One of the best things about OER texts is they’re easy to update. This week I’m teaching a unit in my American Environmental History course on mining, using an chapter from my text called “Treasures Underground“. It begins in Potosí where the Spanish Empire got much of its silver, talks about the gold and silver rushes in the western US, and then moves on to oil before returning to the effect of minerals on foreign policy in an increasingly globalized economy. The examples I used in the text (which I published last year) were oil in Iran and copper in Chile — and the two US-supported coups that toppled democratically-elected governments in those nations.
Today I added an additional example, as it seems democratic elections in Bolivia have been subverted this week in another coup. So ironically, the chapter now begins and ends in Bolivia. Evo Morales, the country’s immensely-popular indigenous president, has been forced to step down and has sought asylum in Mexico slightly over a week after pushing back on the rapid, foreign-controlled development of Bolivia’s lithium reserves.
Lithium is a key element (along with cobalt) in the rechargeable batteries that run cell phones, computers, and electric cars. The price of lithium has about tripled since 2015, and Bolivia has about 43% of world reserves (Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia between them control about 75%). Although advanced car companies like Tesla are rapidly reducing the quantity of lithium in each battery cell, other car companies that buy off-the-shelf battery solutions are likely to use much more. And everybody is trying to get into the electric car business right now.
One of my goals in this course (which is actually called “People of the Environment” and is a required “sustainability” course at Bemidji State) is to connect environmental history with the world my students face today. What better way to bring the story of mineral resources to the present than with breaking world news? It’s great that the OER tools I’m using enable me to react rapidly and incorporate this into my chapter. This is a strength of OER we should talk more about in our advocacy.