Reading About Sustainability: Volt Rush by Henry Sanderson

Reading About Sustainability @trishtalksbooks
Volt Rush: The Winners and Losers in the Race To Go Green by Henry Sanderson
Oneworld Publications (2022)

Read This Book If:

This is a book that will take you on a deep dive into the global politics and economics of the metals mining industry, with an emphasis on the metals needed to make an electric vehicle battery. Sanderson starts with the history of the Electric Vehicle, and the gradual development of the battery technology that is needed to power these cars. He takes us through the history of mining each of the main metal components needed to manufacture an EV battery, and some of the problems inherent in the process. Overall, some sections were easy and interesting to read, largely the first chapters about the history of the EV and the last chapters about hopeful directions. The middle of the book will appeal if you’re interested in the minutiae of the metals mining industry. It was a bit hard going as a casual reader, but in the end I found the effort was worth it because I learned so much. Make no mistake, there are a lot of problems in this industry, and it was hard to read about. However, I’d rather be educated about such things than engage in denial and look the other way. I’m glad I read Volt Rush after reading some of my previous picks, which will give tools for staying hopeful: Generation Dread, The Future We Choose, and Saving Us.

About the Author:

Henry Sanderson is a journalist, so this book is a bit different from the scientist-written books I’ve read so far. He grew up in Hong Kong, was educated in the US and UK, then lived in Beijing for several years. On his website, he notes, “I’m particularly interested in the geopolitics of the global energy transition and how the West is catching up to China’s dominance in clean energy.” This is so evident in the book and the at-times heavy focus on economics and business. He’s currently based in London, and is an executive editor for Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, which appears to be a company that provides information about metals, batteries and such for the transition to new energy sources. This is his second book.

Why I wanted to read it:

I would feel so much better about my environmental choices I drove an EV.  Anyway, change is in the wind and probably in a few years no one will be selling internal combustion engines in passenger vehicles. We still have our old 2004 Toyota Corolla and we try not to drive too much, but I do feel guilty every time I fill up at the gas station. And yet, I’ve had this nagging feeling that there’s something not quite okay about unquestioningly consuming car batteries without giving it some more thought. Just how clean and ethical are EV cars?

Questions it answered for me:

The first three chapters detail a most interesting history of the false starts and eventual development of the modern lithium ion battery. I was fascinated to read about how Thomas Edison tried hard to develop a battery powered car…but it culminated in failure in 1903, and by 1909, the internal combustion engine had won the day. A missed opportunity for sure. Again, in the 1970s, Exxon was researching lithium batteries, carbon emissions and climate change, in large part because of the oil price crisis. By the late 80s, however, oil prices fell and the whole system reverted back to climate change denial. It seems that economics always wins the day. Finally, in the 90s, a German-born American physicist, John Goodenough, developed a better battery material and this was taken up by a Japanese scientist Akira Yoshino and Japanese tech companies who came together to develop the modern Lithium Ion Battery that revolutionized the battery industry.

The middle portion of the book taught me a ton of information about the main metals needed for the EV car industry: lithium, cobalt, nickel and copper. Honestly, there is a lot of geopolitics here, and it's heavy reading. I don’t think I needed to know quite the minutiae of all of the players here, and I don’t remember them even now, but in the end, it was a valuable exercise in reading it all through with good attention. With each chapter, I hoped so much that there would be some…any…good news here. There really wasn’t. Whether it’s child labour or terribly unsafe conditions for miners; oceans and rivers being polluted from dirty mining practices; coal-burning intensive ore and battery processing, or rampant political corruption, its all a bad news story.

The end, mercifully, had some cautious optimism. Maybe there’s a more ethical way for us to source lithium, and maybe there’s a greener battery possible. Maybe. 

Putting it all together, what was my takeaway? Here are my thoughts, coming from someone who has no advanced knowledge of economics, but who does have the privilege to be able to make these kinds of consumer decisions.
  • It’s better in the end for me to know the ethical issues and environmental cost of making EV batteries than to ignore it. Ignorance is generally not very helpful, even if the truth of things is pretty hard to swallow.
  • It’s not okay to feel I’ve done my good deed by scrapping my gas-powered car, buying an EV, then driving everywhere guilt free. So far, it looks as if the EV is indeed better overall, but it’s not a free pass. My bicycle and public transit will play an increasing role in my mobility. 
  • It’s clear to me that money makes the decisions, almost all the time. Economics will rule the day, and thus far it's been far cheaper and made more people rich by decimating the environment for profit in the EV industry than protecting our world. There are some amazingly clever and visionary people in this book (many Chinese entrepreneurs were so amazingly prescient and smart about their ventures!) but I couldn’t help but think where the earth could be now if they’d all put their smarts to developing clean energy in all respects rather than getting rich.
  • There is some hope. If we want things to change, there’s going to have to be either a consumer driven push to buy more ethically sourced and made EV cars (at a cost to each of us who are privileged to afford it–pay more for a cleaner supply chain and refuse to buy products that support environmental degredation or child labour); and/or there needs to be global governmental regulation and standards that force companies to higher standards.
Further resources:

Here’s the author’s website:

An article he wrote recently for Big Issue: