Extractivism - new and rising field of research at the University of Helsinki?

Extractivism is a concept of our time. Large-scale exploitation of nature and appropriation of human-labor fuel the unsustainability of our current world-system. Despite this, research on extractivism is still rather restricted within certain disciplines and is often unknown outside of academia. However, at the University of Helsinki research on extractivism and its alternatives has started to gain more and more interest in just a few years.

Extractivism has traditionally meant the intensive and large-scale exploitation of natural resources (such as minerals, forest, fossil fuels and hydropower) with the intention of interregional or international export and monetary gain. Extractivism and its global structures are present in almost everything people do in modern societies. We are connected to each other and nature through the materials we use, clothes we wear and energy we consume. The economies in Europe and North America are standing on the shoulders of hundreds of years of extracted materials and labor force from countries in the Global South. The climate emergency, degrading soils, global water crisis, erosion, and loss of biodiversity all tell the tale of how the economies we have built on extractivism and exploitation are finally meeting the due-dates of their bills. (Willow 2019)

Extractivism in academia

In academic circles extractivism is still a relatively new field of study, residing mostly in political economy, political ecology and global studies. However, in the countries most affected by the negative effects of extractivism, activism against it is very prominent, which is also why most academic literature around extractivism has traditionally originated from Latin America; where territories have been intensively and continually plundered since colonialism. In the North the issue of extractivism and its regional effects are starting to become ever more tangible, as the changing Arctic offers new opportunities for extractive activities such as oil and gas exploration. This new surge in extractive activities makes research and political discussion around extractivism and its ills pressing in Finland.

In 2019, a new research initiative, Global Extractivisms and Alternatives (EXALT), was founded at the University of Helsinki. EXALT is an international network of scholars, activists, and policymakers dedicated to collaboration and knowledge creation around the pressing crisis stemming from extractivist policies and practices. The EXALT Initiative draws together diverse critical analyses of the phenomena of global extractivisms and the myriad alternatives being actively pursued in both theory and practice. The initiative intends to contribute to, expand, and deepen the concept of extractivism and the role of alternatives beyond the conventional usage connected to natural resources. EXALT will also host an international scientific conference, "Concurrent Crises and Sustainable Futures: Global Extractivisms and Alternatives", at the University of Helsinki, City Center Campus on October 20-23, 2020 (Edit: This conference has been moved to October 25-27, 2021).

Collaborative knowledge and joint discussions

In addition to the 2020 conference, EXALT is hosting other related events throughout the year; the next one will happen on March 12th at Think Corner, with a focus on climate emergency and indigenous people in the Arctic. The event is co-organised with the Indigenous Studies programme at the University of Helsinki. In January 2020 members of EXALT also kick-started a new doctoral course under the Doctoral Programme in Political, Societal and Regional Change. During the course a small group of doctoral students will coproduce and publish an article on unpacking and broadening the concept of global extractivism.

Collaboration and co-creation of knowledge on the issues around extractivism and its alternatives are crucial in finding new pathways towards a more sustainable coexistence between all humans and the rest of nature. Studying extractivism has the potential to better unearth the global inequalities between humans, but also with non-human nature. It enables us to realize that we do live on a limited planet. As sustainability science (primarily within the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science, HELSUS) is one of the key profiling areas at the University of Helsinki, there is a lot of potential to create even more multidisciplinary research and collaboration around the subject of global extractivism and sustainable post-extractivist futures.

Subscribe to the EXALT-mailing list via this link.

Follow EXALT on Twitter @ExaltResearch and Facebook @EXALTglobal

Listen to the EXALT Podcast:

Extractivism – what is it?

Extractivism differs from individual acts of extraction. We, humans, have always made use of the nature around us. From the earliest days of modern Homo sapiens (around 200,000 years ago) until around 10,000 years ago, all people met their subsistence needs by hunting and gathering. In this most basic sense, people have “extracted” natural resources around them for themselves and the benefit of their community for many thousands of years. We have brought home berries, harvested grains and filled our nets with fish; We have taken rocks from the ground and transformed them into tools for hunting and preparing food. None of this has been a threat to the web-of-life and the existence of our species.

The same cannot be said about extractivism as an economic and political paradigm. While “to extract” or to use resources around us refers to individual acts, extractivism means both practices and principles; a series of actions validated by an underlying ideology of human domination over nature and other humans. Extractivism refers to processes and structures wherein primary resources are removed in large quantities with the intention of interregional or international export and monetary gain. This means that the benefits of extractivism are enjoyed elsewhere and the harmful effects are localized. Large open-pit mines, huge dams, or plundered oil fields might not seem so close to our everyday lives in the Global North, but through the energy we use, products we consume, and food we eat they are intrinsic parts of our lives. Many parts of the world as we know it, are to a large extent based on harmful and unsustainable extractivist practices.