The State of Extraction: A Canadian Conference Primer

by Duane Nichols on March 22, 2015

Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, B.C.

The State of Extraction: Corporate Imperatives, Public Knowledge and Global Struggles for Alternatives

The State of Extraction is a free, public conference on Mining, Fossil Fuels and Common Resources and is being held on unceded Coast Salish Territory in Vancouver, B.C. from Friday, March 27th, to Sunday, March 29th, 2015 at Simon Fraser University – Harbour Centre, Canada.

Resource extraction of fossil fuels and precious metals is expanding across the globe and is depleting non-renewable resources, damaging the environmental and social lives of communities, both human and non-human, and contributing to climate change as well as planetary mass extinction. Canada is home to some 75% of the world’s extractive companies.

Canada’s corporate and tax laws enable these companies to maximize their global profits, while simultaneously transferring the social and environmental costs of their operations to those communities affected by the extractions. Democratic debate is falling by the wayside as short-term economic calculations drown out the need to protect the long-term future of our planet.

The State of Extraction is a conference that will bring together front-line defenders and Indigenous nations from B.C. and around the world, as well as activists, academics, artists, researchers, authors, representatives of affected communities from across the world and the general public, to examine the new face of resource capitalism in Canada and its influence on the world; the (lack of) public debate about such issues and the role of resource capitalism in structuring (and frustrating) such debate; as well as alternative models of economic and social development.

Keynote Speakers: Chris Hedges, Glen Coulthard, and Aziz Choudry.

For the full schedule and other details, please visit here.


The State of Extraction: A Conference Primer, by Stephen Collis

To inquire into the current state of resource extraction is to ask fundamental questions about both human rights and the relationship between human beings and the natural environments they inhabit and depend upon. Indeed, it may also be to inquire into the “rights” of the non-human environment itself. It is, therefore, as Naomi Klein has recently argued, nothing less than to acknowledge and investigate “an existential crisis for the human species.”[1] What follows is the beginning of such an investigation, in which the current state of extraction leads to questions about the economy, the state, the climate, justice, and alternatives.

Resource extraction is unavoidably a highly impactful industry: water and land are damaged to extract and process mineral resources, and people living on the land, and depending on its water, soil and biodiversity for their survival, are displaced, suffer negative health effects, and are often impoverished. Human beings, like any species, necessarily metabolize material from the “natural world” in which they find themselves. The development of contemporary industrial civilization, however—especially in the area of fossil fuels and resource extraction—has taken this metabolic process to and beyond its extreme, depleting non-renewable resources at an alarming rate, damaging the environmental and social lives of communities, contributing greatly to anthropogenic climate change, and reducing biodiversity to the point at which scientists are speaking of an unfolding planetary mass extinction.[2]

Change, on the fundamental level that would alter extractive practices, mitigate climate change, and make for more just social relations, is made all the more difficult by the ways our current civilization is completely imbricated with and predicated upon extraction. Modern society in the industrialized world, in Timothy Mitchell’s words, “was made possible by the development of ways of living that used energy on a new scale. … Thanks to this new social-energetic metabolism, a majority of the population could now be concentrated together without immediate access to agricultural land.”[3]

However, as much as the lifestyle many have become used to is dependent upon extractive industries, we cannot lose sight of the fact that these industries exist first and foremost for purposes of making private, corporate profit and are part and parcel of systemic, structural inequalities. Consumption, extraction, and the production of excess carbon dioxide at current levels did not simply arise to satisfy “needs” or “demand”: it was driven by the profit motive and the unevenly developed accumulation of staggering wealth. George Monbiot refers to current practices as “pathological consumption”: only 1% of consumer goods remain in use six months after purchase and “manufacturing and consumption are responsible for more than half of our carbon dioxide production”; furthermore, fossil fuel production and the consumption it enables (the two form a feedback loop) drive escalating inequality.[4]

Extraction is one of the primary modes through which we have for too long been “robbing the future to pay the present,” in Ronald Wright’s words.[5] “If civilization is to survive,” Wright continues, “it must run on the interest, not the capital, of nature.”


[1] Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014: 15.

[2] See Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2014.

[3] Timothy Mitchell. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso Books, 2011:12-15.

[4] George Monbiot. Environmental Feedback. New Left Review 45, May – June 2007.

[5] Ronald Wright. A Short History of Progress. Toronto: Anansi, 2004: 79.

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