Do you remember the triangular trade from your school history classes? From the 16th century on, European ships brought slaves from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean along the Middle Passage to plantations in the Americas. There, ships took cash crops on board – cotton, sugar, tobacco – and sailed with the Gulf Stream to Europe. Then, sailors set off South with the Canary current, carrying manufactured goods slated for the purchase of slaves from Africa, and the triangle would be set into motion over again.
This global-scale intricate interplay involved, on one hand, extractivist flows and relations – genocidal displacements, and a massive exploitation of labor and resources. On the other hand, we would argue, this interplay helped generating an ever-perfectioned knowledge of navigation and shipbuilding – material and immaterial infrastructures of mobility that enabled the networked nature of extractivism.
Extractivism coupled with mobility, we argue, has led up to predatory economies, leading up to the devastation of soils, atmosphere, habitats and societies, culminating in the contemporary climate crisis. We propose therefore to see extractivism and mobility as inextricably linked – and the very link as constitutive of capitalist world economy. In order to contest extractivist relations between humans, as well as between humans and nature, we necessarily have to disintegrate extractivism and mobility, to change mobility patterns that underpin, enable, and foster extractivism, and set off to imagine non-extractive mobilities.
The opposite of sustainability
We see extractivism as a power relation enabling the exploitation of human and natural resources that does not care for the possibility of reproduction and regeneration of those resources – that is, the opposite of sustainability: running against its core principles of efficiency, consistency, and sufficiency. In line with a broad understanding of extractivist flows and relations, we purposefully adopt a broad, holistic, understanding of mobility, involving the movement of people – from forced displacement to care migration and commuting, to the mobility of goods and ideas, and mobilities of knowledge at work (for and) against extractivism.
Drawing on this holistic understanding of mobility, we propose two main ways in which extractivism and mobilities are interwoven. Firstly, mobility serves as a crucial enabler of extractivism, in terms of mobilizing labor for extractive industries and connecting sites of extraction to the sites of consumption and capital accumulation. We refer to this as mobilities of extractivism. Secondly, mobility in itself generates the need for extraction, and produces vast and interconnected landscapes of extraction in service of ever expanding mobility-related industries and infrastructures, of extractivist mobilities.
Mobilities of extractivism
The extraction of raw materials at the global peripheries, be it cash crops, ore, or fossil fuels, clearly showcases these imbrications, with the transatlantic slave trade as its most brutal expression. Yet we can also trace the extractivist nature of mobility infrastructures e.g. by looking at a map of subsaharan Africa, and follow railway lines connecting mining basins to ports on the ocean coast, bypassing major population centers.
Extraction of raw materials equally involves mobility of people: the displacement of indigenous populations, as well as the arrival of persons involved in extractivist activities. Think of the Klondike gold rush, or the Central Asian labor migration to Russia’s oil and gas producing regions in Western Siberia. Yet another mobility of people towards regions of raw material extraction involves the influx of engineers, managers, state representatives, and with them the mobility of extraction-oriented knowledges and practices, finance flows, diseases, and materialities, permeating production cycles and everyday lives.
We may also mention mobilities directed towards the global South outside of raw material extraction, such as the extraction of cultural capital and dignity, through mass or sex tourism, or the relocation of industries to places with lower environmental standards and less protection for workers. Worth highlighting is also the extractivist nature of labor migration towards centers on different scales, be it regional capitals or the Global North. Brain drain or care shortages put a heavy toll on livelihood, depleting resources for social reproduction in source regions such as Moldova, or Bosnia and Herzegovina. This goes hand in hand with an increased dependence on remittances – that is with an increased pace of financial mobilities – as well as with the arrival of new social norms and values.
These multifaceted imbrications of extractivism and mobility showcase mutually reinforcing negative outcomes, most prominently with regard to adverse climate effects: mass tourism goes hand in hand with the extraordinary externalities of short- and long-distance flights. Automobile-based motorized everyday cultures of the Global North rely on fossil fuel extraction, with heavy tolls on climate and biodiversity on all ends of the planet.
The rise of battery electric vehicles, hyperloops and hydrogene powered cruise ships only appear as possible solutions. Neither do electric cars question the primacy of the private automobile on the mobilities end of the equation, nor solve the extractivist issues linked to battery cell production and electricity generation. Extractivist relations with regard to use and misuse of urban space, parking and sprawl add up to the problem, as do socially unequal redistributive policies e.g. with regard to electric car purchases favoring upper and middle classes.
For Germany, sectoral carbon dioxide emissions associated with transportation are not going down, meaning that the extractivist nature of mobility is not being tackled, in spite of all announcements. Here, we precisely see the difference between full-fledged mobility transitions that aim at decoupling mobility from extractivist relations – and “propulsion transitions” that perpetuate this problematic link.
Mobility policies, both addressing automobiles and public transport, continue to be thought of in terms of a capitalist extractive system: as a factor of competitiveness, enabling commuting to work, and the reproduction of labor. In this light, the debate on an internalization of external costs of auto-mobility is well-intentioned, but insufficient, since the extractivist underpinnings of our current mobility system do not lend themselves to quantification but necessarily refer to past, current, and future injustices.
Disintegrating mobility and extractivism
We are painfully aware that at the current historical juncture, the outlook for disintegration of mobility and extractivism does not seem close. Hegemonic developmental agendas rather center on large-scale connectivity infrastructures, exposing new landscapes of extraction and plugging them back to the urban centers of capital accumulation. The recent wave of militarization globally, in the light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, only creates further needs for resource extraction, and possibly will trigger further large-scale displacement waves.
Political solutions to climate crises are slow, dispersed, and weakly coordinated, and are hardly adequate to the scale of ongoing and projected environmental and social disintegration. When it comes to mobility and extractivism, existing dominant solutions seem to rather aim at tweaking the system with supposedly relatively more sustainable solutions to retain the same or even growing levels of production and consumption, rather than disrupting, as we suggest, the existing patterns of mobilities of extractivism and extractivist mobilities.
Acknowledging the multifaceted and multi-scalar links between mobility and extractivism is crucial to find technical, and even more importantly, political solutions and pathways for social action. Sustainable mobilities must necessarily be non-extractive, we argue. The 2021 protests against Siemens’s involvement in the procurement of railway line signalling for a new-built Australian coal mine project is a showcase of how mobility infrastructures are key for the functioning of extractivist, and thus CO2-heavy, economies and societies.
Undermining extractivist power relations
Even if addressing a minor part of the mining bill, and eventually unsuccessful, protesters highlighted once more how coal mining necessarily relies on ports and connecting railways. The key issue is thus a disintegration of mobility and extractivism. A “transition justice” perspective might help to assess the ecological and social relevance of public transport and rail freight, of walking and cycling, of localized production and consumption, and a recognition of silenced voices and experiences, uncovering diverse economic practices that run at odds against motorized societies.
We furthermore have to engage in creating non-extractive migration patterns. Here again a holistic perspective on mobility seems helpful. In this context too, attention is needed to enable a non-extractive mobility of knowledge and data (e.g. to counter brain-drain). Fostering the mobility of knowledge on non-extractive mobilities is one component on this agenda: connecting and strengthening movements in opposition to extractivism on both domestic and international scales, and raising awareness of negative externalities of both extractivist mobilities and mobilities of extractivism on climate, biodiversity, and livelihoods. This opening of the perspective might be helpful to support our holistic understanding of mobility, and to highlight the multidimensionality and complexities of extractivist power relations.
This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available on Berliner Gazette. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de
Tim Leibert is senior researcher at Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Leipzig, where he is also deputy coordinator of the research group “Mobilities and Migration.” His interests Demographic change, fertility and family building in EU and EFTA countries. Gained his PhD in 2012 with a thesis on the topic: “Wertewandel oder Wirtschaftskrise? Die Theorie des Zweiten Demographischen Übergangs und der ‚Crisis behaviour'-Ansatz als Erklärungsansätze für den Wandel des generativen Verhaltens in den postsozialistischen Mitgliedsstaaten der EU am Beispiel von Ungarn.”
Lela Rekhviashvili is a post-doctoral researcher at Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography, Leipzig. Her research interests include the political economy of transition, informal economic practices, social movements, everyday resistance, and urban mobility. Her academic publications discuss post-soviet shared taxies in a comparative perspective with ride-sharing and informal transport, the role of everyday resistance in production of public space, and the impact of institutional change, particularly of marketization policies on informal economic practices.
Wladimir Sgibnev is senior researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Regional Geography, where he is coordinating the research group on Mobilities and Migration and leading the Leibniz Junior Research Group “Contentious Mobilities through a decolonial lens.” Recent research projects addressed survival strategies in peripheral mining cities, informal mobilities, and a reconceptualization of public transport as public space, as well as insights into the effects of the pandemic on public transport usage and atmospheres.