I like automobiles and don't want them banned, but the real problem that we have is that we're dependent on an unscalable transportation solution: cars.
Lithium is a fairly common element. It's not a rare earth. Extracting it and processing it are energy and water intensive processes and mining of itself also has issues with pollution. So doing that in the Andes where water is scarce, is indeed problematic. This is also a reason that some areas are hesitant with giving permits for lithium mining. Nevertheless, there are new mines in Nevada, Texas, Canada, Cornwall, Australia, and other places that are starting to ramp up.
The sentiment in this thread seems to be a bit weirdly anti car and even pro ICE cars. However, this is not the show stopper that some ICE car fanatics want you to believe it is. If only they applied the same outrage against burning oil, fracking, oil spills, damage done by oil refineries, oil drilling in senstive ecosystems, and all the rest. The damage lithium mining does pales in comparison to that.
This is just a minor growing pains for an exponentially growing industry that is going from almost no volume ten years ago to shipping tens of millions of vehicles as well as grid storage, home storage, and other batteries. Anything with wheels is going to stop burning stuff and start using lithium. And close 100% of that lithium can be recycled when the battery eventually reaches its end of life.
Lithium ion and other batteries are part of the solution to the problems caused by burning oil. The solution is not advertising we all turn ourselves into Luddites. Good luck advertising it; but I have no confidence that you'll move the needle in a way that matters. Batteries on the other hand are succeeding where generations of hippies have failed to even slow down the growth at which the problem was accelerating. ICE cars are now legacy vehicles and the transition to EVs is well under way. Thanks to lithium ion batteries.
What's the cost of importing 500,000 gallons of water to replace what evaporates? If the miners had to pay that cost, would it still be economical for them to sell that ton of lithium carbonate?
The first result in Google says lithium carbonate costs $17,000 per ton in 2021. It might be more now.
This fluid-hauling train car has a capacity of around 30,000 gallons:
So, about 16 train cars worth of water for $17,000 worth of lithium. Not sure if that's a good trade or not. It might depend on how far they have to go for the water. (Maybe sea water would be good enough, if the ground water they're removing is already brine, then maybe adding more salt isn't a problem.)
A small, dirty, gas moped is way more efficient, cheaper and green than the greenest EV car.
The real revolution is electric bicycles, unsurprisingly one of the most popular means of transportation in China. I saw an excellent graph that I can't find at the moment, which shows that a human on a bicycle is 10 times more efficient than the most efficient biological locomotion known (that of fish).
Without a radical breakthrough in batteries, electric cars are not the answer. They are every bit the problem that ICE cars are, it's just that the full environmental costs of the switchover have not been widely-recognized.
So really the minute smartphones became commonplace, Chile should have repealed the 1981 lithium law. It did not. It did not because of corruption, in fact Soquimich was investigated as a company listed in the NYSE for corruption, and frankly they were guilty as fuck. For ages they monopolized lithium, only now that there is rock mining and Bolivia and Perú are determined to produce it themselves, Chilean bribes be damned, is there real competition. And the market is rapidly expanding, the monopoly made sense when demand was small, like when lubricants and medication were important uses, but now that it's a huge percentage of every modern car's weight, what the hell! So Soquimich "asked" the Nuclear Commission of Chile (whatever it's called in English, there's no ambiguity there is one and that's it) if it could expand production dramatically. Well that's what they said. Soquimich owns not only that office thoroughly (very prolific campaign contributors with bribes underneath, as determined by I think DOJ, in a way that being brought to light won't change because there's pitiful campaign contributions otherwise, there is loyalty, they have power beyond just influence due to the owner being Pinochet's son-in-law), but many many others, but now there is that magical thing that capitalism brings, which makes it actually work, which is competition! Particularly from rock mining. Lithium has gone so far up that rock mining is no longer expensive in such a way that it can be ruined by a retaliatory and temporary increase in production by Soquimich, which was the game plan, basically Saudi Arabia of lithium. Saudi Arabia did do that. Although the also allowed all kinds of countries into OPEC, basically allowing a quota based on proven reserves and that was all there was to it. Not strictly, but pretty much. It used to be predatory pricing essentially. Well I by this point forgive them somewhat because they are producing much more, they are competing, they are no longer a tight monopoly doing pretty harmful things, they are in principle interested in ecology (it's in their best interest to be). And further there is one thing worse than a monopoly, which is nothingness. Not a single producer. That exists, the market for selling algorithms is that, no buyers and no sellers, so no market. Nothingness. One seller is much better than no seller, and lithium prices didn't hinder laptops and smartphones all that much, they did produce more many times, and they never owned a total monopoly, I think the majority or maybe 40%--very dominant--but not that much. And plus it used to be worth dick, nobody used lithium for anything, nothing, it was a terrible business to be in for decades, like lubricant and medication and nuclear ordnance, and none of them used lithium in real volume (the hydrogen bomb yes, I don't know I would say hundreds of kilograms per bomb since I can't realistically know exactly not declassified, not a whole lot of Museums of the History of Nuclear Weapons). So really it was a pretty tough racket for even a monopoly, they didn't make real money for many decades, they in practice needed to monopolize supply--no matter who extracted it in the Andes, they had to monopolize it, no choice. Or they would compete to terribly low prices, and one or both would have to drop out of the market. Reserves were a bit greater than now, market was tiny, totally marginal element with no applications. Even today it's all just the single application of batteries, little else.
So ecology. Lithium buyers want ecology. Whether Soquimich likes it or not (and they're not pure evil they did some shit they got caught they're paying for it a bit, they lost their monopoly, now they compete), but part of the job is selling lithium and for that being ecological is mandatory. Wouldn't want to get a "conflict lithium" designation, that harms business. And it costs little, not a big polluter. I went to the biggest Chilean salt flat, I saw the lithium extraction like pumping down deep into the salt flat, but I saw all this in a tourist destination meant to look at the pink flamingos feeding on shrimp in the salt flat. That is pretty much all the life there is there, shrimp and flamingos. The flamingos were chilling, not afraid of the pump truck, and they were there to eat shrimp, so the shrimp clearly weren't being very prejudiced. That was it, there's no flora of any kind there, not right there nearby there's like dots in the ground some seasons, like nothing. There might be other birds sometimes. I would remember the tourist destination talking about other species, it was really just two...I suppose there was phytoplankton for the shrimp to eat. The tourist destination was really just about the flamingos, which are incredible, and they become pink from eating shrimp, but again if the lithium extraction fucked their life up they would not go within miles of a pump truck like that one. So ecological, and really, lithium extraction opens doors in every government office near a salt flat. Want to get permission to extract lithium, it's easy, "knock knock" "who's there" "lithium" "lithium who" "lithium who pays taxes" boom you're in. Municipal governments want money not to be such a problem, they want a budget, they want to get the wealth in their environment, and by this point it's basically a gold rush, even in Chile. And there is lots. That part of the Andes is the low-cost producer of lithium by a very wide margin, can't even mention a single salt flat worth anything outside that region. These days, lithium is green energy, it's the new oil.
 Interesting fact, lithium commodity exports and bipolar medication are the same molecule: lithium carbonate. If you're bipolar in the traditional sense and run out of lithium carbonate pills while near lithium extraction, you can either end up streaking naked through the salt flat--which happens--or ask the extractor for a sample of their commodity, which being a sample will be pretty pure, and deal with bipolarity like that. It's the only example of a commodity that is at the same time medication that I know of. I joke about Chilean lithium, that before like 2020 you shouldn't touch lithium carbonate eve if you were diagnosed bipolar, it's even crazier. It did badly for a very long time, the monopoly and 1981 law were very strong.
Why didn’t the American build a railroad to the ocean!?