The first metal found on the periodic table, Lithium, fuels much of our daily life. Phones, laptops and the bevvy of other smart devices that we rely on every day are powered by rechargeable batteries made from this element. In the race to ditch fossil fuels and find new sources of clean energy, Lithium has also become one of our saving graces; it’s the power source behind the electric mobility revolution. In short, the stuff is in great—and ever-rising—demand. While it may seem to answer many of our climate woes, the Lithium boom is not without grave consequences. Following every step of this “modern-day gold rush”, Matjaz Krivic’s project traces the complex social, economic and environmental impact of sourcing Lithium–the driving force of the 21st century.

Lithium-powered electric vehicles hold great promise for reduced carbon emissions. Here, an aerial view of the polluted city of Harbin waking up in the cold morning. At the moment, some 120 million cars are jostling along on these Chinese roads. By 2020, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology predicts an additional 80 million will have entered the fray. Combined with all the industry and too many coal power plants, most of the cities in China are either incredibly or mostly polluted. © Matjaz Krivic

But how best to tell the story of this much sought-after material? Spanning several continents, Krivic’s wide-ranging project seeks to map out a comprehensive, bird’s eye view of the whole process that lies behind the somewhat opaque substance at the heart of our daily lives—one that makes visible the intricate line of production behind Lithium mining, as well as its power relations. With each step, the photographer encourages us to connect the dots, forming the huge web of people and places that are involved in the Lithium boom. “My story follows the value chain of this rare mineral,” Krivic explains. “From investment and prospecting in the US, to mining in Bolivia, to the production of batteries and cars in China and the small oil state Norway leading the way to electrify all of its transportation – cars, buses, planes and boats.”

Zero CO2 Conference. Dinner at the Zero CO2 Maritime conference in Bergen, Norway. While most of the world still sees the possibility of electric mobility and zero CO2 emissions as a science-fiction scenario, it is already an existing reality in Norway. In October 2018, more electric vehicles (EVs) were sold in Norway than gasoline and diesel cars combined. This is a historical milestone: technological, political, social, economical and, of course, environmental. © Matjaz Krivic

As ever, the most destructive effects of this new and insatiable demand for Lithium are unfolding in the communities living in the mineral-rich areas that mining companies are eager to capitalize on. Krivic documents the situation in Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia where, along with Argentina and Chile, half of the world’s supply of Lithium can be found. Here, locals who rely on agriculture are suffering from the dire consequences of the Lithium mining process, which uses a vast amount of water, draining the majority of their fresh supply. In addition to this, the threat of toxic contamination is high. “Lithium pollution is an increasing problem wherever it is mined, and there also are threats to local communities that are totally taken over and controlled by mining companies,” says Krivic.

Local Miner. Manuel and his family have been mining for salt since he was a child. He and the rest of the local people living around Salar de Uyuni are the most affected by the lithium mining in the area, which uses most of their fresh water. They are fearful of the new plant’s impact on the local population, whose survival is almost entirely dependent on agriculture that needs water, and there’s less of it each year. © Matjaz Krivic

While the environmental impact of mining is an issue in itself, the Lithium boom shows no signs of subsiding—particularly as the transition from traditional fossil fuels to electric mobility has become a successful reality in places like Norway. “The supply of lithium is not fast enough to accommodate the demand, and signs of a bottleneck effect are already manifesting, with Chinese, Australian and American corporations buying lithium mines in countries around the world to ensure reserves for the future,” explains the photographer. In his project, Krivic provides a visual overview of the contradictions that reside at the core of the issue; questions that will shape the future of Lithium mining—while importantly reminding us of its importance and relevance in our own day-to-day. He reflects, “The story is about how the future is unraveling in front of our eyes.”

Editor’s Note: This illuminating series by Matjaz Krivic is the Documentary Series Winner of the LensCulture Visual Storytelling Awards 2019. Be sure to check out the other winners and finalists here.