Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion

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August 31, 2023

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller is Professor of English at the University of California, Davis where she teaches classes in literature and the environmental humanities and is currently serving as Interim Chair of the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies. Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion is her third book.

Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion appeared in October 2021, and in the months since its publication, it has become ever more evident that we are entering a new era of extraction. Decarbonization requires the extraction of critical minerals, and everywhere we hear plans for a twenty-first-century mineral resource rush aimed at lithium, rare earth metals, cobalt, and more.1 In September 2022, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Union, unveiled the Critical Raw Materials Act “to ensure a secure, sustainable and competitive supply chain for clean energy to reach the EU’s climate and energy ambitions.”2 In the United States, President Biden announced the American Battery Materials Initiative in October 2022, which, along with legislation like November 2021’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, aims to ramp up domestic extraction of critical minerals and diversify extraterritorial sources and trading partners. Critics from the left have challenged aspects of this new green extractivism, asking how the damage will be mitigated or repaired in sites of extraction–the sacrifice zones of the green economy–and wondering why public transportation and housing density, which would necessitate less energy to begin with, are not playing a bigger role in our decarbonization imagination.3 But everyone acknowledges that, as my book puts it, “our only choice is to dig ourselves out of the hole we have made” and that, to one extent or another, “to decarbonize we will have to extract.”4

Extraction Ecologies focuses on an earlier energy and extraction transition, the transition to fossil fuels and the emergence of an extraction-based society in Britain and its empire from the 1830s to the 1930s. The challenges outlined above are one reason my book focuses on extraction rather than simply on coal and oil.5 I track the prehistory of climate change in terms of extractivism, not just fossil fuels, for the rise of steam required iron as well as coal and the extraction of all manner of underground minerals was drastically accelerated in the nineteenth century by the introduction of steam technologies and transportation. It is often forgotten that the first steam engines were built to pump water out of mines and that mines, in this sense, gave birth to steam power.

In focusing my book on mineral resource extraction, I shed light on the moment when Britain came to understand itself as an empire thoroughly dependent on mining, an extraction-based industrial society irretrievably bound up with finite underground material (and its horizon of exhaustion) with no viable alternative that seemed capable of preserving the existing social relations of the time. Because I am tracing the development of this new complex of social, economic, and environmental understandings, my questions are primarily cultural, and it is to literature that I turn for answers. Why literature? Historical literature is a guide to how people thought and felt in the past and can give us a better sense of conceptual transformation over time than other sources. Literature, like all forms of art, is also collective: individual novels may be written by individual authors, but literary genre and form are produced through aggregate patterns that capture and shape wider habits of mind; changes in genre and form, such as those my book tracks, are in this sense records of environmental thought. 

Historical literature is a guide to how people thought and felt in the past and can give us a better sense of conceptual transformation over time than other sources. Literature, like all forms of art, is also collective: individual novels may be written by individual authors, but literary genre and form are produced through aggregate patterns that capture and shape wider habits of mind; changes in genre and form, such as those my book tracks, are in this sense records of environmental thought. 

In provincial realist novels of the Victorian and Modernist eras, for example, marriage plots set in areas of exhausted resource extraction often end up failed or infertile. I explore what this trope tells us about horizons of futurity and generational responsibility in extraction-based society, examining Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, and Fanny Mayne’s Jane Rutherford; Or, the Miners’ Strike. Elsewhere I show how the emergence of adventure narrative and its buried-treasure plot tracked with Britain’s surging extractive interests in Latin America and Africa, as we see in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and Montezuma’s Daughter, Mary Seacole’s Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The final section of the book demonstrates why industrial extraction’s boom era was a key historical moment in the development of speculative fiction, focusing on Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream,” Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race, William Morris’s News from Nowhere, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

Narrative literature can serve as a dreamscape for new kinds of energy futures as well as a platform for social critique; it can also inure us to threats and to sorrows. My book looks back to the period from the 1830s, when British industry made a decisive transition to coal-fired steam power, to the 1930s, when the early promise of nuclear power seemed to suggest the possibility of moving beyond fossil fuels. It draws a connection between the depletion-based society that emerged in these years, premised on what were understood to be finite underground resources, and the depletion-based society we inhabit today, premised on the use of fossil fuels that are producing an inhospitable climate for future generations. In both instances, everyday life proceeds by depleting the future. We are still living in the long exhaustion, and there is still no evident alternative to digging ourselves out of the hole we have dug, but as we enter a new extraction boom driven by decarbonization, my hope is that there are lessons to be gained by a clear understanding of where we are and how we got here, an understanding gleaned from literature of the past.

Notes:

1. The U.S. Geological Survey’s 2022 list of critical minerals can be found here

2. See the official description of the Critical Raw Materials Act here.

3. For an example see Thea Riofrancos, “Electric vehicles alone won’t take us to a decarbonized future,” The Hill, Feb. 17, 2023.

4. Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion (Princeton, 2021), 203.

5. My book’s definition of “extraction” is limited to mineral resource extraction for reasons I explain in the introduction. While the term is sometimes used to refer to other kinds of resource accumulation, I kept my focus on the mining industry because it was by far the dominant example of resource finitude and the threat of exhaustion in the period from 1830s to 1930s. Imre Szeman and Jennifer Wenzel’s article “What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Extractivism?” appeared in 2021, when my book was in press, and articulates some of what can be lost if we use an overly-broad definition of extraction or extractivism Imre Szeman and Jennifer Wenzel, “What do we talk about when we talk about extractivism?,” Textual Practice 35, no. 3 (Feb. 2021): 506.

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