In early June, a group of thousands of young men gathered outside the world’s largest cobalt mine near the city of Kolwezi in the south of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They were demanding that the country’s mineral wealth be more evenly distributed and blocked trucks from entering and exiting the site. At other Congolese mines, large crowds of men rushed into the pits, effectively stopping work. The protests highlighted the fragility of the supply chain providing the strategic minerals that are needed for the green revolution. Cobalt is one of the key components used to make batteries for electric vehicles.
This is the kind of thing that keeps geostrategic thinkers awake at night: how to secure the supply chain so that in a carbon-free world we are not dependent on corrupt and unstable countries, as we are in the oil era. China’s control of strategic assets in Africa and across the Global South – it has effectively taken over towns like Kolwezi – is also worrying to Europe and the United States. By dint of clever acquisitions while the rest of the world’s attention was focused elsewhere, China has come to control what in supply-chain parlance is known as ‘upstream’ assets – that is, the raw stuff of the green revolution – and the ‘midstream’ production of batteries.
Volt Rush, an excellent new book by Henry Sanderson, addresses this problem. Through detailed, on-the-ground reporting from Congo, Chile and China, he looks at some of the key commodities that go into batteries. Cobalt, copper, lithium and nickel, among others, have become the new geostrategic resources that everyone