Over the past few hundred years, and particularly since the beginning of the ‘Great Acceleration’ in the mid-twentieth century, the volume of extracted materials has increased massively. Rock, ores, minerals, metals, oil, gas, timber, coal, gravel and sand – not to mention wild animal populations, which have decreased by 60% in the last half-century – are being plundered at a rate never seen before. The scale and ferocity of the onslaught taking place, even as the cost of our greed has never been more obvious, suggests that this activity is much more than a mere economic process or necessity for survival. The simple practice of extraction has become ‘extractivism’.
Extractivism is a way of thinking deeply embedded in our culture. Like the myth of progress and endless expansion, it tells us not only that humans have a right to take whatever we like, but that, pathologically, we must take it. Daniel Quinn put his finger on this in his novel Ishmael, where he drew a cultural distinction between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Takers’. The former exist by treading lightly, skimming from nature only what is necessary for healthy survival. The Takers, however, are a single culture arriving with contemporary civilisation. This culture rapaciously exploits the Leavers and destroys ancient lifeways for the sake of profit and civilisational ‘advance’.
The recent destruction of sacred Aboriginal sites in Australia by the mining giant Rio Tinto brings this mentality into focus: over 40 millennia of human experience, knowledge and religious veneration exploded in a few seconds to maximise shareholders’ profits. The insatiable appetite of consumerism drives, and is driven by, a technological race for ever more monstrous machines, bucket-wheel excavators that can shift hundreds of thousands of tonnes of material per day. From the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, an area that can be seen from space, to South Africa’s Mponeng Gold Mine, two and a half miles deep, our technology now gives us the power to skin the surface off the earth, slice the summits off mountains and burrow deeper into our planet than ever before.
As one type of extraction decreases, another soars. Demand for coal might be falling worldwide, but the hunger for rare earth metals such as coltan, used in mobile phones, as well as the materials needed for the high-tech ‘renewables’ boom – from solar panels and electric batteries to 100-metre-tall wind turbines – is mushrooming. Rapacious sand mining in India and China, to fuel the cement and concrete industries, is altering the course of rivers; China now consumes more sand every three years than the USA consumed in the entire twentieth century. The surface of the ocean conceals an underwater gold rush for cobalt, zinc, manganese and other precious minerals, and, as the Arctic melts, corporations and governments are lining up to exploit the last remaining wildernesses of the far north.
As if the world were not enough, humans are even preparing to export extractivism off-planet: in 2020 Nasa announced it was looking for private companies to help mine the moon (‘We do believe we can extract and utilize the resources of the moon, just as we can extract and utilize tuna from the ocean,’ said an agency administrator), while Elon Musk’s SpaceX is planning to develop robots to mine the surface of Mars as a step towards colonisation. The mindset of extractivism knows no limits: if we run out of things to consume here, we will simply move elsewhere.
The mindset of extractivism knows no limits: if we run out of things to consume here, we will simply move elsewhere.
In this extractivist culture, people are seen in the same way as minerals, plants and animal species: as resources to be used to fuel global economies. DNA, data, indigenous wisdom – all are mined with increasing vigour by governments and corporations, with little or nothing given in return. The concept of ‘human resources’ stems from the same worldview, as profit is extracted from a standardised and docile workforce. In the name of ‘growth’, the latest technologies are employed in the extraction of every possible labour efficiency. From colossal warehouses to corporate call centres, the productivity of employees is monitored and measured in ever more imaginative ways. Around the world, from the cobalt mines of Congo to the Uighur detention camps of Xinjiang, labour is extracted from bodies by modern-day slavery.
There is a spiritual malaise deriving from this inner extractivism, an energetic exhaustion which seems to follow civilisation like a shadow. Perhaps we are living in the ‘age of exhaustion’, where technological modernity is depleting and exploiting our humanity, just as it does the minerals of a mountain. This is the hallmark of extractivism – to hungrily take, seize, or steal, while spurning all responsibility, past or future.
As the devastating impacts of this culture become ever more apparent, from the monumental physical scars to wounds that are unseen and internal, there are many hopeful signs of resistance. At Standing Rock, Native American water protectors led protests against the DAPL oil pipeline that reverberated worldwide. From India’s Sardar Sarovar to Brazil’s Belo Monte, indigenous communities are at the heart of struggles against the construction of mega-dams that drown vast areas of land and wreck ecosystems. In Romania, thousands of protestors have delayed the expansion of Roșia Montană, planned to be Europe’s largest open-pit gold mine – which would destroy, ironically, the ancient mineshafts first dug by the Romans – including mass street demonstrations that brought the capital to a standstill in 2013. Direct action by anti-fracking groups in the UK has, for the time being, put a stop to the race for shale, and around the world, forest defenders are resisting wholesale timber extraction by bravely putting their bodies between logging machinery and trees.
In the spirit of this pushback against extractivism, and everything it represents, our twentieth issue will be a collaboration with Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss, a multimedia, multi-venue, cross-border art intervention that investigates extractive industry in all of its forms – from mining and drilling to the reckless plundering and exploitation of fresh water, fertile soil, timber, marine life, and innumerable other resources across the globe. We will be reproducing some of the writing and artwork featured by the project, but are also extending the call for new work that responds to the broader theme.
In particular, we are looking for work that goes beyond the physical impacts of extractivism – awesome and striking though they are – that delves deeper into what it means psychologically, culturally, politically and spiritually. What does extractivism mean for us, as humans on a damaged planet, and – enjoying, as we do, the material benefits it brings, from the fuel that heats our houses to the components that power our machines – how might we move beyond our current ‘Taker’ culture and start on a journey towards giving back?
For this book we are seeking non-fiction and fiction of up to 4,000 words, as well as artwork of all kinds. Please note that we are not seeking poetry for this issue.
Dark Mountain: Issue 20 will be published in October 2021. The deadline for submissions is Friday 30th April. For details on how to submit, please read our submissions guidelines carefully. We cannot read or respond to work that does not fit within those guidelines.
Liz Miller-Kovacs, ‘Garzweiler Venus’, archival digital print, 2020
Richard-Misrach, ‘Flooded Marina (gas pumps, Northshore, Salton Sea, 1983’, Chromogenic print from digital file, 1983
Both images taken from Extraction: Art on the Edge of the Abyss