Recent history grad discusses academic journey and future plans
Ian Morse ’17 is a journalist of natural resources currently in Seattle on the unceded, traditional lands of the Duwamish people. After graduating with a history and mathematics-economics double major in 2017, Morse chose to teach English in rural Indonesia through Fulbright. He stayed to report for Mongabay, Al Jazeera, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and others on natural disaster and extractive businesses in rural Indonesia, the world’s top producer of palm oil and nickel ore. After almost three years there, he moved to Seattle and continues to investigate topics in Indonesia, report on science and the environment, and maintain a newsletter on the dirty mining behind clean energy called Green Rocks.
You spent time in rural Indonesia; is this what sparked your interest in dirty mining?
“One of my first stories was about a coal mine that ended up sparking a movement to protect Borneo’s rainforests. I only stumbled on the story because there were few other things that would so completely occupy people’s concerns about their government and surroundings. I hadn’t thought much about mining until my time in Indonesia, but I listened to people around me. Friends pointed me either to tourist spots or to the corporate threats to their ecosystems and livelihoods. They constantly thought critically and deeply about the ways extractive industries impacted them.”
How and why did you decide to start the Green Rocks newsletter? How do you build your sources?
“When I was investigating nickel in Indonesia, clean energy was used to justify new investment. Nickel had already been prominent for decades, but a new wave of investment came for a different type of nickel—nickel for batteries. The last time Indonesia experienced such a wave of nickel-mining investment, freedom of speech and press were not as protected as they are now. Now offers an opportunity to make sure more voices are heard.
“Mining and clean energy have only recently been directly related. For many, it still takes a leap to bridge the connection. The more people I speak to, the more I realize how crucial it is that people in the global North—buyers of EVs for example—hear voices from the other end of their supply chains. That end has historically been in poor communities around the world, but I’m hopeful that clean-energy industries can find a way to fulfill the promise in their name.”
You are building a network of new supply chains for EV batteries, wind turbines, and solar panels. How have you built up this network of resources?
“My clean-energy contacts grew from the need to understand what was driving businesses like Tesla to buy more nickel (Elon Musk recently begged for more nickel to be mined). As it turned out, it’s a lot more complicated than simply zero-emission transport needs battery needs nickel needs mining. Many people I’ve spoken with are happy to talk because few are digging into the details of manufacturing clean energy. There are some resources available for understanding EV battery supply, but most who have platforms only speak in terms of price.”
How has COVID-19 affected your ability to continue to pursue this information and distribute it?
“Before the newsletter, the pandemic had unfortunately made a lot of my work impossible. I will likely not be able to return to Indonesia for a while, due to both the US government and Indonesian government’s handling of the pandemic. I worry about a lot of friends there, just as they worry about me. Fortunately, I’m in a position to dig into clean-energy mining there and around the world and reach people in influential positions. Lockdown has helped me realize how to tell the full story. As I gather funds for the newsletter, I hope to be able to fund local journalists on small research trips for it. Many local journalists around the world could use funds like that right now.”
What would be the one thing you would want readers to know about clean energy and how it affects all of us?
“Consumers can leverage the benevolent promise of clean energy to promote environmental and social justice throughout the mining industry. A transition doesn’t just happen. We should pay attention to who is leading it and who is not.”
How did your Lafayette education impact the work you are doing?
“I think often of the activist, empowering teachings that came out of Ramer History House: that the future depends only on what we do now; that history is contingency; that nothing is fixed. A vibrant team of math professors taught me how numbers can speak and lie. Investigating stories on the paper with a great team showed me the power of public information against a powerful institution. And without Dean Julia Goldberg, I would not have made it to Indonesia in the first place.”