- Symposium–Bodies, Extraction, And The EnvironmentBodies, Extraction, and the Environment
In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon explosion became one of the worst industrial disasters in history, killing eleven workers and causing unprecedented damage to the ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico. In November 2017, the infamous Keystone pipeline leaked 210,000 gallons of oil near Amherst, South Dakota.1 In 2018, scientists found the largest ever cluster of black lung disease among coal miners in central Appalachia.2 And in 2019, the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality ignored the concerns of government scientists in approving permits for construction of an open-pit sulfide mine, part of a new wave of mining in the upper midwest.3 These are a fraction of the resource disasters that have taken place just in the United States. As extractive industries grow throughout the world, extractive processes despoil both the land and water but, when oil and gas are burned, also contribute to the climate crisis. These unnatural disasters can be understood together as examples of the systemic and even acceptable by-products of the rapacious consumption of environmental resources within a capitalist society bent on ramping up production and consumption. The disasters also hang together as examples of Bataille's concern with wasted excess energy, literally wasted and wasting all manner of life. The problems described above are exemplary of the externalities of a neoliberal rollback of environmental protection policies, the expected outcome of capitalism as a land management system, and the failures of a liberal democratic regime that only permits shallow civic intervention by citizens into the politics that shape our relationship to the environment. How then, does contemporary political theory respond to the ongoing crisis of environmental degradation in the face of entrenched destructive technologies and economic rationalities that treat these disasters as the unavoidable cost of doing business?
In spite of the urgent realities of climate crisis, a resurgent extractivism continues to fuel the global political economic order. By extractivism, we mean a political logic that aims to continue or intensify the flow of mined and extracted resources in the global economy. Extractivism has attracted significant scholarly attention but, with few notable exceptions, has rarely been a central focus for political theorists.4,5,6 What political economic, racial, gendered, and sexualized [End Page 227] logics are driving contemporary extractivism? How does the environment—as both a discursive construction and a material site—mediate the process and logic of extraction? How is extractivism embedded in political ideologies and institutional forms? What thinkers and approaches can help us understand and resist our dangerous and contaminated political present?
In grappling with these questions, the articles in this symposium challenge the classical political theory analysis of resource extraction by addressing class, sex/gender, and ecological dependence. The articles that follow take aim at the traditional assumption that fossil fuels must be spent, a "use it or lose it" attitude that has significantly contributed to climate change and myriad associated injustices, while also criticizing the older green theories which uncritically placed the "earth first" before social, political, and economic relations. One of the primary problems of extractivism is that the use of land, labor, and capital reproduces the conditions for alienation, even when alienation appears differently for different groups. These articles reevaluate classical Marxist work on alienation with an emphasis on alienation from the environment as a space of labor, home-making, and as a more-thanhuman world not strictly in service to human life. We challenge the typical model of extraction which relies on the human/nature divide, and we ask: what political, environmental, and social problems are produced when resources are extracted? Our answers are timely and perhaps surprising. We broaden the theorization of extraction beyond the simple human/nature duality and explore the production of alienation and domination inextricably tied to extractivism. Taken together, these articles help re-imagine the relationship between extraction and capital in the contemporary moment by highlighting how rationalities of extraction are intimately linked to social, economic, and political power inequalities in which the health and lives of certain groups of people are expendable in order to continue generating profit.