Friday, March 26, 2010

DETROIT-BOLIVIA CONNECTION? LITHIUM COULD BIND US TOGETHER

Posted By on Fri, Mar 26, 2010 at 2:05 PM

There’s an interesting article titled “Lithium Dreams” in the March 22 edition of The New Yorker that draws a parallel between Detroit and the slums around the Bolivian city of Potosi.

As the article notes, Potosi was once among the world’s largest cities. As the center of a region that produced half of the silver coming out of the New World between the middle of the 16th century and the middle of the 17th century, the town’s very name became a synonym for good fortune.

And now it is viewed as a “symbol of plunder, or exploitation, or humiliation.” It is also “one of the poorest places in what has long been one of the poorest countries in South America."

The article by Lawrence Wright then transitions from that disheartening reality to this one:

“Across the divide of the industrial revolution, there is another city whose promise of greatness now lies in ruins: Detroit.”

Their epic fall from splendor isn’t the only correlation between the two cities, however. What also connects them is the hope of revival based on lithium. The area around Potosi contains half of the world’s known supplies of the element that is a key component of the batteries used in cell phone and lap top computers. It is also key to the batteries used in electric cars such as the highly anticipated Chevy Volt, which could play a major role in determining the future of the American auto industry — and Detroit.

Among other things, the article also does a good job of exploring the complexities of leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales’ determination to keep the natural resource from being exploited by multinational corporations.

But after touting the promise of Bolivia’s lithium up front, the article, near the end, turns out to be a bit of bait and switch. Turns out that problems like the quality of the country’s lithium and the lack of transportation infrastructure make the costs of bringing it to market far higher than that of its competitors.

Even so, it’s a fascinating piece. You have to be a subscriber to read the entire story on line now, although an abstract of it is available at newyorker.com.

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