Nothing perhaps distinguishes modern masses as radically from those of previous centuries as the loss of faith in a last judgement: the worst have lost their fear and the best have lost their hope. Unable as yet to live without fear and hope, these masses are attracted by every effort which seems to promise a man-made fabrication of the paradise they had longed for and of the hell they had feared.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

‘The town belonging to the colonized people…is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees.’ In this case, sovereignty means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.

Achille Mbembe, “Necropolitics”

Extractivism, the process of extracting and commodifying natural resources on the global market, quietly wields the power of death over the world through a continuous act of slow violence. We have been trapped (suddenly, it seems, though a look at history would tell us otherwise) in the grips of a predatory fossil-fuel capitalist hellscape, driven by visions of greed and delusions of telluric control, of mastery over the earth. The world truly has become a waking nightmare: a landscape ravaged by resource extraction and transformed into sacrifice zone after sacrifice zone; a global market dominated by the insatiable exploitation of raw earth and those that depend on it; a global social filled with impoverishment and dispossession inherited as an effect of the greed of oligarchs; a world always-already passed on; a death-world.1 Ultimately, as Achille Mbembe tells us in his essay “Necropolitics,” life on earth has been subjugated to the power of death.2

The extractivism underlying this death-world points to a world shot through with necropower, or the power of the sovereign to “dictate who may live and who must die.”3 This means that earth extraction is equivalent to the extraction of life from those who depend on the earth; and that the administration and commodification of the earth’s resources on the global market is also to some degree the administration and commodification of those who depend on those resources and the land from which they were extracted for their survival. This makes earth extraction a biopolitical act against both humans and the earth. And all too often, those who are disenfranchised by the climate crisis and its extractive catalysts are those who depend on the land the most: natives, small mining towns, and those living on the rudderal outskirts of urban centers. These people and their political circumstances in the face of the global climate crisis, which is increasingly articulated through the locality of small communities, can now be viewed as “death living a human life.”4 This crisis, as Derrida would tell us, is “the signature of a last symptom, the convulsive effort to save a ‘world’ that we no longer inhabit: no more oikos, economy, ecology, livable site in which we are ‘at home.’”5 The Frankenstein utopianism of extractive ideology — that the continuous extraction of earth’s resources will solve the world’s problems — has led the world to embody the etymological meaning of “utopia”: literally, “no-place.” Taking this claim as its precedent, the present essay will analyze extractivism through the lens of necropower, and will assert that the world as we once knew it has always-already died off, giving way to a death-world, a world of the living dead.

Achille Mbembe introduced the postcolonial concept of necropower as an evolution of Foucault’s biopower in order to encompass the “subjugation of life to the power of death.”6 Where biopower entailed the historical shift toward the use of power to manage and keep-safe the lives of individuals endowed with political status and thereby deemed “legitimate,” necropower entails a historical move toward the use of power to control populations (often populations deemed “illegitimate” and stripped of political status, such as immigrants, the poor, and the black community) by “exposing” the lives of individuals to death. In other words, necropower is not to make someone die but to let them. This insidious form of violence, reaching its apotheosis of power during the apartheid era, has found new footing in the global environmental crisis as a type of slow violence against the earth.

Necropower exists on a temporal scale of violence, between instantaneously violent “murderous splendor,” and “slow violence.”7 In its slowest form, necropolitics becomes invisible due to the temporal elongation of its enaction; this is what Rob Nixon called “slow violence,”8 or the violence of letting die. Slow violence occurs “gradually and out of sight,” invisibly and in unspectacular ways; it is articulated through the quotidian. As Nixon defines it, slow violence is “a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.”9 This extends the concept of violence beyond direct physical conflict, to a sort of infrastructural violence articulated in the mundanity of everyday items, interactions, and states of being. For example, the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a form of slow violence against Flint’s population, allowing individuals to be exposed to death, living in a liminal state, as their state of being is interrupted by a lack of clean, lead-free water.

Unlike the splendor and awe of traditional institutional violence, which often comes from a single and identifiable source, slow necropower is administered by a labyrinth of forces — an assemblage of state authority, capitalist mechanics, corporate power, and extractivist ideologies. Furthermore, necropower is fundamentally extractive in nature, intended to extract from its targets the force of life and the will to power. It is meant to leave the living in a wounded state, incapacitated and immobile, barely-human at best and unrecognizable as human at worst. Necropolitical violence is intended to “persist for a long time, in the form of human shapes that are alive, to be sure, but whose bodily integrity has been replaced by pieces, fragments, folds, even immense wounds that are difficult to close.”10 Upon this point we pivot our gaze to extractive practices and their necropolitical mechanics. Where Mbembe takes as his critical object the plantation and the space of apartheid, we must take as our critical object the sites of pollution, extraction, and chemical fallout. These are the new sites of necropolitical violence in the twenty-first century. They are sites of contemporary cruelty, of a “peculiar terror” that consists of the wounding of the earth and the casting aside of populations.11

Implicit in the act of extraction is the notion of wounding, of bleeding, of killing. In order to extract one must first meditate, then puncture and dig. By meditation here I mean something like the premeditation of murder. One plots out the land, imposing on it a Cartesian system of coordinates that is entirely foreign to the earth, which knows nothing of artificiality, of geology, of the grid. The earth knows itself well, but it does not know of itself: it lacks the premeditation that man has imposed on it (the curse of self-consciousness). The earth is not self-conscious and therefore it needs nothing and wants nothing. It is simply whole. Geology, for the earth, is nonexistent, because earth is simply earth, an internality so secure that meditation is not required; for man, geology is a necrogeology, a meditation on the “unliving” earth with the primary end of transfiguring its depths into capital riches. Where earth wants for nothing, man wants everything, and goes to great lengths to plan the acquisition of everything. This meditation, this mapping and surveying of the earth, is done much like the way a killer tracks and surveils their prey; in terms of the earth, this means paying attention to the earth in a way that it must feel uncomfortable with. The prying gaze of man inevitably leads to the prying claws of man’s machines, and to the replacement of earth’s natural arteries of life with artificial “arteries of death.”12 This lack of respect for the earth’s vital materialism is what makes it possible for man to “inflict the scale of damage to the land that extreme energy demands.”13 From an animist perspective, respect “means being cautious and constructive / It is cautiously approaching others — and our own wishes, / It is constructing relationships, constructing opportunities to talk, to relate, to listen…It can be shown by leaving alone and by giving gifts.”14 But the premeditation of extraction is not a relation: it is one-sided, it is intruding, it is taking. There is no respect in extraction, despite what the imposition of value on otherwise a-signifying materials like gold and oil would lead us to believe. Rather, extraction positions humanity in a relation of enmity with the earth. The two sides, opposed largely due to capitalism, battle with all their might in slow, necropolitical toil.

There is a sick irony in extractivism. We extract because our way of life, our capital-thirsty way of life, requires evermore new material in order to sustain itself — it is an exponential system in which extraction requires extraction in an endless, accelerating cycle — but the very act of extraction continually diminishes the pool of extractable resources, thereby continually diminishing the possibility of sustaining much of anything at all. To sustain is to hold up the future; but the mechanics of our extractive dreams chip away slowly at our foundation. Extraction is the most unsustainable act imaginable in a finite world, leading immediately to a living death, to a world passed on. As Naomi Klein writes, “A coalfield worker in Gillette, Wyoming, for instance, told me that to get through his workdays, he had trained himself to think of the Powder River Basin as ‘another planet.’ (The moonscape left behind by strip mining no doubt made this mental trick easier).”15 But we are not living on another planet. We are living in an “upside down world,” a world quite literally inverted, turned over by powerful digging machines.

The holes we dig to extract resources may as well be the holes in which we bury the living beings that once depended on the now punctured and emptied land. These beings — for the sake of simplicity let us focus solely on human beings — live a life that may as well be called death; a life in a state of hyperliminality. “‘Has a brother died?’ I asked a monk. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘but we cannot dig in the winter, so we opened this grave ahead of time, just in case.”16 This is the world in which we live: digging graves for a world still here, still breathing, even if suffocating slowly. We are passing the world on before the world itself has even died.

Just as the earth itself is subjected to extractive necropower, so are populations. In the face of extractive necropower, populations of locales in which extraction is performed are reduced to “bare life,” stripped of political status and agency — even stripped of their very means of living, like water and good soil.17 While these populations are generally not being actively “necrologized” (that is, subjected to necropower) as a means of biopolitical control, they are instead “designated expendable” and allowed to suffer the slow violence of environmental crisis through the inaction of state regulators, which is its own form of violence.18 Says Mbembe, “Sovereignty means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.” The selective inaction of state regulators is exactly this form of sovereignty, designating the populations of sacrifice zones as disposable and expendable.19 Thus necropolitics not only exists temporally, but also spatially — certain places are rendered death-worlds through the exposure of their populations to the violent experiences of pollution, the disintegration of living conditions, and the protracted dismemberment of their will to power. These populations are “kept alive but in a state of injury.”20 And, notably, the populations subjected to these death worlds often fall along the normative striations of race and class — the less white you are, the less wealthy you are, the more likely you are to be exposed to the atrocities of necrological extraction. In this sense, the inhabitants of sacrifice zones can be considered homo sacer. These people are thus “subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.”21 This much is seen in Fort Mac, where extraction workers live in a state of damaging liminality, awaiting their turn to retire from the exhausting and demoralizing work of extraction.22 But, as Naomi Klein tells us, there is a certain sadness in this liminality: “beneath the bravado of the bar scene [in extraction towns] are sky-high divorce rates due to prolonged separations and intense work stress, soaring levels of addiction, and a great many wishing to be anywhere but where they are.”23 The irony is, these workers are already in no-place at all — utopia has arrived, and it looks like this:

Strip Mine

Figure 1The Alberta Tar Sands

A mining accident in Indonesia

Figure 2 — A 2019 gold mining accident in Indonesia. (AFP Photo/UNGKE PEPOTOH)

It is abundantly clear, now, that extractivism is a necropolitical practice, an articulation of normative power structures, and an atrocious lack of respect for both the earth and its inhabitants. Due to the necessary acceleration of extractivist ideology, the world itself has been passed on by the very people who once had the power to save it: namely, state regulators and corporate actors. Now, we are all living in a state of living-death, occupying a death-world that has been emptied and turned over, turned into capital for no purpose other than the fulfillment of a grotesque-utopian fantasy of infinite commodification. But there is still hope to be found. Like the colonized peoples which Achille Mbembe takes as his critical focus, we may still have a chance to reclaim our culture, our water, our lives, our earth. This hope lies in collective action, in local economies, and in love and the will to power.

  1. J.-A. Mbembé and Libby Meintjes. “Necropolitics." Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11-40. (accessed March 2, 2019), 40. Hereafter cited as Necropolitics.

  2. Ibid. 39–40. 

  3. Ibid. 11. 

  4. Necropolitics 14–15. 

  5. Jacques Derrida, "Economies of the Crisis,” in Negotiations: Interviews and Interventions, 1971–2001, ed. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 70. 

  6. Necropolitics 39–40. 

  7. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. R. Hurley (New York: Random House, 1978), 144. 

  8. Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013). 

  9. Nixon, 2. 

  10. Necropolitics 35. 

  11. Ibid. 22. 

  12. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014), 345. 

  13. Klein 344. 

  14. Graham Harvey, “An Animist Manifesto” in PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, No. 9, 2012, p. 2–4. 

  15. Klein 347. 

  16. William Bryant Logan, Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth (Riverhead Books, 1995), 54. 

  17. Cf. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Vancouver: Stanford University Press, 1998). 

  18. Nixon, 151. 

  19. Necropolitics, 27. 

  20. Ibid., 21. 

  21. Ibid., 40. 

  22. Klein, 343. 

  23. Klein, 344