Book Review: The Horrific Costs and Willful Ignorance of Net Zero

What I have learned from the book Cobalt Red: How the Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives by Siddharth Kara about the situation regarding the mining of cobalt and other minerals in the Congo has haunted me. 

I am typing this on my rechargeable laptop, and the only solace I can find is that it is considered ancient in today’s world; I bought it in 2015. At least I can say that I don’t frequently upgrade my electronics and, as a result, am rarely in the market for the rechargeable batteries that demand cobalt.

Kara wrote Cobalt Red to bring attention to the plight of the Congolese as well as to disprove the claims made by companies like Apple and Tesla that the minerals they use in their products are all “clean,” meaning not the product of artisanal miners. In fact, one of Kara’s hopes is that the executives at these companies take trips to the Congo to see for themselves just where exactly their minerals are coming from.

I am certainly not naive. I am 60 years old and have repeatedly seen the corruption and the lying that takes place both in powerful corporations and at all levels of government. I am aware that people are ruthlessly exploited and that the United States is more than willing to kill innocent civilians around the world for resources, ideology, and abject power.

The Congo has a long, ugly history – from the stories of King Leopold II of Belgium’s treatment of the Congo in the late 1800s and early 1900s to the assassination of the first democratically elected Prime Minister in 1960 (perhaps with the assistance of the CIA). And it is easy for us to look at the past with a judgmental eye, assuming that we know better now.

Perhaps we can agree that “times were different” then. But do we actually know better? Do we? The more I learn about current happenings in the world, the more I am convinced that these times are not so different, and we are not necessarily better. This is especially true when learning about what is happening in 2023 in the Congo, in the heart of Africa. 

The U.S. routinely proclaims outrage at human rights violations and declares a no-tolerance attitude towards those who treat humans as chattel and who give no consideration to their individual dignity. I’ve always known that these transparent platitudes were pretty worthless. After all, over and over throughout history, with money and power as the prime mover, human dignity be damned. 

The same is true of the corrupted (and captured) environmental movement. 

This is abundantly clear when the likes of Greta Thunberg or Leonardo DiCaprio or Taylor Swift chastise us little people for having the gall to drive our 2015 Honda Civic, a (gasp!) gas-powered vehicle, across the country to visit our son. To selfishly run our (natural gas!) heat in the winter at 72 degrees. Or to carelessly barbecue steaks (real steaks, from climate-hating cows, not the Bill Gates’ synthetic, fake meat steaks).

But the rules don’t apply to the leading voices in the envronmental movement because, after all, they have money, and more importantly, they have power. So they lecture us from their private places whiles porting their (leather) Gucci bags and (petroleum product-laced) Louboutin shoes.

John Kerry flew to Iceland in his private plane to accept an award from a climate conference. When asked about this hypocrisy, he replied, “It’s the only choice for somebody like me who is traveling the world to win this battle.” He continues, “I believe the time it takes me to get somewhere, I can’t sail across the ocean, I have to fly to meet with people and get things done.” Yes, of course. That makes sense. He must fly to meet people. We must not. And accepting awards is important business in the saving of the planet.

Bill Gates has also gotten defensive when his frequent private flights have been challenged. He responded that he is not part of the problem primarily because he is part of the solution, thus justifying the behavior he wants the rest of us to give up.

One of the problems with this outright war on anything to do with fossil fuels is that there is no consideration for secondary, tertiary, or further-down-the-road consequences of pushing Net Zero, of policies designed to eliminate the use of fossil fuels in twelve years, or ten years, or whatever the current goalpost might be. 

Politicians simply make declarations and then wash their hands of it all. Let others figure out how that will happen.

But here’s the thing. So many of the environmental policies occur at the cost of, ironically, the planet and of human beings. Actual humans, like us. Men and women. Boys and girls. Men who are desperate to support their families, to make sure they have food on the table. Women who adore their babies and have huge dreams for their lives. Children who only want to play and explore and learn and discover.

And that brings us to the Congo. Cobalt Red exposes the cost of our not only our addiction to our cell phones and our dependence on our laptops. Most importantly, it outlines the costs of the unrelenting, frantic push to require everyone to drive electric vehicles. In short, the rechargeable batteries for all of our devices and EVs require cobalt, which is basically found only in the Congo.

The book details the dangerous process of pulling the mineral from the earth performed by artisanal miners and how that cobalt ultimately works its way through the manufacturing process. Most importantly, it details the impact the bottom of the supply chain has on the people and the land.

One of the most powerful parts of the book is the humanization of the artisanal miners in the Congo. When children are killed in the collapse of hand-dug tunnels, we see the absolute agony and heartbreak experienced by the parents. We see the pain of children who were so proud to go to work to help out their families instead reduced to broken bodies and burdens to their families. Pain doesn’t even do their situation justice. Excruciating pain, physically and emotionally.

For any parents reading this, just think for a moment about the love you have for your child or children. Think back to the day they were born. To the future you hoped for and prayed for them to have.

These parents in the Congo feel exactly the same about their children. But they are forced to carry their children on their backs in toxic mining pits, they work beside them in poisonous ponds, they watch as they disappear into deep tunnels snaking through the ground that are not dug like subway tunnels in the United States, but dug by artisanal miners themselves with rebar and picks. Only the young children fit in those tunnels.

And this is so that we can charge our phones in the car or on our nightstand at night. It’s a very high cost.

Please put this book on your must-read list if you are someone who feels strongly that our country should continue its aggressive move to eliminate gas-powered cars and replace them with all EVs. Too often, people who champion these policies only consider one level of impact. On the surface, this sounds like an easy solution – gas-powered cars contribute to “climate change,” and electric vehicles are the solution. But the issue is way more complicated than that. It is way more nuanced. And there are multiple layers of consequences. 

Henry Hazlett in Economics in One Lesson calls this the “fallacy of overlooking secondary consequences.” And this is a very dangerous practice. For example, often lost in the discussion is the environmental impact of the manufacturing process of EVs. And as Cobalt Red points out, also lost are the people supplying the cobalt required by the batteries.

For anyone promoting these huge societal changes, they ought to know all of the consequences of their policies. And Cobalt Red is a great place to start.

However, after having read the book, I feel incredibly helpless. What can I possibly do to alleviate the suffering? Right now, I can only think of a few things that feel very low resolution. 

  1. Reduce demand by replacing my rechargeable battery devices as infrequently as possible and keeping my gas vehicle for as long as I will be allowed.
  2. Spread the word about Cobalt Red and encourage as many people to read it as I can.
  3. Contact my representatives and encourage them to become educated on this issue so that they can create policies and enforce laws that reduce the exploitation of the Congolese (Kara has suggestions regarding this).

It is easy to ignore what is happening to “others” half a planet away, but what is happening in the Congo should never be ignored. The people there are living in an ancient, primitive hell, thanks to us. And with the publication of Cobalt Red, we simply can no longer claim ignorance.

Order Cobalt Red HERE.

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