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Good Reads  Environmental & Social Studies  Natural Resource Use & Depletion  Energy

Volt Rush The Winners and Losers in the Race to Go Green

By: Henry Sanderson(Author)
277 pages, no illustrations
Though electric cars are hailed as the future, Volt Rush is a well-rounded and thought-provoking piece of investigative journalism that exposes the resource scramble unfolding to produce the needed batteries.
Volt Rush
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  • Volt Rush ISBN: 9780861546190 Paperback Jun 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
  • Volt Rush ISBN: 9780861543755 Hardback Jul 2022 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Selected version: £19.99
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About this book

In the twentieth century, wealth and power were dictated by access to oil. This century will have different kingmakers, perhaps different wars. We depend on a handful of metals and rare earths to power our phones and computers. Increasingly, we rely on them to power our cars and our homes. Whoever controls these finite commodities will become rich beyond imagining.

Sanderson journeys to meet the characters, companies, and nations scrambling for the new resources, linking remote mines in the Congo and Chile's Atacama Desert to giant Chinese battery factories, shadowy commodity traders, secretive billionaires, a new generation of scientists attempting to solve the dilemma of a 'greener' world.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Well-rounded and thought-provoking investigative journalism
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 31 Dec 2022 Written for Hardback

    The problems created by humanity's dependence on fossil fuels are widely appreciated, and governments and businesses are now pursuing renewable energy and electric vehicles as the solution. Less appreciated is that this new infrastructure will require the mining of vast amounts of metals, creating different problems. In Volt Rush, Financial Times journalist Henry Sanderson gives a well-rounded and thought-provoking exposé of the companies and characters behind the supply chain of foremost the batteries that will power the vehicles of the future. If you think a greener and cleaner world awaits us, Volt Rush makes it clear that this is far from a given.

    As Sanderson explains in his introduction, his aim in writing this book is to equip readers with the background knowledge needed to ask critical questions regarding our transition away from fossil fuels. Without it, we risk falling prey to feel-good narratives and corporate greenwash. Though not apparent from the title and flap text, Sanderson focuses on four metals important in the batteries of electric vehicles: lithium, cobalt, nickel, and copper. In the process, Sanderson visits battery manufacturers in China and elsewhere, and mining operations around the globe. He also considers the controversial final frontier of deep-sea mining, the possibilities and limits of recycling and reusing batteries, and the prospect of reopening mines in Europe. Volt Rush has an excellent structure, with clearly-themed chapters logically flowing into each other.

    Sanderson furthermore provides a pleasant mix of history, biography, and economics that keeps the book from getting bogged down. The concept of the electric car is far older than you might think, going back to the 1890s but lost out to the internal combustion engine. Explaining how batteries could make a comeback a century later and reshape the geopolitical playing field involves an accessible history of the lithium-ion battery. The economic story behind the four above-mentioned metals involves corporations you likely have never heard of. But where a book like Earth Wars failed to engage me, Sanderson enlivens the economics and geopolitics with biographies of the founders and directors of, and in-person visits to, some of the world's largest battery manufacturers and mining companies.

    One thing Volt Rush did very well was leaving me with a better understanding of the outsized role of China. The combination of domestic consumption by a population of over 1.4 billion people and of China having become the factory floor of the world, means that it is harvesting and importing natural resources from around the world. China has decisively inserted itself into all mining sectors discussed here. Many companies have been left dependent on China, whether for the processing and refining of ores or for the resulting components that go into consumer products. Sanderson's forte lies in reporting on this without falling into sinophobia.

    In general, I appreciated the neutral tone of Sanderson's reporting. He sticks to the facts without constantly inserting himself in the narrative – and this while there is much here that is upsetting. The scale of the mining operations beggars belief, and Volt Rush provides numerous examples of both the huge environmental and human cost of mining: the deforestation involved in strip mining; the energy-intensive nature of digging up and crushing rock; the waste product of ore refinement that get dumped on land or at sea; or the child labour involved in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The profits from these activities frequently end up lining the pockets of a few politicians and businessmen, and Sanderson's portrayal of the shady world of ruthless commodity traders, in particular Glencore, agrees with what I read in The World for Sale. This said, the author will not refrain from calling out corporate greenwashing.

    Throughout the book, Sanderson hits what I think are several relevant notes that reveal the deeper roots of the problems associated with the new mining rush (your reviewer writes as he reaches for his soapbox). He mentions Jevons Paradox and the evil of planned obsolescence that further undermines any attempt at careful use of Earth's resources. He quotes former DEFRA chief scientist Ian Boyd that "emissions are a symptom of rampant resource consumption" (p. 212) and points out that in the next 25 years we will consume more copper than we did in the previous 5000 years "as the population increases and gets richer" (p. 174). And yet, despite hitting these notes, I feel that in his conclusion Sanderson fails to connect the dots. And that is despite initially sensing he is walking into a trap: "It was a seductive idea: we could change the world by slightly altering our current lifestyle with a marginal amount of sacrifice" (p. 1). Despite lithium expert Alex Grant's comment that we have created "a game of 'carbon whack-a-mole' where we eliminate [...] emission from burning petrol, but substitute them for emissions elsewhere" (p. 66). Even when the answer stares Sanderson in the face as he writes that "growth based on extraction cannot be infinite" (p. 246), his solution is conscious consumerism. Wait, after you just wrote a book exposing how enormous the resource requirements are, and how broken and destructive the supply chain is?

    Thus, I disagree somewhat with the cautiously optimistic tone of this book, and in particular with Sanderson's conclusion that "the transition to electric cars, renewable energy and batteries will create a greener, better world" (p. 244). To me, this is effectively advocating for a technofix. I also think Sanderson falls into the trap of climatism by focusing solely on emissions and how electrifying the world's vehicle fleet would counter this; traffic creates many other problems. The word to focus on is "fleet" and that is not something electrification will solve. Finally, as Abundant Earth made clear, language shapes our perception, and by continuing to write of "green" and "clean" technologies, Sanderson inadvertently risks perpetuating the very greenwashing he calls out in his introduction. My reviews of both The Elements of Power and The Rare Metals War made it clear that, to quote the latter, "clean energy is a dirty affair", so about time reporters dropped those two words.

    And now I will step off my soapbox. Despite some personal reservations regarding Sanderon's outlooks and conclusions, I found Volt Rush to be an incredibly informative and well-researched book that covers many relevant topics. The writing is top-notch and engaging, and the book fully succeeds in its aim of equipping the reader with the background knowledge needed to ask critical questions.
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Henry Sanderson has covered commodities and mining for the Financial Times in London for the last six years, and has written widely about the resource implications of our move towards clean energy. He was previously a reporter in China for Bloomberg, where he co-authored an academic book about China's state capitalism and its largest overseas lender, China's Superbank (Bloomberg Press, 2013). A Chinese speaker, he has been interviewed by the BBC, Bloomberg Television, CNBC, and Charlie Rose.

By: Henry Sanderson(Author)
277 pages, no illustrations
Though electric cars are hailed as the future, Volt Rush is a well-rounded and thought-provoking piece of investigative journalism that exposes the resource scramble unfolding to produce the needed batteries.
Media reviews

"The urgency of a green transition means the world faces new power struggles over access to scarce metals and minerals. Sanderson carefully walks us through the minefields that are the world's finite supplies of lithium, cobalt and nickel and reveals with startling immediacy the Machiavellian machinations for control over these precious resources. A riveting guide to our perilous future."
– Ann Pettifor, author of The Case for the Green New Deal

"As we glide along serenely in our electric vehicle, recharging it with clean solar power and perhaps feeling a little smug, we prefer not to be reminded of the vast industries that got us there, industries that gouge out the landscape, exploit workers, spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and engage in ruthless geopolitical power plays. Along the way, as Henry Sanderson shows in his essential book, we have become dangerously dependent on China which now dominates global battery supply. Under President Xi Jinping, who uses economic blackmail to extract political concessions, China has got a lock on the future. All this can change and Volt Rush shows us how."
– Clive Hamilton, author of Hidden Hand

"This is a terrific book. Henry Sanderson brings alive one of the most fateful questions of our time: who will control the resources that power a post-carbon world? What makes the book so compelling is the cast of colourful characters he meets and the insightful judgements he makes."
– James Kynge, FT China editor

"A must-read book, well written and investigated, on one of the most important ecological challenges we'll face in the next decades."
– Guillaume Pitron, author of The Rare Metals War

"Sanderson deftly guides us through the convolutions of which company bought what from which, and he livens up that potentially desiccated subject matter with an eye for characterful detail [...] Despite the seemingly insuperable geopolitical quandaries with which it deals, the tone of Sanderson's book is one of cautious optimism. [...] A fascinating study"
The Times

"A potent reminder to green power advocates that a world running on batteries and sunshine may not fight over oil, but it won't necessarily be free of conflict"
Financial Times

"It's a vital contribution to the emerging literature that's pulling back the curtain on energy realities."
Wall Street Journal

"An excellent book [...] provides much food for thought"
Literary Review

"Takes us on a carefully considered and well explained journey to show that [the switch to electric vehicles] may not be as simple a transition as we hoped for [...] Sanderson does a good job of getting the reader up to speed in terms of what goes into an electric battery, and why we need to be cognisant of the environmental impacts [...] very informative and well written in terms of the potentially toxic brew required to power EVs [...] a relevant and vital book."
Irish Tech News

"From China to Congo to Chile to the U.S., Sanderson lucidly reveals the global connections behind the complex processes of battery production and mining [...] Any reader interested in environmental studies, green politics, the global energy sector, or the mining industry will appreciate Sanderson's deep dive into the transition from fossil fuels to green and clean energy, and how this transition will affect society now and in the near future."

"Sanderson's smooth, limpid storytelling brightens the deadening business of commodities trading: attention to the bizarre, often unpleasant characters populating the industry gives his narrative a personable shine."
Red Pepper

"Volt Rush makes a great contribution in understanding what a green future entails – and what costs it might involve right now."
Foreign Policy

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