- The Story of Extractivism
Extractivism is a compelling story. For decades, it has promised that we would all ride into the sunset and live happily ever after. It is the stuff of fairy tales, a Disney movie, the physical representation of the American dream. Extractivism is also an ideology that puts us (actually, some of us), human beings, at the top of the food chain, and everything else below. It supports the notion that plundering is our God-given right simply because the resources are there. The story of extractivism is so pervasive and so woven into our modern culture that, until recently, we barely noticed it.
However, with the increase of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, the depletion of natural resources, and the threat of another mass extinction, the story of extractivism, and its consequences, has become crystal clear. How we have played out this narrative can no longer be ignored because, despite our sticking
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closely to every plot point, very few of us actually get to ride into the sunset and live happily ever after. In fact, most of us are left standing in the devastation that lies just beyond the picture frame.
I have devoted most of the past decade to writing about the impact of extractivism on the North through a series of eight plays—two finished, one in development, five upcoming—that look at the social and environmental changes taking place in the eight Arctic states. Not only does the Arctic play a crucial role in modulating temperature for the rest of the planet, but three of the countries within the Arctic Circle are heavily invested in offshore oil drilling, while several more sit on huge mineral deposits. And most of these resources are in Indigenous territories. Whether set in Canada, Norway, or the United States (and eventually Greenland, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Russia), the plays look at what happens after the official story is over—after the last page has been turned, or the credits have rolled. What then?
It may be tempting to paint variations of apocalyptic worlds in order to strip the story of its veneer, stress the severity of the consequences, and scare people out of complacency. But the apocalypse is, in fact, just the flip side of the same story: extractivism gone wrong, told through the lens of privilege. Sea levels rising, power failures, water scarcity, the disintegration of infrastructures and the social fabric … for a large number of people around the world, this is the reality of day-to-day living. Few have access to the luxuries we, in industrialized countries, have grown accustomed to and are terrified of losing. End-of-the-world scenarios are nothing more than knee-jerk reactions to realizing the balance is off and we’ve been on the winning side for too long. As painful as it may be, we need to tear ourselves away from this reductive world-view and find a new story.
But what should this new story be? If we are to be denied the seductive fantasy of riding off into the sunset, what is a compelling-enough ending that can motivate us to go on the journey?
A few months ago, I led a five-day workshop called the Artists & Climate Change Incubator in Anchorage, Alaska. One of our guest speakers was Libby Roderick, Director of the Difficult Dialogues Initiative at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Roderick has done extensive ally work with Indigenous communities— groups particularly vulnerable to the devastations of extractivism. In her talk, she stressed the importance of ceremony in Indigenous cultures as a way to honour, strengthen, and support people for what has been done, and prepare for what is coming next. In those contexts, she understood ceremony as a way of ensuring that people stay in ‘right relationship’ with all of life, so that the actions they take do not emanate from disconnected human egos but rather from...