Eating the crust
Landscapes of extraction
Extraction sustains our society. We dig and carve the landscape to construct the physical infrastructure of our towns and cities, but rarely pause to think about the origin of the gravel, concrete, steel, aluminium and plastic that comprise the built environment.
We rely on oil, gas and coal to power the technology in our lives, but are disconnected from the landscapes that must be exploited to yield that energy. We rely on rare earth metals to manufacture lifesaving medical devices, batteries and electronics without considering the political consequences of mine leachate on drinking water. The act of transforming raw materials into useful products is the foundation of economic development. Without extraction, urbanisation is not possible.
The products and profits of extraction are all around us, but the process remains out of sight and far away. A vast system of railroads, canals, pipelines and ever-larger oceangoing vessels connects a global network of extraction and consumption.
Supported by economies of scale in both production and transport, low-value materials such as coal, crushed rock or sand — which historically tended to be extracted, processed and sold locally — now move long distances at little monetary cost. The origins of the thousands of raw materials and components that comprise a gadget or a building are increasingly dispersed across the world, hidden behind complex supply chains and nearly untraceable commodity markets. Multinational ownership of global mining companies further obfuscates territoriality, as extraction generates wealth bound for distant cities and raw materials bound for distant markets. Oil extraction from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico produces wealth in Houston, Texas. Gold mining in Uzbekistan supports a booming electronics industry in Shenzhen, China — and the millions of people it employs.
Chinese coal mining, in turn, underwrites the manufacturing of steel and aluminium used to construct cities around the world.
Landscapes of extraction are invisible territories, collateral to global capitalism and technological progress. Looking closely at such landscapes allows us to admire and judge both the technological innovation and advancement of some extraction processes, but also to call attention to the environmental degradation caused by others. It allows us to dissect and better understand the invisible — but no less real — social and political structures of labour, regulation, innovation, economics and power that also shape these territories.
Mining areas destroy the land but will continue to expand as long as there is money to be made
While the politics and economics of the global market are abstract, extraction always happens in real landscapes, with physical consequences. In this way, extraction is always local.
Monuments to industry
When seen from above, extraction landscapes form some of the most persistent monuments to our civilisation, with their epic scale of holes, pits and excavations, and their wholesale reshaping of the natural terrain.
Most fundamentally, the process of extraction destroys the underlying landscape structure to get at the resources below; the result can be re-routed waterways, wholesale deforestation, habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity.
Extensive surface mines eat away at the surface of the landscape, displacing the fields, forests and towns in their way. Other consequences of extraction are harder to see and to measure: extraction processes often concentrate toxicity in the soil and water.
As technology and markets have evolved, the shift from underground mining to massive open pits now creates literal mountains of overburden — waste rock, from which trace amounts of valuable minerals are further extracted using powerful chemicals, which are then deposited in waste ponds and heaps nearby.
As unintentional monuments to our current era, abandoned mines will have long legacies beyond what’s readily visible, continuing to leach toxins or slowly fill with water long after their material value has been removed.
Extraction in the Anthropocene
It takes substantial amounts of energy to power the massive extraction operations of a large-scale open-pit mine, but from the point of view of climate change, there is a special urgency to address the extraction, and subsequent combustion, of fossil fuels: coal, gas and oil. Coal, in particular, has some of the most egregious extraction practices. Since many coal seams are shallow and expansive, the environmental destruction caused by coal mining is often dramatic and highly visible.
Gigantic bucket-wheel excavators tear up vast tracts of agricultural land through strip mining; entire mountaintops are blown up and dumped in neighbouring valleys, decimating valuable ecosystems and radically altering hydrological systems, in a process accurately referred to as mountaintop-removal mining. Oil extraction, too, has long created vast dystopian landscapes — slick, black, toxic and studded with hundreds or thousands of oil wells — but perhaps none as damaging in both climate impact and localised environmental damage as the oil sands in Alberta, Canada. Harvesting the Athabasca oil sands, a particularly heavy form of crude oil, has already transformed thousands of miles of boreal Canadian forest and peat bogs into a moonscape of toxic holding ponds, refineries and sand pits.
Natural gas extraction causes less visible disturbance above ground, but the explosive growth of hydraulic fracking — a process that uses enormous amounts of water to open cracks in shale seams more than a mile underground — raises concerns about impacts on groundwater supplies, earthquakes and the consumption of enormous quantities of sand, water and toxic chemicals. The climate impacts of the methane escaping from
natural gas operations, meanwhile, are alarming in their scope.
Keep it in the ground?
In response to the mounting crisis of climate change, a new wave of activism has begun calling for a wholesale ceasing of extraction. The movement to “Keep it in the ground” is rethinking the balance between risk and resources, and questioning the ethical grounding of an activity that provides benefit to a focused few while adding to the burden of global climate change.
Since protests also happen in discreet places, environmental direct action has allowed the public not only to consider the connection between fossil fuel extraction and climate change, but also to witness the broader environmental effects on landscapes of extraction and draw a connection between climate change and environmental justice.
Recently the expansion of Germany’s largest surface coal mine was temporarily stopped through the non-violent direct action of thousands of protesters taking up positions in the old-growth Hambach Forest that was slated for imminent clear-cutting.
Indigenous activists in South Dakota and Canada have set up encampments blocking proposed oil pipelines, pointing to the danger these fossil fuels pose to fresh water and sacred landscapes. In turn, climate activists from across North America, primarily concerned with the carbon price tag of expanding oil infrastructure, have joined and supported their struggle as part of a larger environmental justice movement.
The Netherlands’ activist group Code Rood is highlighting the global warming contributions of natural gas, and the continuing support of the Dutch government for fossil fuel extraction, while protesting against the local earthquake damages caused by gas extraction around Groningen.
Still, energy companies continue to invest in expanding oil exploration, with projects planned for a growing number of offshore oil fields in ever-deeper waters, renewed oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, and the continued expansion of the Canadian tar sands.
The future of extraction
The race is on to de-carbonise the global economy, as quickly as possible, with renewable energy and more sustainable industries. But while this net-zero future might mean the end of coal and maybe even of oil, it won’t mean the end of extraction. Even renewable resources are sustained by extraction — rare earth minerals are a critical component for solar panels and wind turbines; lithium and cobalt are essential in batteries and electric vehicles.
Nearly all of our technological visions of the future rely on raw materials extracted from the earth: green power grids, eco-cities, driverless cars, desalination plants, supercomputers and artificial intelligence, the extension of healthcare to the global poor. From where do we imagine that all of these materials will come? Will the positives of such technological advancements be worth the cost? Can a utopia be built from the dystopian landscapes of extraction?
We could image that extraction will continue indefinitely, expanding in reach and technological prowess. On the other hand, we can also imagine a circular economy whereby companies take responsibility of their supply chains, recover raw materials and strive for a closed loop production cycle for everything from wind turbines to fuel cells.
Does a circular economy suggest an end to extraction? Not likely. As long as the profit to be gained from extraction outweighs its imposed cost, we’re likely to see a continued expansion of the extraction territory, first to the deep ocean and eventually to space.