Sophia E. Hagolani-Albov

Extractivism is a concept that describes an underlying logic of capital accumulation at any cost and indicates a particular way that value is placed on the earth’s resources.

Sophia E. Hagolani-Albov is a doctoral researcher with the agroecology group in the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry at the University of Helsinki. She currently works for Global Development Studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki and is one of the founding members of the Global Extractivisms and Alternatives Initiative (EXALT). She also co-hosts the EXALT Initiative podcast. Sophia’s doctoral research explores food system redesign in the Finnish countryside. She is also interested in extractivism as an organizing concept and understanding the impacts of data extractivisms.

Apple Tree Care and How One Relates to Resources

There are different ways to approach how humans interact with resources. Many different types of resources exist, for example those that are commonly termed natural resources, which include minerals, metals, oil (and other hydrocarbons), and wood/non-wood forest products. Resources also include agricultural products and the soils they grow in. Additionally, resources can be derived from other activities, for example, through the labor or effort that human and non-human beings contribute to the production of goods and services. Further, there are intellectual and cultural resources; even the data we produce when we interact with the digital world can be understood as a resource.

Extractivism describes a way that humans interact with resources. This interaction also describes an underlying logic that drives how humans relate to their resources. Extractivist logic is deeply intertwined with many of the structural and historical features that drive unsustainable practices, for example via political ideologies and economic models. The concept of extractivism is thus a critical lens that highlights the systemic nature of unsustainable practices and processes. Developing alternatives to extractivism—as a basis for developing sustainable practices and processes—often requires one to rethink how nature can be understood and conceptualized.

As an example, consider the two different relationships to an apple tree that are described below. One can be characterized as non-extractivist, the other as extractivist. You will see that while there is ‘taking’—or extraction—from the tree in both instances, the value assigned to the tree varies depending on which logic is at play (i.e., non-extractivist or extractivist).

Non-Extractivist Relations

In the first instance, there is an apple tree that grows in a backyard, and someone tends or cares for the tree. Every year when the time is right, the fruit from the tree is harvested and this fruit is sold for profit. Some of the apples fall to the ground, and they are left there for animals to eat, or else they decompose and their nutrients return to the soil. Every year, the person tending the tree places natural mulch around the tree—taking care that it is far enough from the trunk that the tree does not rot. This helps the tree to remain healthy and continue to produce apples. Every year during the dormant period, the person tending the tree prunes some of its branches to open the canopy, so there is light and air circulation to allow the fruit to grow. The pruned branches can be used for wood chips, mulch, or in another way that generates benefit or direct profit. If used at all, pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides are administered in a way that causes minimal environmental harm. In this relationship with the tree, the resources from the tree are being used for human gain, but the tree is also being taken care of in a manner that honors the tree. This allows continued production, and ultimately, a more sustainable relationship, minimizing degradation as it does not destroy the tree or its surrounding ecosystem.

Extractivist Relations

In the second instance, there is an apple tree that grows in a backyard, and someone owns the tree. The fruit from the tree is harvested and sold for profit. To generate the most money from sales of the fruit, the owner of the tree liberally applies insecticide so the apples can grow big and round without any damage from insects. In addition, herbicides and other pesticides are applied to keep away anything that might compete with the tree’s growth. It works, but the surrounding ecosystem is damaged as a result. The wood of the tree is indiscriminately taken as needed in a way convenient for the owner. For example, if someone decides they would like to make a table from the tree and offers a large sum of money, then the tree, or part of it, is cut down, even if it was still capable of producing apples. The main value of the tree is the capital that can be extracted from the resources of the tree, rather than the tree having inherent value. In this way, the tree will be used in any way that generates the most capital for the owner—no matter the cost—even if this means the destruction of the surrounding ecosystem and the tree itself.

These two instances show it is not simply the act of using the resource in question that makes it an example of extractivism. In the first instance, the tender receives resources from the tree, but in a way that fosters the continued health and development of the tree (and its surrounding ecosystem). In the second example, the owner only values the tree (and its surrounding ecosystem) for the capital that can be gained from their use. The resources of the tree are thus used to generate the most capital, regardless of the ecological cost. This illustrates a relationship to the tree that employs extractivist logic, which can be identified by its intensity, volume, market orientation, and disposability.

Extractivist logic allows the tree to be destroyed for immediate capital gain—an ethos that can be applied to the interaction with and accumulation of natural, labor, intellectual, and cultural resources. An extractivist logic can be applied at any scale but is most often associated with large-scale developments (e.g., mining, industrial agriculture, mainstream forestry) or large corporations that exploit their users’ data without concern for those users’ privacy or well-being. Extractivist logic is often imposed on local populations and landscapes through the actions of large corporations in the name of capital accumulation.

For in-depth discussions of extractivism in different contexts, and to learn more about the alternatives to extractivism, listen to the Global Extractivisms and Alternatives Initiative podcast, a monthly conversation with academics and activists focused on this subject.


Discussion Questions

  • How would you explain extractivist logic to a friend? What different example would you use to illustrate extractivism?
  • Why is it important to understand the underlying logics of specific natural resource accumulations?

Additional Resources

Chagnon, C.W., Hagolani-Albov, S.E., and Hokkanen, S. (2021). Extractivism at your fingertips. Our extractive age: Expressions of violence and resistance. J. Shapiro, J.-A. McNeish (Eds.). pp. 176–188. Oxfordshire, United Kingdom: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003127611

Dunlap, A., and Jakobsen, J. (2019). The violent technologies of extraction: Political ecology, critical agrarian studies and the capitalist worldeater. London, United Kingdom: Palgrave, McMillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-26852-7.

Durante, F., Kröger, M. and LaFleur, W. (2021). Extraction and extractivisms: Definitions and concepts. Our extractive age: Expressions of violence and resistance. J. Shapiro and J.-A. McNeish. 19–30. Oxfordshire, United Kingdom: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003127611

Gago, V., and Mezzadra, S. A. (2017). Critique of the extractive operations of capital: Toward an expanded concept of extractivism. Rethinking Marxism, 29 (4): 574–591. https://doi.org/10.1080/08935696.2017.1417087.

Gudynas, E. (2021). Extractivisms: Politics, economy and ecology. Nova Scotia, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

Kröger, M. (2021). Extractivisms, existences and extinctions: Monoculture plantations and Amazon deforestation. London, United Kingdom: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003102977

McKay, B., Alonso-Fradejas, A., and Ezquerro-Cañete, A. (eds.) (2021). Agrarian extractivism in Latin America. London, United Kingdom: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780367822958

Riofrancos, T. (2017). Extractivismo unearthed: A genealogy of a radical discourse. Cultural Studies, 31 (2–3): 227–306. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502386.2017.1303429.

Ye, J., van der Ploeg, J.D., Schneider, S., and Shanin, T. (2019). The incursions of extractivism: Moving from dispersed places to global capitalism. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 47(1): 155–83. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2018.1559834.


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