transition by driving an electric car?

Deconstructing shortcuts is precisely what Latour proposes in his book. The ANT offers food for thought to rethink the opening of lithium mines in the name of the energy transition and the controversies surrounding these projects. Indeed, the mining projects of the transition appear as a hybrid problem which constantly makes the local and the global, the human and the technical, the natural environment and the political interact. The ANT makes it possible to apprehend these mining projects in a socio-technical approach combining humans and non-humans. The final use of the ore, the material aspects of the project, the local extraction site and the social relations that are formed around the project are thought out jointly.

Latour invites us to free ourselves from the categories that often impose themselves a priori, to dare to think differently and to take, slowly, long winding paths like an ant. “Follow the actors themselves, or rather what makes them act. There is no question of quickly studying the causes, effects and solutions. Rather, it is about describing disputed facts and controversies that reflect the dynamics of actants, human and non-human, who attempt to make another actor act unexpectedly. Lithium thus becomes an agent, in the sense that it creates interactions between the mining company that is trying to develop an extraction project and the local communities that oppose it. Lithium is no longer an inert mineral; it acquires an active role in this dynamic network which appears when all the actants enter into interaction. In ANT, the « network » is the connection, the pattern that represents the associations emerging from the translations (transformations) between actants. When the citizen orders his electric car with the intention of « polluting less » his neighborhood of Montreal, he triggers a collective action. This action involves a multitude of actors: the extractive companies and their employees, the engineers who designed the electric motor, the miners who are dedicated to extracting the MCS, the lithium which powers the vehicle battery, etc. All of these agents make up this dynamic socio-technical network which evolves and transforms over the course of interactions.

Aim for a habitable world

ANT makes it possible to probe the complexity of socio-technical networks and the dynamics of micro-decisions at play in them. But where does this network stop? This question widens the reflection towards larger spatiotemporalities. Thus, if citizens oppose the opening of a lithium mine in their locality because they fear the harmful impact of the exploitation on the esker which supplies them with water, they can succeed in stopping the extraction of ore on their territory. But the environmental risk of mining does not disappear. Lithium demand will not decrease, consumers waiting for their electric car will not cancel their order. If the mining company abandons this particular project, it will try to operate a new mine in another locality or another country where citizen protests will be less lively or downright stifled.

The ANT does not provide any answers as to the outcome of this play or as to whether or not these mining projects will be set up in Quebec. What ANT allows above all is to not take things for granted, to rethink our ways of seeing and to give room to movement, to uncertainties, to observation, instead of falling back on hasty conclusions. Let’s ask ourselves, work together to rethink the energy transition outside the technocentric and interventionist discourse. In order to decarbonize, let’s not go after so-called green energy without considering the big picture. Let’s follow the motorist who ordered his electric car to trace the connections between the controversies, instead of deciding upfront how to resolve the controversy.

In his latest book, Memo on the new eco-class (2022), published with Nikolaj Schultz, Latour presents a complete reversal of cosmology and proposes to think about the habitability of the Earth instead of production. The concept of habitability refers to the idea that it is becoming more important to be able to live on our planet than to produce. For example, the preservation of a humid environment which contributes to ensuring that the Earth remains habitable in the long term would take precedence over the growth of production. While the lithium mines of the 1950s were part of a productivist logic, can we rethink the opening of new mines, 70 years later, in this logic of habitability? Reassembling what surrounds us by relying on habitability, a concept that is both powerful and optimistic, is an avenue worth exploring.

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