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The Day After: Extraction

The fifth installment in an ongoing series analyzing the perils and possibilities of our collective response to COVID-19


Anacortes Refinery (Marathon), on the north end of March Point southeast of Anacortes, Washington, United States. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The Day After: Extraction marks the fifth installment in an ongoing curated series that asks contributors to imagine the perils and possibilities that will ground our collective response to or emergence from the COVID-19 crisis. The first installment was about animals, the second was about food, the third was about energy, and the fourth was about infrastructure.

This series asks Canada’s leading scholars to respond to questions of “human-environment” relations to consider our post-COVID future: What opportunities make you hopeful and what risks do you see at the “human-nature” interface? How can we build an ethic of care for socioecological systems?

These scholars of critical environmental studies have dedicated their professional lives to grappling with questions of environmental conflict, governance and justice—here, we have asked them to turn their reflections toward the public. Together, we hope this contributes to a broad and ongoing discussion on how the COVID-19 crisis can produce visions of the future of “human-environment relations,” for better or worse.

Our fifth edition, about extraction, features contributions from Michelle Daigle, Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez, Anna Stanley, Arn Keeling, and James Rhatigan.

Michelle Daigle is Mushkegowuk and a member of Constance Lake First Nation. She is an assistant professor in the Centre for Indigenous Studies and in the Department of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto.

I want to, for a moment, reflect on the expansiveness of extractive geographies. Inspired by abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s theorization of carceral geographies, I am concerned with connecting various places of extractive violence, so that extraction does not merely stand for the eradication of non-human relations such as trees, water and minerals in rural spaces. Rather, Indigenous peoples’ embodied experiences of extraction—our radical consciousness of what this violence actually entails—moves us through various relational sites and scales. In particular, Indigenous feminist and queer thinkers and organizers carefully remind us of the intimacies of land-body relationalities as Indigenous life, in its fullness, holds memories of the multivalent injustices of a global extractive economy.

These are memories, or stories, that will bring us to the frontlines, as Indigenous peoples mobilize their bodies to protect their ancestral lands, waters and human kin, and become criminalized and dehumanized by militarized forms of state-sanctioned violence. These are stories that cannot be divorced from those that animal and plant relations tell us, as they become sick from the toxins reproduced by capitalist developments, or those shared by Indigenous women experiencing higher cases of infertility, miscarriages and birth deformities due to mercury poisoning. These are stories of Indigenous youth who are forced to leave their communities in Mushkegowuk territory, to complete their post-secondary education in cities such as Thunder Bay, Ontario, where they are subjected to anti-Indigenous racism and death. They must leave their communities as unrelenting quests for extractive infrastructure in their homelands and waters are juxtaposed by state austerity and abandonment, resulting in a lack of housing, clean drinking water, and educational and medical services.

These are stories that tell us how Indigenous life encounters those of Black, Latinx, Palestinian and POC lives, through the layers of toxicity that shape any given place, and through the ways that our lives can be linked through shared struggles against the same extractive companies operating at different sites across the globe, or against the security companies that are employed to protect the accumulation of their wealth. These are stories that cannot be collapsed into one another but, rather, should be interweaved, so that we can begin to see and understand the comprehensiveness of extractive geographies, in their genocidal, anti-Black and white supremacist totalities.

Yet, if we have learned anything over the last several months, it is that every single story of extractive violence is animated even louder by Indigenous, Black and Brown resistance and power. These are stories that tell us of the genealogies of the Black Radical Tradition, and of Indigenous resurgence and liberation. What these stories tell us is that there is a mass consciousness for radical change, and that there is a world that is emerging, one that will not tolerate the extraction of BIPOC spaces and lives. It is a world that cares about the housing, education and health of all people. It is a world that is shaped by Black abolition and Indigenous decolonization. It is a world that I do not fully know or understand, but that I trust, because I have felt traces of it my entire life, and because there are stories that tell me that this world is yet to come.

Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez is a Zapotec from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico, and an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Comparative Indigenous Feminist Studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta. She is the co-editor of the 2016 collection, Living on the Land: Indigenous Women’s Understandings of Place.

These are unprecedented times. Living with COVID-19 has meant living with rapidly changing information. Decisions have been made to identify essential activities. Gyms, schools, restaurants, beauty parlors, and more were closed during lockdown. However, across Turtle Island and Abya Yala, natural resource extraction continued, putting into focus the sharp contradiction between what is deemed essential and who is worth protecting. Despite Indigenous communities’ efforts to shield themselves, ongoing large-scale resource extraction has exacerbated the threat posed by COVID-19 as workers have continued to move in and out of extraction sites.

The threat to Indigenous communities is not strictly related to the pandemic. In Canada, provincial governments have loosened regulations, environmental reporting, and consultation processes for industries during this time. The Alberta government has recently scrapped the Coal Development Policy making it easier for open-pit mining operations. In Latin America, several Indigenous land and water defenders have been murdered during lockdown. While we stayed at home, colonial and imperial violence did not slow down. My fear is that after the pandemic, economic recovery will only heighten the violence of Indigenous land dispossession and resource extraction. I cannot help but wonder, how many more pandemics do we need to note the rapid destruction of the more than human world?

We are at a moment of uncertainty, which demands that we carefully consider other alternatives. Indigenous peoples’ resistance to resource extraction connects what happens to the land to what happens to bodies, challenging colonial ideologies about the non-human world. Body land relationships provide a foundation for living in reciprocal relations with other beings. The physical and metaphysical dimensions of land and body land relationships mobilize practices that do not measure what is worth possessing or what is worth protecting in monetary terms. These are practices that defend life, ours and that of our non-human relatives, including water, land, and wind. These are practices that build communities of different bodies; bodies of people, bodies of water, bodies of land, and other non-human bodies. For human beings to flourish, the destruction of the earth must not be deemed essential. Not now, not ever.

Coniagas Mine is an abandoned silver mine in Cobalt, Ontario, located on the western side of Cobalt Lake. Photo taken in 1910/Flickr.

Anna Stanley is Assistant Professor at the University of Guelph in the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics. Her research focuses on extractive governance and the political economy of settler colonialism in Canada (with Chloe Alexander, a PhD student at the University of Guelph).

Now is a great time to build a pipeline” she said, “because you can’t have protests of more than 15 people.” Just in case though, Ms. Savage and her colleagues passed a bill aimed at eliminating opposition to extractive development, no matter its size, by criminalizing interruptions to critical infrastructure in Alberta.

These actions follow months of ministerial orders, using executive powers granted under states of public health emergency, that use COVID as a blind to swiftly and unilaterally dismantle legislative, regulatory and financial barriers to oil and gas extraction in the province. The Alberta government has amended nearly every piece of legislation governing extraction including the Oil & Gas Conservation Act, Pipelines Act, Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, Water Act, Public Lands Act, and newly implemented TIER regulations (their version of the carbon tax) to suspend environmental reporting requirements and relieve industry of the cost of environmental compliance. They have thrown billions of dollars of public money at the industry (money culled from health care, education and municipal programs) to exempt oil and gas producers from levies, allow for commercialization (rather than require remediation) of orphaned wells, extend oil and gas tenures and (effectively) purchase a pipeline. Ontario and Saskatchewan followed in lockstep, liberating extractive industries and their investors from regulatory oversight. The rest of the provinces and territories followed suit.

Naomi Klein is screaming in my ear: Though ostensibly a response to unprecedented crisis, these measures reflect an obdurate neoliberal agenda of widespread deregulation and financial support for extraction that without suspension of the the normal rules of democratic procedure would otherwise be resisted and opposed.

But so too is Arthur Manuel: Indigenous dispossession is a fulcrum of accumulation in Canada, and (neoliberal) capitalism is constitutively racial and colonial capitalism; a system where value accrues through economic and financial transactions that are based on Indigenous dispossession and the systemic denial of Indigenous rights. Take for instance the astonishing degree to which Canadian financial institutions and especially pension funds are beholden to extractive futures and the underlying conditions that make these assets valuable—including (as recently witnessed in Wet’suwet’en territories) the militarized police repression of Indigenous jurisdiction. The Canada Pension Plan Investment Board has billions of dollars (of worker savings) invested in natural gas companies operating in the western sedimentary basin (whose value hinges on the successful completion of the Coastal Gasslink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territories) and in the tar sands. Ditto the Ontario Teachers’, Alberta’s AIMCO, BC’s BCI and the Caisse de depots et placement du Quebec.

I am choosing to read these as the acts of governments running scared. Scared of the power of Indigenous resurgence, Indigenous law, jurisdiction and sovereignty; scared of the strength of Indigenous resistance to extractive development and related infrastructure violence; scared of demands to decolonize (and de-carbonize); scared of the evidence Indigenous communities will take this no more, will die in the path of pipelines, oil sands mines and other extractive projects (instead of as a result of overexposure to their toxins); and scared of the fact that when Indigenous peoples successfully defend their lands, Canada’s financial system will be left sitting on a gigantic pile of stranded assets and unpaid debt. Maybe this is maybe a cautionary tale. Not about what COVID lays bare, but about what it has been used to accomplish and the death dealing economic order it is being used to rescue—and that must be overthrown.

Arn Keeling is professor in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is the co-author of the upcoming book, Mining Country.

As Canada and the world confront the twin crises of climate breakdown and the global pandemic, the question of what kind of future “we” want (or, perhaps, can live with) is increasingly at the fore. In spite of the many hot takes and expert clairvoyance, perhaps all we really know is that considerable uncertainty about how these crises will unfold remains. Beyond the daily news cycle, we are beginning to understand that these issues constitute forms of “slow disaster” unfolding along extended, if uneven timelines punctuated by sudden calamities and turning points. Perhaps paradoxically, this temporality challenges our ability to formulate meaningful responses, much less address the highly unequal impacts they continue to generate.

In these ways, these crises find considerable analog in the realm of extractive industries. Amongst the many environmental crises generated by the Great Acceleration of capitalist accumulation beginning in the 19th century, we are confronting the long-lasting and intransigent problems generated by mining and fossil fuel extraction. The immediate impacts of these activities are well-known: land dispossession and displacement, infrastructure development, exploitation of people and nature, waste generation, land degradation, and hyper-profits. In the twenty-first century we are increasingly realizing the scale and duration of these impacts, beyond the extractive activities themselves. Abandoned mines, orphaned oil and gas wells, and failing waste facilities illustrate how the environmental damage associated with extraction long outlives the industry itself, their implications often falling to governments and local communities to confront. In addition to the billions of dollars needed to clean up these sites of socialized liabilities, the toxic legacies of extraction pose confounding problems of perpetual care and management. Uranium waste sites, for instance, require secure storage and monitoring for thousands of years; the 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide dust buried underneath Yellowknife’s Giant Mine will be toxic forever, requiring constant care and maintenance of the installations designed to keep the waste frozen underground. The environmental damage and waste generated by mining may be effectively permanent in nature, remaining scars on the local landscape and posing threats to neighbouring communities.

The persistent threats and challenges posed by extractive activities should also give pause to the much ballyhooed transition to remote work and digitalization that are often promoted as solutions to both viral transmission and carbon emissions. The mining industry certainly promotes this connection. But as geographer Josh Lepawsky’s work on electronic waste shows, from massive mineral extraction to power-sucking server farms to toxic e-waste disposal facilities, the material impacts of our “virtual” world, while often out of sight, are vast, accretive, and unevenly distributed.

Massive machinery at work in the open-pit Wyodak coal mine in the coal-rich Powder River Basin outside Gillette, Wyoming. Original image from Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection.

James Rhatigan is a PhD student with the Geography Department at University of British Columbia. His doctoral research focuses on the environmental history of the Canadian nuclear industry.

In the wake of COVID-19 the need to radically transform our economies and energy systems, though long preceding the arrival of the virus, has taken on new urgency. The pandemic has intersected with climatic and economic crises in ways that have underscored and deepened existing social, ecological, and economic inequalities. As governments mobilise financial and political resources to buoy struggling industries and stimulate recovery, it has also highlighted the possibilities of reformatting economies in the face of crisis. As such, the pandemic has rightly been seen as an important moment in which to imagine and fight for the restructuring of socioecological and economic relations for more just and sustainable futures.

How will extraction figure in the post-COVID future? On March 2, little over a week before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Justin Trudeau proposed one answer to this question. Speaking to a packed room at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s annual convention in Toronto—which, tragically, is now considered a likely ‘super-spreader’ event of COVID-19 within Canada and internationally—Trudeau offered a vision of the Canadian mining industry’s role in a ‘clean energy transition’. It was a vision in which Canadian miners and resources would lead international efforts to decarbonise the global economy and atmosphere. “The mining industry,” he pitched, “can not only drive the clean transition but profit from it. To produce high density batteries and wind turbines you need copper, nickel, and cobalt. To build a solar panel, you need 19 metals and minerals. Canada is home to 14 of them.”

Trudeau set his vision against the backdrop of the contemporary climate crisis, but its themes are hardly new. Resource nationalism has deep roots in the Canadian project. Extraction is central to the political economy, identity, and the institutions of the Canadian settler state, and the exploitation of natural resources has long conjured developmentalist dreams in the minds of state officials and industry boosters. While in March Trudeau dreamt of cobalt and solar panels, over the course of the 20th century and into the present one rivers, dams, uranium, reactors, bitumen and pipelines have all variously been held-up as the prime movers of liberal economic development and modernisation.

Imaginaries of “clean transitions” often remain tethered to such developmentalist dreams and to the institutions and extractive logics of capitalism and settler colonialism. But a “clean transition” and Green New Deal can and must be part of a just recovery from the COVID pandemic. This will require moving beyond such logics. It will require collective action that builds solidarity across struggles, communities and borders.

Jonathan Peyton is an associate professor of geography at the University of Manitoba and author of Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia.

James Wilt is a master’s student in geography at the University of Manitoba and author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk.


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