This article, written by Olli Tammilehto, is based on the presentation he gave in the 4th Annual Conference of the World-Ecology Research Network in 16.8.2018. You can republish it in English or in any other language but you should first inform the author.

Constructing a Polity Compatible with Non-Extractivism


It seems almost impossible for a poor state or any state to avoid extractivism. Even states whose constitution emphasizes acting in harmony with nature or which have a socialist government pursue it. The key legitimization is poverty reduction: by extracting natural resources a state gets money to organize development projects.

Yet, the quandary may result from the bureaucratic gaze: seeing like a state. This perspective supposes that poverty and other problems are technical problems which can be solved by physical and social engineering. It is assumed that in order to get anything significant done, a state needs professional workers and that people act effectively only by monetary rewards. Additionally, a lot of technical equipments and materials must be purchased.

From another perspective it can be argued that poverty and other similar major problems are fundamentally of a social nature. Traditionally they have been solved, if at all, by social movements, the actors of which haven't got any monetary reward. Besides the aim itself, the motivation has been the social riches that a living movement provides.

Thus it may be that social movements can deliver a cue how to construct a polity that would be compatible with non-extractivism. The polity might consist of largely autonomous local entities confederated loosely. These entities would practice direct democracy and contain a rich network of face-to-face social relations. The social world would be a richness as such but it would also facilitate sharing of material resources. People's mutual interaction would constitute a power that could solve various practical problems. In these circumstances a non-alienated relationship with nature might evolve and enjoying unmodified natural objects would be more common. The lack of status competition would reduce drastically the need for consumption. For all these reasons, a modest material flow could provide a good living for all.


Non-extraction, poverty, domination, direct-democracy, good living


Mining for different minerals and coal and drilling for oil and gas are major causes of environmental destruction. They are that both as activities and as sources of polluting materials. As such a mine often marks a total destruction of local environment. All mines and oil fields together result in an outstanding global ecological devastation. Extraction activities contribute heavily to biodiversity loss, general pollution of the planet and climate change. For example mining and refining lithium for car batteries brings about so much CO2 that a new electric car must run 10 000–20 000 km before its emissions are smaller than those of a gasoline car.

On the other hand most of the nature destroying, polluting and climate changing activities outside mines and refineries are done by materials and fuels originating from mines and oil fields.

Yet extractivism is nearly universal: almost all states are mining or drilling either on their own soil or abroad through their companies. In poor countries extractivism is thought to be necessary for development and poverty reduction. Even Bolivia and Ecuador, the two countries that have included “the rights of mother earth” in their legislation, are engaged in mining and drilling. Also many western environmentalists accept extractivism in poor countries as a necessary cost of development even though they oppose such projects in their own localities.

It seems that we end up in a cul-de-sac: extractivism should be stopped but we cannot if we care about poor people.

Of course some materials and energy are needed in any conceivable future, but that does not make extraction a life necessity. Because large mining activities have been going on for centuries, so much materials have accrued on the surface of the earth that through reuse and recycling we can get necessary materials without mining. Furthermore, to paraphrase Gandhi, renewable and ecologically sensible energy sources are enough for everyone's need, though not for everyone's greed. To search in more detail an exit from extraction it may help to analyse how we use concepts of 'poverty' and 'well-being'.

Dimensions of poverty

Poverty is often thought to mean the lack of a certain amount of material resources. Usually this is simplified as the lack of money. Correspondingly, well-being is understood as having “normal” amount of material resources.

This is a vision from above. People and their conditions are seen in the eyes of a state bureaucrat or a neoclassical economist. Poverty is regarded as a technical question. Poor people are aided by increasing the monetary flow through economy or making the official economy grow. If trickling down from the tables of the rich isn't considered to be enough, income is redistributed to benefit the poor. This vision presupposes the existence of a universal machinery making everything that is important in human life commensurable. Markets are usually thought to function as this machinery.

There are, however, many problems in the mainstream poverty concept. One is that many resources are outside markets, for example those provided by commons. Market penetration varies with time and place so that what you get by money and what you get without it is shifting. Anyway you never get everything through markets, e.g. good human relationships.

For these reasons people who are officially extremely poor may have good living and no problem of surviving if they live in a well-functioning community with access to common fields, forests or fisheries. By the same token, a person whose income is well above poverty-line may live in misery: she has an exhausting and dangerous job with no free time, lives in a polluted and ugly environment, she has bad social life and is not respected in any community and has no dignity nor autonomy. In these circumstances much of her consumption is compulsory or, to use Illich's term, shadow work: money is needed to get to the job, to keep her in some kind of fitness for work and to compensate the distress in job and home. Such a person with a normal wage is in fact poor in many senses.

Accordingly poverty is much more complicated issue than that expressed in the technocratic vision. It is a social and political problem which has much to do with the present social structures. To maintain the present hierarchies, capital accumulation and the opulence of a small minority is not easy. For the purpose of that one needs many social processes and arrangements that cause a lot of misery and ecological havoc.

A huge amount of human toil is needed to make the extravagance of some people possible. Heaps of drudgery are also necessary to construct and maintain the administrative apparatus and the physical structures showing that some people are above the rest. To secure unequal distribution of wealth and power a lot of weaponry and humans indoctrinated to be inhuman and use it are required.

Yet, to decrease the need of costly and ugly violence it is necessary to maintain ideology that moves respect and appreciation to the rich and those in the upper echelons of social hierarchy and, correspondingly, causes shame and loss of dignity among the rest of population.

To make this disparaging social order more tolerable a lot of effort is put on physical and cultural production of status goods that carry a fleeting glamour of the elite to the toilers. On the other hand, this constantly changing production transforms lifestyles and creates cultural and physical dependencies on new products. An illusion is created that all the new products and the work associated with them are necessary.

All these poverty and opulence creating social processes demand enormous amount or resources. As a consequence we have life-killing extractivism all over the planet.

But what about states run by socialist governments? Aren't they capable to stop extractivism? Unfortunately these states are using the same or similar hierarchical structures to govern. Usually even capitalism remains in one form or another. Therefore the basic logic described above that creates social poverty, alienation and need for high consumption goes on. Even though income redistribution ameliorates the effects of these processes to some extent, it does not redistribute power or create respect and dignity. Accordingly, extractivism continues.

Poverty reduction without extractivism

But how then extractivism could be avoided and poverty overcome? The analysis above about the causes of high consumption gives a cue. Another hint can be found in social movements, especially in such wide movements that rise in crises when the injustice of the social order is commonly recognized. Surprisingly these social organizations can rapidly overcome poverty in all of its dimensions without extractivism: Collective action changes power-relations immediately. Disobedience in hierarchical structures is widespread and therefore domination is severely curtailed. People together get huge power-to that they can collectively steer. Participants are respected and they regain their dignity. Redistribution of resources happens immediately but material flows in society may be quite limited for the time being. However, poverty as misery is greatly reduced.

Unfortunately, the situation above has lasted only a short period time, but there seems to be no inherent reason why it couldn't last long after a future uprising. Therefore it is important to see how movements organize.

A key feature is the lack of monetary rewards and forcing mechanisms at least in starting phases. Movement may have strong leaders but they are leaders in the same sense as “chiefs” of indigenous groups: unnoticed by themselves they cease to be leaders immediately when they are not trusted any more. Local groups have wide autonomy. In general meetings the opinion of every group must be taken into account if the movement wants to go forward. Inside groups there must prevail some sort of democracy – otherwise people vote with feet.

In some situations when the official society have weakened enough or movements have been strong and courageous enough, social movements have started to build a new society beside or on the ruins of the old. Often in the first stages of these revolutions the new polity has been based on local directly democratic entities which have formed city-wide or country-wide confederations. Political power has been anchored in the local level by having delegates with imperative mandate, that is to say, people sent by a local assembly to the convention of a confederation have had to stick to the views agreed upon in the assembly. The most recent example of this kind of polity formation is Rojava in northern Syria.

Perhaps the polity compatible with non-extractivism could be based on this model, that is to say on local direct democracy, nested confederations and delegates with imperative mandate moving from a lower level to a higher. The polity would retain many of the qualities of a movement but on a permanent basis. Like in a movement power-to would be great but power-over weak. Poverty reduction wouldn't depend on extraction but on opulence and domination reduction. Huge material resources and human labour which have been needed to maintain power hierarchy and the riches of a few would be freed. The part of these not based on the continuation of extraction could be redistributed to the needy. Status competition would be drastically reduced. Therefore the experience of poverty would be curtailed and sharing of resources would be socially and psychologically easier.

Wide political participation in local assemblies and other entities of direct-democracy and self-governance would mean that people with modest material resources would be respected and regarded as normal. They would regain their dignity. In society there would prevail something that Hannah Arendt calls public happiness.

People working and interacting freely without domination would create huge social richness that would replace much of the material wealth of bygone days. Public festivals and occasional dancing in the streets and fields would bring about such moments of ecstasy that people would look at pictures of life in consumer society with pity and astonishment.

Big challenges

But isn't this only a futile utopia? Could this kind of polity work in real life? What about big challenges confronted by any society? Yet it may be that a society described above would have the resilience and problem solving capacity needed to cope with many kinds of crisis. This is on one hand due to decentralization and the complete devolution of power to smallest entities, on the other, due to replacing the spirit of competition with that of solidarity and co-operation.

In natural disasters centralized structures usually cease to work. This wouldn't be such a big problem if power and decision making would already be devolved. In fact, according to sociology of disaster, already now majority of those rescued in earthquakes and other disasters are rescued by spontaneously created informal teams.

If a non-extractivist directly democratic polity would come about in the midst of normal states, conflicts could ensue. Besides diplomacy and negotiations, conflict resolution could take many forms made possible by the special characters of the polity. It wouldn't try to create an imaged community of one nation as nation states but would instead blur the borders and appeal to all human beings irrespective of their geographic location. Some local communities situated inside a nation-state would join the polity. Additionally there would be support groups of the polity all over the world. Therefore aggressive behaviour towards the polity would create also an internal conflict and possibly endanger state's capability to govern.

A non-extractivist polity wouldn't be compatible with conventional army and heavy weaponry. However, it would sync excellently with non-violent civil defence. It would be normal for everyone to learn how to use civil disobedience and other means to resist any attempt to restore old hierarchical structures – be it an inside group or an outside state. In fact, it may be that one of the reasons why non-violent civil defence isn't put into use in states, is the fact that it would greatly strengthen citizens' ability to resist the unfair, immoral, unacceptable or mistaken policies of their own state

Of course there would be no guarantee that a conflict between the new polity and a state would have a happy ending. Yet such guarantees are not available even for a state with a strong conventional army.

Probably outside forces would use “soft power” to restore the old order and to regain access to natural resources and to turn people again into labour force and consuming mass. They would spread images of material affluence to create dissatisfaction. Yet, there would be many ways to counter these influencing attempts. In general education there would be no need to conceal or gloss over the terrible crimes behind the existence of the state system and capitalism. The fact that consumer capitalism is bringing the world to the brink of total catastrophe would be common knowledge. The alienated and unhappy life of many rich consumers would be brought out. Visits to “consumer paradises” would be supported and travellers encouraged to tell about their experiences.

In structures of self-governance deliberative democracy would be the norm. Strange and unexpected ideas would happily be taken into consideration. Therefore independent thinking would be widespread and people wouldn't be easy preys for outside influence.

The most important antidote against attempts to restore the old order would be good living. Modest or even subsistence level consumption wouldn't be a problem because of rich social life and non-alienating political structures. People would enjoy of so many things money cannot buy. Rich relationships would be the salt of life. But important relationships wouldn't be limited to human world. They would encompass various living beings, ecosystems and natural formations. The ability to enjoy nature as such without drastic human interventions would be widespread. Extraction would be regarded as one of those irrational practises of bygone dark ages.


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