September 28, 2022

Book Review: “Volt Rush” by Henry Sanderson

An expert and comprehensive look at the often dodgy supply chains involved in the big electrification push.

Throughout the 20th century, access to oil equaled power. This century, support FinancialTimes For journalist Henry Sanderson, what will matter is access to the finished raw materials that power our appliances and, increasingly, our vehicles and our homes. “Volt Rush: Winners and Losers of the Race to Green” (OneWorld, £20.00, ISBN 9780861543755) examines this new gold rush.

For many, “mining” evokes a darker, poorer and more polluting past. However, we are mining more minerals today 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 impending takeover by robots, our societies have in many ways not moved from the practices of the past, when the need for oil pushed Europeans to divide up the Middle East,” Sanderson said.

The world is immersed in a rush for these precious resources: lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper and others essential for electrification. With government subsidies and savvy early investments, Chinese companies like CATL have taken the lead. Automakers in Germany and across Europe now have no choice but to woo these companies for the technology they need to phase out internal combustion engines. Report geopolitical tensions.

In ‘Volt Rush’, Sanderson reveals every aspect of this stampede, from the elusive billionaire buzzing around Mayfair to the anonymous workers in the mines themselves. There is more than a hint of the excesses of colonial exploitation in history, especially with regard to cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo – still marked by its horrific reign of the King of the Belgians as ‘Congo Free State’ – where some of the world’s poorest people are collateral to the resource rush: ‘The thousands of men, women and children who dug for cobalt around Kolwezi and often died received little help from electronics giants in Asia and the West who used their products. They represented the forgotten lower nodes of global supply chains.

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

This is a short, readable book packed with original reporting. It takes on an episodic, almost documentary structure as Sanderson examines each of the major commodities in turn, offering a comprehensive view of this underreported problem. It may not be the sexiest topic, but it’s sensationally important – you end ‘Volt Rush’ feeling like it’s what will shape the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century.

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