“Our Extractive Age” – interview with the editors

There’s a new edited volume, “Our Extractive Age: Expressions of Violence and Resistance,” which I can heartily recommend (and thanks to Earthscan for sending me a hard copy). The wonderful New Books Network let me interview the editors as a podcast, and have also given permission for a transcript (which the interviewees have lightly edited/changed) to be put on line. Thanks so much to the book’s editors, Judith Shapiro and John-Andrew McNeish, for the interview and the transcript work. Without further ado, here it is.

Marc 

Hello, and welcome to New Books Network. I’m your host, Marc Hudson. And my guests today are Professor Judith Shapiro at the American University in the USA and Professor John-Andrew McNeish, who’s at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. They will be discussing their recent edited volume, Our Extractive Age: Expressions of Violence and Resistance, which is published by Routledge as part of a series focused on extractive industries and sustainable development. The book project was sponsored by the Norwegian Directorate for the Internationalization of Education (DIKU). So if we could begin with brief introductions from both of you use first, Judith, sort of who you are, what you’re generally interested in and when extractivism became a big part of what you do, and why,

Judith 

Well, thank you for having us here today. It’s a thrill. I teach primarily about China. And I’ve researched about China since the mid 1970s. And I’m mostly interested in authoritarianism and the environment, as far as it affects China domestically. But in recent years, China has gone out on the so-called Belt and Road. And that has led to what we could call an intensification of the metabolism of globalization, if you will. And so China has joined the bandwagon of developed countries extracting resources from the developing world. And I’ve been very interested in how that’s playing out. I think it’s a dramatic sort of tipping point for the planet, if you will, the arrival of China on the scene. So yeah, so I’ve done lots and lots of books on China, on the Cultural Revolution, on China’s environmental challenges domestically, and then most recently, a book called China Goes Green, Coercive Environmentalism for a Troubled Planet. And we can talk about that later. So thank you.

Marc 

And, John, same question,  same questions to you if you would be so kind.

John-Andrew  

Thanks, Marc. So I have a background as an anthropologist who has worked not in China, but rather in Latin America. My work on resource extraction is an extension of the work I did for my PhD and the years that followed focused on indigenous politics and in questions around the development of indigenous communities. In response to the dynamics facing the communities I have worked in I have moved more and more in the direction of a focus on extractive politics in the region of Latin America. This is work principally carried out in Bolivia, in Guatemala, and also in Colombia. In each of those countries, the issue of extractive politics has become intensified. From the late 1980s, early 1990s onwards, Latin America has, since the Spanish conquest,  been a region that has been stripped of its natural resources. Most of the nations in the region have built their economies and their political systems on the extraction of natural resources. In the 1990s there was a significant further boom in the extraction of natural resources across Latin America. As a result, all of the countries I have worked in experienced a major intensification of the extraction of natural resources. This would also have a direct impact at a national level in terms of further directing the course of politics and economics. It would also have a very significant effect on local communities, including indigenous communities and peasant communities in that region of the world.

Marc

Thanks very much. And going on from here, whichever one of you wants to answer a question, obviously, you’re both welcome to. And something that you both touched on, is this question of an intensification in the 1990s. But what would you say to someone who says “well, extractivism is simply the term extractivism is simply a new label for something that’s been going on for 500 years.” Or “you could say that the Roman Empire was extractivist.” So what is it that you mean by extractivism? How long has it been going on for? Is it just another word for eco imperialism? And if it’s something new, what’s new about it? Is it satellites and container ships? And high speed rail? Or is it something else?”

John-Andrew  

Do you want me to go first? Is that okay? I mean, Marc, you know, when we’re talking about extractivism it’s fair to make a connection to earlier perspectives, to look at this as an extension of capitalism, to look at this as the extension of primitive accumulation. We agree that modern extractivism is the extension of earlier experiences of empire and imperialism. There are, however, some nuances, or rather additions, that we wanted to flag with this book.

One is that we wanted to really place an emphasis on the fact that extractivism as a specific logic, a particular means or mode of thinking, which has intensified in recent times. It’s not necessarily new, but this has intensified in recent times and taken some new forms.

We are talking about a form or logic whereby extraction no longer has any limits. Extractivism is a logic of removal, a logic of erasure and not only of physical resources. It reflects a dynamic which is now global in nature. It is no longer something just to be found in discrete enclaves of extraction, we are now looking at a planetary system. The book describes in detail what that planetary assemblage looks like. So, extractivism represents a logic, and one that now has planetary or a global application.

Judith  

And if I can add, we also explored in the book some new forms of extraction. Because traditionally, we think about mining and fisheries and timber and oil and natural gas. But we also discovered that we can find extraction in scattered of controlling supply chains, and in digital and the digital world and in the built environment, and a whole series of places where we could talk a little bit about how that came to be in that many of the scholars involved with a book are from a big, wide range of disciplines. And so often the study of extraction is something that anthropologists, environmental justice people, political ecologists tend to focus on, but less so perhaps, the political scientists and the lawyers and the economists. And so we’ve brought in a whole range of people from a whole range of disciplines, to find basically to create a cross and interdisciplinary conversation about this whole concept of extraction. And we could actually define three areas, you know, there’s extraction, which is just simply the act of extracting, there’s extractivism, which is the logic that John just described. And then there’s a new sort of way of looking at this, which is extra activism where you capitalize the letter “A”, and that has to do with the resistance, the activism involved in the face of all of this extraction. So we explore all three of those concepts in the book.

Marc  

Thanks both, and that did strike me when I was reading, just just the author biographies of all the individual chapters – that it wasn’t half a dozen anthropologists from one small cluster of universities and a sprinkling of other people. So perhaps if you could tell us a bit about both the impetus for the book. Did you sort of bump into each other at a conference and realize that you were both tackling the same issues and then start to work together, or is it something else? And then if you could just talk briefly about the sort of the mechanics, the process of bringing together this edited volume, and it seems to have been at least finished during the pandemic? Were there some sort of extra difficulties? Or was it easier there? Till you want to stop.

Judith  

There are many ways our Norwegian donors should be very happy about this book, because I don’t think the book would have been written without the grant. And the grant was a rather complex grant, it was intended to create a whole range of interactions between the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and a particular program within the School of International Service at American University in Washington, namely the global environmental politics program. And so there was money in the ground, to exchange students and to co-teach courses and all kinds of stuff like that. But part of the grant was also to create a joint research project. And so in the initial phases, it was simply a question of the scholars from the different universities spending a week here or two weeks there at each other’s universities. And then eventually, a larger group of people from Norway came to the US, and we spent some time brainstorming, and our task was essentially to figure out what are the what is the burning issue that we all feel is important enough, and that we all have something to say about, you know, that should then be the basis for this collaboration. And that’s how it happened. And John and I were the lucky people, each of us that are at different universities to be named as  head of the so-called research cluster. What do they call that, the research work package?So John and I were thrown together. And I feel lucky to work with John. But for me this field is, I would say, it’s less of a long term, core research focus for me than it probably is for John, I don’t want to put words in his mouth. But as I said earlier, I’ve been primarily focused on intellectual freedom and China. China’s only come late in the game to this whole extraction effort. So I have learned a lot from this process. I don’t know what John wants to add to that description of our process.

John-Andrew

For me this was an extension of work that I had been doing. So this is a field in which I have done some research and some writing.  I should mention that I have just published another book that might be of interest. I have another book that’s just come out with the title Sovereign Forces: Everyday Challenges to Environmental Governance in Latin America (Berghahn Books). The book explores related elements of extractive politics and Latin America. So I have some experience of working in this field. With this said,  Judith is the one that really created this opportunity in the first place. The book project really resulted from Judith coming to visit Norway and, and finding her way to us here at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. We discovered through this that our two academic departments are very much sister institutions. We are institutions that have similar areas of teaching and research, albeit from somewhat different perspectives. They are both environments concerned with issues of environmental governance, and political ecology. And so there is a good match to be found between our two environments, and between the people we have here. This being said we have also added other voices to the book. We felt that this was necessary in order to give further solidity to the book, and to its foundations within extractive politics.

 Marc

Thanks both. It’s interesting how different projects come from, obviously from different places. And there are a large number of chapters in here and I want to talk about at least a few of them. Before we do that, though, um, one citation that came up repeatedly as you’d expect Is the Nixon quote around a citation rather around “slow violence”. And I was wondering if either of you would like to first explain what’s meant by slow violence for any listeners who don’t know, but also, maybe how your conceptualization of extractivism challenges or sits alongside or above or below this notion of slow violence  and maybe complicates this notion of slow violence

John-Andrew

With slow violent violence, we are piggybacking as others have done on the back of the work done by Nixon. This is work that focused on the impact of pollution and contamination resulting from extractive processes. These are effects that are not immediately obvious, that take time. Pollution, contamination takes time to seep into the earth, water and air. It is only over time that the consequences of that impact on the environment becomes evident. We suggest that the slowness of impact is the same for a whole range of extractive impacts. We not only observe physical transformations, but also the non-physical in terms of intellectual extraction,  knowledge, etc, etc. These are also impacts that are not immediately evident, they take time to become evident. It is also possible to connect this idea to one of a global assemblage. Many parts of that global assemblage will often remain hidden for us, because of the distance between points of consumption and points of extraction. Parts of that system will only become evident as time goes on, as we become more aware of the interconnections between all of the parts of this global extractive system. It is no longer the case that extraction takes place in discreet places on the other side of the planet. If we give up on limiting the use of extraction to only refer to non-renewable energy resources, we can expand our thinking to other resources including renewables and agricultural resources. By doing so we can begin to see that the impacts of resource extractivism are actually on our doorsteps. More and more of the global assemblage is becoming evident to us as it encroaches ever closer to our homes.

Judith

And just one thing to add about the slow violence issue, the book is not only about slow violence, it’s also about fast violence. And in fact, over the last very short period of time, the murders of what are called land defenders have gone skyrocketing in number I remember when I first started teaching about environment and human rights and the number of so called environmental martyrs, you could almost put on the fingers of one hand, you know, Chico Mendez, or this very, very small number of people who were murdered as they were trying to protect the land. And now, the documents say that literally hundreds and hundreds of these people are killed every year. So that’s really featured in a couple of the articles particularly the ones about Latin America.

John-Andrew

The statistics revealed by organizations such as Global Witness are shocking. The highest rates of target killings of land defenders was registered last year in 2020. Land defenders is a very broad category, which covers everything from environmentalists to human rights activists concerned with the impacts of extractive processes and indigenous peoples who are just trying to defend our community, etc. The numbers of people being killed are rising. And with that, we should also acknowledge that it’s not only about killings, it’s about threats, it’s about displacement from land, etc, etc. This is not only shocking with thought of the impacts of fossil fuel production. It is even more shocking when we expand extractivism to other forms of resource usage such as efforts to build wind power parks, or solar arrays . We are also seeing targeted assassinations threats being made to communities that are also similarly protesting those kinds of projects. So these kinds of violent impacts are not only to be attributed to fossil fuel development, but what we might now call green transition, or green economy.

Judith

Something about that, just with respect to China. The Belt and Road Initiative is focusing primarily on infrastructure. And that’s deepwater ports, high speed rail, highways, dams, power plants, and all of those infrastructure projects. In addition to being massive carbon emitters and facilitators of the global trade that increases the amount of carbon that is being emitted, they also carve up landscapes and transform livelihoods. So when you build, you know, a highway or a railroad through a rainforest, you’re not just dividing it in half, but you’re providing the inroads, literally for a whole set of capillaries that will ultimately eat away habitat for people and habitat for non-human living beings. So yeah, I would say the Belt and Road is very, very impactful in terms of the kind of both slow and fast violence that we’re describing. And a lot of these projects, the Chinese are completely surprised, because they often sign a deal with some member of the elite, and they seem to have permission to build the dam or whatever it is, and they have no experience in dealing with communities, they have no no concept of indigenous rights. And so when there are protests, they’re caught completely off guard, and they tend to handle the situation rather poorly.

Marc

So very quickly, if we can just touch on the two chapters that you were co authors on. Judith, if you could just say, a three sentence definition of what is the Belt and Road Initiative [wikipedia], and what your chapter found? A few more than three sentences.

Judith

Okay, well, my co author, Yifei Li is a professor at NYU Shanghai. And we chose, rather than to focus on the things I just described in terms of deepwater ports and all that, we chose to look at extractivism that you might not expect to find on the Belt and Road. The Belt and Road is just China’s umbrella term for China’s massive going out strategy. And it started as a land route to revivify the old Silk Road and then adding kind of a sea route around South Asia. But now it’s just everything you want. There’s a Latin America, on the Belt and Road, and there’s a polar Belt and Road and there’s a dairy Belt and Road and there’s an outer space Belt and Road, so you know, whatever you want, it’s there. But, so what we decided to do was to find three places where you might not expect to find extraction on the Belt and Road, that’s not about China buying up grainfields or Peru’s, anchovy fisheries, all that which is also incredibly important. Rather, we discovered there was a tourism extraction, that when the Chinese travel, they’re often not, they’re not very experienced at this time. And so to reassure them, the Chinese state has basically built many Chinas, particularly in Samarkand] So they go off to Samarkand and they can visit the mosque and the you know, the marketplace, but then they can go to a place that just reminds them exactly of the Drum Tower back home in Beijing, right. So this kind of extraction of culture, it’s eradication of culture. So, that’s one form of extractivism that we discovered. We also profiled the dairy Belt and Road, which has more to do with the control of the supply chain between China and New Zealand and Australia with respect to dairy products. And the final bit of extractivism, that’s again, unconventional extractivism, is the extraction of talent. And we explored the way China is seeking to develop talented people in developing countries and make it very much in their interest to take study tours to China to learn the Chinese way. And basically to throw their lot in with China rather than with the West. That’s a you know, yet another kind of unconventional extraction. That was our chapter.

Marc 

Okay, I mean, that last sort of talent spotting and grabbing is something that empires have always wanted to do, because of course, smart people might want their country back. And if you can get them to be conflicted and not trusted by colleagues who didn’t go to the Metropole, then it gives you more time as an empire. But I digress. John, Andrew, do you quickly want to explain sort of why rivers should have rights and also touch on this extra activism, concepts that you introduce in your chapter.

John-Andrew  

The subtitle to our book is “violence and resistance.” Whilst there is a dominant ontology of extractivism, we have also observed that there are counter ontologies. There are other ways of thinking about the world as well. And that those other ways of thinking about the world, interestingly, are beginning to have expression, in legal terms. The chapter I wrote, together with Whitney Richardson, focuses on an example of this. The chapter made use of the master’s thesis research that Whitney had done on the River Atrato case. This is a legal case where a court ruling found in favor of the subject rights of the river i.e. recognizing the river as an individual subject of rights. – with individual forms of protection. The court case was also an important judgement on the actions of the Colombian state and its failure to live up to the protection of constitutional rights. There are now a number of cases like this that have cropped up across the world. This has also spread as an idea and practice in Colombia with 18 different rulings on rivers and other natural features of the landscape being recognised in this manner.  I am a member of a project that has been recently funded by the Norwegian Research Council.  This is a project based at Oslo Metropolitan University titled Riverine Rights: Exploring the Currents and Contradictions of Legal Innovations on the Rights of Rivers. In the project where we are looking at a number of similar cases in addition to the Atrato case. We are studying for example, legal rights cases that occurred in India surrounding the Ganges, Narmada and Yarmada Rivers. We are also working with the Wanganui River case in New Zealand. These cases have set legal precedent with rulings in favor of the subject rights of these rivers. There is now a growing number of these cases across the world. This is a global trend now not only focused on the rights of rivers, but also the rights of nature more generally. As well as rivers these cases also focus on other features of our natural world e.g. forests, mountains, lakes, valleys and forests including the Amazon. There is then an expanding trend finding in favor of the subject base of nature. This eco-centric trend is very different from our earlier understanding of rights around or to resources.  Earlier rulings have commonly been focused on the rights of the human populations surrounding those rivers, and regarding questions of access and use of those rivers. In these new ruling there is a new logic being applied, and one that also confronts previous economic rationality. Here, there’s very much an emphasis as well, on understanding these rivers as living entities. This also parallels a shift that has been taking place in social theory, a trend for post humanism. In this perspective humans and nature are not separate. Nature itself, or elements of nature, have agency in their own right. And so these ecocentric law cases are efforts to try and recover this understanding and put this into the political debate and practice. These legal cases have generated significant debates regarding how we understand nature, but also what this means in terms of changes that might be made to environmental governance.

Marc

So thanks very much for explaining your two chapters. But of course, there are many other chapters in this book. Judith, could you explain just quickly what the other chapters are about?

Judith  

Well, the book is structured in three parts. So the first part is theoretical. Thinking about what violence means, what extraction means, what extractivism means what extra activism means. And so those contributors include people from Finland, we have quite a big contribution from people from Finland who contributed quite a lot. And also scholars from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences Katharina Glaab and Kirsty Stuboy. And then Paul Wapner from my university. And then the middle section is a mostly empirical section, where we talk about the intensification of violence at the local level. And there, we have chapters on Latin America from Garrett Graddy- Lovelace. And an interesting chapter on the built environment from an architect who works with me called Vicky Kiechel, and Philippe leBillon and Nicholas Middeldorp contributed a chapter about free prior and informed consent,, which often doesn’t, according to them, doesn’t always work as intended to. And then the final big section is about the innovative new ways that we’re seeing extractivism in the new era, and so that’s includes my chapter on the Belt and Road, as well as the chapter John was describing about the rights of rivers, a chapter also from the Finns, or the Finnish contingent on digital extraction. And also a very interesting chapter from my colleague, Simon Nicholson on geoengineering, and how the extraction of carbon from the atmosphere is also a place where we wouldn’t expect to find extractivism. And then, because Michael Watts wrote such a sort of tour de force final chapter, we gave him a standalone section, because I think it really summarizes all of those different dimensions. Maybe John would be best to describe that chapter a little bit more.

John-Andrew

I could certainly try. As Judith said, this chapter is a tour de force, an expansive piece. Judith, and I felt that we really need to give the chapter it’s due by actually creating an entire section to the chapter. Michael Watts is a well known writer on oil politics, and specifically on the oil politics of Nigeria. He’s also considered to be one of the fathers of political ecology, as well as being a political geographer. This chapter is a really wonderful piece . The chapter is titled “Hyper extractivism, and the global oil assemblage, visible and invisible networks in frontier spaces.” It richly details what I talked about previously regarding the planetary nature of extractivism. It characterises how the extractive planetary system is built up of an assemblage of many, many different parts. Some of these parts are tangible, and some are intangible, unseen. Some of the parts are legal and other parts are clearly very illegal. The legal and the illegal are shown to be mutually reliant on each other,  one cannot exist without the other. The chapter deals with many aspects of this global system. First it observes in line with other authors in the book that we are currently seeing an intensification of extractivism. Watts utilizes the term hyper-extractivism, a term that is mainstreamed throughout our book, to talk about this intensification process. He talks about the way in which this assemblage extends itself into areas that were previously considered to be, you know, inconceivable with regards to oil extraction.We are seeing for example the expansion of oil drilling into the far Arctic into the far north,, the Bering Sea. These are areas that because of technological limits were previously seen as impossible to exploit. They are being increasingly made possible by the introduction of new technologies. Watts also explores the relationship between the illicit and licit, the legal and illegal. He describes in detail the formation of an illegal legal market for oil including a market for smuggled or bunkered bunkering oil. He describes the linkages that illegal actors have  with legal international finance. The  international finance and international trading system is made complicit in this whole process . The chapter also has an interesting section, exploring the illicit life of a barrel of oil . The section explores how a barrel of oil is transported and moved into the global economy. Watts also acknowledges that oil is understood differently by different communities, by different actors within that global assemblage. At one end of the assemblage, oil will be made use of either as a source of fuel for maybe heating and lighting, but also in terms of, of petrochemical production, and so on. At the other it can be an extracted resource, but also a destructive force spoiling land, displacing community, and destroying cultural attachments to the soil. Oil is transformed from one form into many other forms in which our global capitalist system In our everyday lives we are entirely reliant on that barrel of oil. Almost every product we see around us, at home and work place, we are reliant on oil. The chapter also deals with political and logistical orders, the invisible supply chain, logistics, finance, and first trades, contract staff, commodity traders. It is an extremely expansive chapter, and very much one that I think that captures the complexity of the global assemblage. It also highlights that there are different forms of violences expressed in the trade for oil. These go beyond the physical to include structural, ontological, symbolic,forms.  So the chapter makes it very clear that the impacts of the global system are very, very diverse.

Marc  

I’d like to make some closing observations, from what you’ve both said, If you’ll indulge me. One is this notion of sort of exhausting one arena and then having to go looking elsewhere in more difficult to find places using new technologies reminds me of a book by the anthropologist Marvin Harris called Cannibals and Kings, where he argues that the search for protein meant that once you’d killed off all the slow-moving megafauna, and you still needed your protein, you’d go hunting for harder-to-find things and harder to find things. The other is maybe less highbrow. It’s an article from the Onion newspaper, published shortly after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. And I’ve always thought that the clue was in the name there, twice -Deepwater and Horizon. Both tell you that these are places that oil companies didn’t need to use to go because there was more low-hanging fruit. But anyway, The Onion article says, major environmental disaster as oil tanker safely reaches port and unloads. And then it traces the damage caused by the normal operating of the system where there are no spills, there’s nothing going “wrong”. And I suppose the final thing I’d say is that the modern environmental movement, if you want to call it that began in the late 60s, famously with that river, I can never say the name, Cuyohaga, whatever, you know, briefly catching fire and the Santa Barbara oil spill, and sort of the last big oil spill that seemed to rouse us as a species. I mean, you’d have to say it was Exxon Valdez or, or possibly Deepwater Horizon. But by the time of Deepwater Horizon, everybody kind of knows the game is up and is sort of collectively shrugging their shoulders. As I recall, Exxon Valdez, there was this sense that, you know, things shouldn’t be like this. Of course, they continued to be like this. That was me on my soapbox, I do apologize. So the final question is, “what next”? Where now, now that you’ve sort of written this edited volume, and it’s got such rich, different conceptual and empirical material in there? What do you hope for both of you as individuals or as a group, or as a broader academic field? What do you hope comes next?

Judith

The book is an open access volume. I hope that many of the chapters will find use in the classroom, and on the desks of policymakers . There are a range of important voices but there is also a coherence to the volume. I think that a lot of the chapters would lend themselves to classroom use. As far as my own work, um, I keep giving all these interviews about China, and  the COP in Glasgow, and so I’m just still watching what China’s doing. They’re on the Belt and Road. And I don’t think that’s a story that’s gonna go away anytime soon. And I feel that having become more sensitized to the many ways in which China is extracting is an imposition actually, you know, imposition is also a form of extraction, imposing its vision of the way the globe should develop, whether by enticement or coercion. Yeah, I think this is a story that for me doesn’t go away. 

John-Andrew

With the book’s sub-title we wanted to highlight the horror that can surround extractive activities, but also to also try and give some ideas of hope that are made evident in cases of resistance. We also hope that the book productively expands an academic conceptualization of how we understand extraction and extractivism. It is also a book we hope can be used to understand new forms of extraction and extractivism. There are new developments taking place. Deep sea mining is now on the cards. We are also seeing billionaires beginning to think about movements “off planet” . Proposals are now seriously being aired to extract natural resources on the Moon, Mars, and Asteroid belts. We need new conceptual tools to understand what is happening here too. I think that this book has some level of importance to these present and future discussions. Our expanded understanding of extractivism and the “planetary” assemblage can help to make sense of these new processes. In terms of my own work I will continue to contribute to the Riverine Rights project. I am also involved in a project focused on conflict surrounding renewable energy development in Africa, led by the Peace Research Institute here in Oslo and funded by the Norwegian Research Council. I am also involved in application writing for a project that aims to critically study the institutional, financial and physical infrastructure being formed for resource extraction “off world”.

Marc

I’m allowed to say “far out” in a complete 1960s voice. With that, I like to thank my guests John Andrew McNeish, and Judith Shapiro. I’m Marc Hudson. You’ve been listening to the New Books Network podcast, and all of the details about the book that we’ve been talking about there on the website. Thanks for listening.

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