Resisting ‘Green’ Extractivism

Alice Seedling

08.08.2022


Look around. How many things can you see manufactured with minerals? With plastic or rubber? Is there food purchased from a supermarket, wrapped in single-use packaging? How many things have been transported nationally or internationally?

Every one of these objects is produced and/or transported using oil, coal and/or gas. Each requires minerals extracted from the earth and refined using mostly toxic processes. If you’re reading this on a computer or phone, think about what was dug up, refined, and manufactured into this device. Extractive practices are everywhere, though we so often take them for granted.

What is ‘extractivism’?
The Gaia Foundation describes extractivism as “an economic and developmental model fuelled by the unsustainable exploitation of Nature—from metals, minerals and fossil fuels to land, water and humans. This model is enabled by the ideological assumption that the Earth, less powerful people, and other-than-human life are resources to be exploited for the benefit of more powerful humans, without limit or consequence.” 1

As we can see, extractivism goes beyond just ‘mining’ or ‘fossil fuels’ in what it’s describing, showing us the exploitation inherently needed for it to occur. People in boardrooms look at maps, see the dollar values of resources, and discuss how to extract them. Companies use marketing to convince people that they need the products made from these resources, and in many cases, people are reliant on extractivism because they don’t know of, or don’t have access to, less damaging ways to meet their needs.

Extractivism has existed in many different societies for thousands of years, anywhere humans—particularly rich, powerful, greedy ones—have unsustainably and unjustly extracted “resources”, whether through agriculture, slavery, large scale land clearing, or anything else. Clear examples include the Roman Empire, the Aztec Empire and ancient Egypt, extracting human labour and often minerals and large scale agriculture.

Currently we live in a capitalist society, where businesses must continually compete in the pursuit of private profit, driving this extraction of metals, minerals, human labour, trees, soil, and so on. One of the big differences between our current capitalist extractivism and past extractivism is the scale. For the vast majority of its history, humanity has met its needs and wants locally. Only after the industrial revolution of the 19th Century, did we develop such complex global supply chains with planes, ships, trucks, mega-mines, and ports to feed, clothe, house, and entertain us.

Increases in industrial production, largely due to our use of fossil fuels, and advances in technology have given many people access to enough resources to live better than kings did hundreds of years ago. But they have also created vast impoverishment in the Global South, and rapidly destroyed ecosystems. And though we in Australia might appreciate the material comforts some of us have access to, much of the Global North has reached a point where increased material consumption does not increase well-being. 2 Meanwhile, global inequality has reached disgustingly unethical levels; in 2019 the world’s 26 richest people had as much wealth as the poorest half of the population, 3.6 billion people.

Many have tried reforming our extractive capitalist system to minimise the damage and destruction, with some minor success. And yet, the problems of inequality and ecological destruction are only intensifying. The constant competition for profit concentrates wealth and power in people who persuade politicians to facilitate their profit-making, rather than distribute resources and facilitate social and ecological justice. While some governments around the world have been pressured into distributing resources and facilitating social and ecological justice by parts of their populations, many wins are eventually overturned or wound back in the name of seeking profit.

In the rich minority of the world, most of us are locked into high consumption lifestyles. Though we shouldn’t discount the power of example to inspire people to make similar changes, even if we could grow, build, and make everything we need to survive, shutting off from the rest of society alone cannot stop the destruction. 

Solutions are not simple: the extractivism of so-called “renewable” energy
Most of us agree that fossil fuels, logging, mass land clearing and unsustainable agriculture are destructive to the stability of our planet. Renewable energy, however, is often viewed as a positive and sustainable solution. But is this really the case?

Solar panels and wind turbines are very exciting technologies, turning truly renewable energy, the sun and wind, into electricity. Unfortunately, the panels and turbines needed in this process are not renewable. They need metals, minerals, transport, construction, and in many cases land clearing—just look at recent clearing for wind turbines in QLD. 3 It is technically possible that solar and wind energy could be produced in a truly sustainable way, where the industrial processes needed to reuse and recycle the metals and minerals and build and transport the panels and turbines are done using electricity from other renewable generation, and other emissions and waste are eliminated or greatly reduced. But right now, this isn’t what is happening.

Our use of technology reflects our society, placing profit and growth above all else. Our current economic system needs to keep increasing output, and companies need to compete for profit or be driven out of the market. This is the same of ‘renewable’ energy producers, leading to many destructive practices. Even so-called ‘renewable’ energy cannot escape capitalist capture.

The vision of the clean, green future always involves electric cars and lots of energy storage, both of which use lithium. To increase consumption and individual car use, manufacturers need immense volumes of lithium and other minerals. Australia is currently the world’s largest lithium producer and exporter, with plans for further expansion. However, lithium projects are known to devastate local groundwater, destroy local ecosystems, contaminate soil with toxic waste, and take land away from other activities such as tourism and growing food. And like many mining projects on this continent, there’s concern and resistance from Traditional Owner groups, such as on the Cape York Peninsula where 71 mining exploration licences, including lithium, have been granted. 4 Much of the land is classified as Aboriginal “freehold” land, on which the Traditional Owners have no decision-making rights in the issuance of permits, 5 continuing the relationship between colonisation and extractivism on this continent.

Beyond the damage of mining for transition metals on this continent, it’s also important to acknowledge the damage done by Australian companies overseas. These companies, supported by the Australian government, help maintain the huge material consumption of the average Australian, especially the super rich. There are many lithium mining operators around the world owned, or partly owned, by Australian companies, including Lithium Power International Limited which owns the majority of Minera Salar Blanco S.A. This is one of the most advanced lithium mining operations in the Atacama region of northern Chile. Affected communities are saying that “the government has approved - in the middle of the pandemic- lithium projects without proper environmental assessment nor FPIC (Free Prior and Informed Consent) to the indigenous communities affected by these activities.” 6

This is only a fraction of the extractivism within the so-called “green” transition. Other minerals needed, such as cobalt, nickel and copper, can also be incredibly damaging to both the environment and local communities. 7 Of course there are more and less damaging ways to extract lithium and other metals, and many are working on lessening the damage. However, as we will see below, without contracting overall demand and production, the outcomes of such huge amounts of extractivism will be dire for the people, land and climate.

It is important to unpack all instances of so-called “renewable” energy, as well as fossil fuels. Focusing exclusively on fossil fuels can leave the door open to other destructive practices under the guise of “helping the climate”, distracting us from many other ways that our societies hurt land, water, and life. Under the rhetoric of “100% renewables”, “net zero emissions”, 8 and “nature-based solutions”, 9 governments are allowing, and even supporting, ecological destruction by corporations. In fact, it’s estimated that carbon emissions associated with primary metal and mineral production accounted for approximately 10% of total global energy-related emissions in 2018, making industry claims of ‘tackling climate change’ by increasing mining unfounded. 10 As we can see, the damaging effects of so-called “renewable” energy are immense, and often overlooked.

Green extractivism and the growth economy
To put this damage in context, we must look at the underlying mentality of extractivism. Under capitalism, extraction operates for profit above all else, and competition for profit spurs economic growth. Without this continuous growth, economies go into crisis. However, this economic growth very clearly correlates with ecological consumption and, on a finite planet, destruction. Therefore, critiquing extractivism also means critiquing economic growth. 11

It’s often argued that these problems can be solved through more efficient technology rather than decrease in overall consumption. But even though we’re continually developing more efficient technology, this is often subsumed by ‘Jevon’s paradox’, in which increased efficiency leads not to less resource consumption, but to more. 12 Continuing to grow our economy therefore means our ecological impact will also continue to grow. Those who argue we can ‘decouple’, or separate, our economic growth from environmental destruction, have been proven wrong time and time again. 13

Therefore, to have a chance at mitigating climate and ecological crises, we can’t simply continue the status quo of energy and material growth. Transitioning away from fossil fuels requires a decrease in overall energy use, in order to lessen huge destruction from the ‘green’ extractivism of so-called ‘renewable’ energy, as well as to stop inflaming the climate crisis.

Going off work by Ted Trainer, if we want to have global material equality and live sustainably, the material demand of the average Australian lifestyle needs to be reduced by up to 90%. 14 There are many parts of the world, and parts of our country, where people need more material objects to survive and thrive. But in Australia, a lot of us have many things we can do without, and it seems that we’ll need to, if we want an end to extractivism.

This can be hard to take in. Much of the rhetoric about the climate crisis is that renewable energy is the solution, allowing us to continue high consumption societies as normal. Unfortunately, within extractivist growth dependent economies and political systems, this is too simple and, frankly, unrealistic.

To end the destruction,we need a positive post-extractivist vision. Most of us depend on products that are made through extractivism, and if we don’t have alternatives, then people will have no choice but to continue with their destructive lifestyles. Fortunately, many such alternatives exist.

What does post-extractivism look like?
The purpose of this article isn’t to bring about individual guilt. Guilt can be useful as a short-term feeling that propels us into action, but it can also be immobilising. As individuals in a hyper-consumerist system, detached from the land and lacking self-sufficiency, we often don’t have many options. Abstaining from everything that is potentially damaging isn’t useful, as only some people, depending on their circumstances, are able to do it. Of course, reducing harmful consumption where possible, and investigating and having nuanced conversations about harm in our consumption are wonderful things to do, especially if they lead to spending less money, which can open more time for enjoying life and creating positive change. But without tackling the bigger picture structures that lock most of us into unsustainable consumption, individual action makes little difference. 

Changing policies and the way our country is governed towards post-extractivism has always been an uphill battle, and it’s important to know what we are up against. Many people argue that reforming our political and economic systems at the speed and scale needed is impossible, due to mechanisms designed to keep current systems in place. It’s important to understand how entrenched the link is between governments and the growth and profit driven private sector. We can see this with the use of terms such as ‘national interest’, which mostly means growing Growth Domestic Product (GDP), and ‘critical infrastructure’, which refers to fossil fuel and mining projects. Add to this the political donations and revolving door between government and corporations, 15 and you have a complex web of collusion from which escape through gradual reform feels inadequate and unrealistic. This is why many people opt for action outside of political reform and lobbying. From blockading to community action, the options are endless.

To create positive change, we need to look at the systems in which we’re acting, and be strategic. We need to ask what changes are needed, and how we can make these changes happen. Extractivism could end within a year if governments shut down mines, mono-cultures, logging and other destructive practices, while supporting communities to redistribute and create the things we need to survive and thrive. But will this happen? 16 Where are our energies best focused? Trying to convince those with power to make better decisions? Working with individuals and communities to create better ways of meeting needs and making decisions that are beyond extractivism? Or stopping further destruction and death through direct action?

Blockade IMARC
Every year, the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) is held in Melbourne. IMARC brings together mining company executives, workers, government officials, and many more connected to mining. There, they network and plan projects, sharing ideas about how to continue the extraction of our planet. IMARC’s messaging over the last couple of years has pivoted strongly towards ‘green transformation’, decarbonisation and ‘renewable’ energy, all the while continuing extractivist entitlement and destruction of land, water and life in the pursuit of profit.

For years, groups and individuals have come together to resist IMARC and everything it represents, bringing the stories of resistance of those on the frontline of the extractive industries, holding IMARC and the mining companies accountable, and standing for well-being and thriving, diverse communities and ecosystems. The last few years has seen the conference disrupted by hundreds of people, including creative protest bringing attention to the destruction and corruption of politicians, a counter conference against IMARC—Beyond Mining; Protecting Land, Water and Life Conference 17—and the building and supporting of communities ready to stand up against extractivism around the globe.

A new project as part of the resistance to IMARC is called the ‘Invitation for Dialogue’, outlining a broad set of actions that could and are happening to build an ecologically and socially just world. Others are invited to join in the conversation to help it grow with more information about all the ways a better world is being created. 18 This project showcases the many ideas and projects that are already underway fighting extractivism, some led by governments, but most led by everyday people deciding they can and will create alternatives to extractivism. If you want concrete examples of a post-extractive world and how we can get there, you will find them in the Invitation for Dialogue.

Simple everyday acts of sustainability can be pockets of post-extractivism. This could be shopping at your local farmers market to buy sustainably grown local food without packaging, or even growing your own food. However, these individual actions alone won’t threaten global extractivism. Capitalism can absorb these practices—make them trendy, sell them for competitive prices, and use them as tick box justifications of how ‘green’ capitalism is. But these everydays acts can be done as a practice and creation of the post extractivist future, especially as part of big communal projects that meet the needs of communities in local, just, and sustainable ways, such as co-operatives, communes, community gardens, repair cafes, and so many others.

On top of building genuine alternatives, we need to resist extractivism. Research and listen to those on the frontlines, and then go to the places that facilitate the destruction and stand in the way (or sit, lie or dance in the way). The extractive projects themselves, the infrastructure that supports them, the banks that fund them, their corporate headquarters, and the conferences where decisions are made, are all possible targets. Governments and corporations have refused to change, despite being asked, so it has become truly necessary to disrupt and block ecologically destructive practices through direct action.

So, it’s time that we stand up and engage with resistance. It’s time to build and support these alternatives. In order to fight for a better world, and in order to understand what we are fighting for, we need to imagine it. So, what does your idea of a post-extractivist future look like? What alternatives to extractivism are you going to be part of creating, and how will you resist extractivism here and now?

There are huge changes needed in the ways humans relate to each other and the rest of nature, and in the ways we meet our needs and thrive together. These changes—on a world scale—will require the involvement of every single one of us. To build our post-extractivist future, we need you.

1  Gaia Foundation, Beyond Extractivism, <www.gaiafoundation.org/areas-of-work/beyond-extractivism>
2  Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level; Why Equality is Better for Everyone, Penguin, 2010.
3. ABC news, The giant wind farms clearing Queensland bush, 12 Dec 2021,<www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/backgroundbriefing/giant-wind-farms-clearing-queensland-bush/13670398>
4.  Lithium Australia, Cape York projects – Queensland, <https://lithium-au.com/cape-york/>
5.  The Guardian, Mining exploration surges in Cape York as scheme to return land to traditional owners stalls, 8 April 2021, <www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/apr/08/mining-exploration-surges-in-cape-york-as-scheme-to-return-land-to-traditional-owners-stalls>
6.  Yes to Life, No to Mining Lithium Communique, 21st September 2021, <www.yestolifenotomining.org/latest-news/ylnm-lithium-communique/>
and Aid Watch Australia’s supporting brief, 23rd September 2021,<www.aidwatch.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Will-Australian-Lithium-Bring-Us-Zero-Emissions.pdf>
7.  Aid Watch Copper Communique, 14th December 2021, <www.aidwatch.org.au/in-the-news/communique-on-copper/>
8.  Real Solutions Not ‘Net Zero’, A Global Call for Climate Action, <www.realsolutions-not-netzero.org/>
9.  Friends of the Earth, Ahead of UN climate summit Friends of the Earth International spotlights how ‘Nature Based Solutions’ is being used to disguise climate-trashing business-as-usual, 27 Oct, 2021 <www.foei.org/press_releases/ahead-of-un-climate-summit-friends-of-the-earth-international-spotlights-how-nature-based-solutions-is-being-used-to-disguise-climate-trashing-business-as-usual>
10.  Friends of the Earth Europe, Green mining' is a myth, 5th October 2021, <https://friendsoftheearth.eu/publication/green-mining-myth-report/>
11.  Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is currently how most nation-states measure their economies, with the general idea that more economic growth is better for the nation and its citizens. This has been disproved many times, with even the creator of the GDP measurement, Simon Kuznets, warning it should never be used as a measure of wellbeing.
12.  Samuel Alexander, A critique of techno-optimism, 2017, <http://samuelalexander.info/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/A-Critique-of-Techno-Optimism-Samuel-Alexander-1.pdf>
13.  Jason Hickel, Why growth can’t be green, 2018, <https://www.jasonhickel.org/blog/2018/9/14/why-growth-cant-be-green>
14.  Ted Trainer, Degrowth – How Much is Needed?, Biophysical Economics and Sustainability, 2021
15.  Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters, Game of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation, 2017.
16.  For a good argument on why sufficient government and corporate action is unlikely: Samuel Alexander and Brendan Gleeson, Degrowth in the Suburbs, 2018, pp. 92-96.
17.  See www.blockadeimarc.com/beyond-mining-series-podcast/
18.  Check out the invitation for dialogue at <https://imarcinvitationfordialogue.com/>




Alice Seedling has been doing activism for about 8 years, focusing on direct action against fossil fuels and extractivism. Their interests include studying economics and history, and discussing the world we want to create and how to get there.


(Dis)solution creates and publishes work to unravel the knots of injustice in the post-end-of-history Anthropocene(s). It turns a critical eye to the machinations of exploitation at the intersections of the political, cultural, and ecological, and the crisis and contradiction that follows. (Dis)solution believes in work that analyzes our world without insularity, work that informs our everyday-political movement through the eroding topographies of the 21st century—not merely to understand it, but to change it.


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