Massive Sulfide Nickel Ore Rock

Book review: ‘Volt Rush’ by Henry Sanderson

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An expert and comprehensive look at the often dubious supply chains involved in the great push for electrification.

Throughout the 20th century, access to oil equalled power. This century, argues former Financial Times journalist Henry Sanderson, what will matter is access to the finite raw materials that power our devices and, increasingly, our vehicles and homes. 'Volt Rush: The Winners and Losers in the Race to Go Green’ (OneWorld, £20.00, ISBN 9780861543755) examines this new gold rush.

For many, ‘mining’ is evocative of a grimier, poorer, polluting past. However, we are mining more minerals now than at any time in history, and this can only increase as the world phases out fossil fuels and builds new clean energy infrastructure. “Despite talk of artificial intelligence, the internet of things, and an imminent takeover by robots, our societies have in many ways not moved on from the practices of the past, when the need for oil drove Europeans to carve up the Middle East,” Sanderson says.

The world is deep in a scramble for these precious resources: lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and others essential for electrification. Through public subsidies and savvy early investments, Chinese companies like CATL have taken the lead. Automakers in Germany and across Europe have little choice now other than to court these companies to secure the technology they need to phase out internal combustion engines. Cue geopolitical tensions.

In ‘Volt Rush’, Sanderson reveals all aspects of this scramble, from the elusive billionaire set buzzing about Mayfair to the anonymous workers in the mines themselves. There is more than a hint of the excesses of colonial exploitation in the story, most notably regarding cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo – still scarred by its gruesome rule by the King of the Belgians as the ‘Congo Free State’ – where some of the world’s poorest people are collateral in the scramble for resources: “The thousands of men, women, and children who dug for cobalt around Kolwezi and frequently died were given little help from the electronics giants in Asia and the West who used their products. They represented the forgotten bottom nodes of global supply chains.”

‘Volt Rush’ is not pessimistic as much as cautionary. The race to go green is often vaunted as a solution to all ills: not only environmental but social, economic, and geopolitical. In reality, “ecological shadows are always shifting” and exploitation lurks around every corner in spite of our best intentions. The solutions are far from obvious, but understanding the problem seems to be a necessary first step towards finding them.

This is a short, readable book crammed with original reporting. It takes an episodic, almost documentary-style structure as Sanderson looks at each of the major commodities in turn, providing a comprehensive view of this under-reported issue. It may be far from the sexiest subject, but it is sensationally important – one finishes ‘Volt Rush’ with the sense that this is what will shape the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century.

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