The Tectonics of Asking Questions: Struggles for the Collective Consciousness and the Archive of “Green” Extractivism

Magdalena Taube Krystian Woznicki
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22.03.2022

Archives provide answers – at a keystroke and tailored to my profile. The availability of archives is just as taken for granted as the answers they dole out. That, roughly speaking, is how archives work in the popular imagination of the Internet era when offline and online are merging, when all the “content in the world” is becoming digital archive content – permanently stored, keyworded, findable via search engines and equipped with personalized autocomplete suggestions.

But what happens when answers are not available for every question? Quite simply, what is beyond availability feeds conspiracy theories that – instead of developing constructive questions – offer nothing more than oversimplified answers to complex challenges. Thus, in the culture of instant answers, answers are ultimately produced – and made available – for every question. If not at a keystroke, then via shortcut (or a short-circuit in the brain) and usually just a couple of clicks away.

Here, asking questions has obviously gone out of fashion, especially asking about things for which there are no (simple) answers (yet). “Green” extractivism is such a thing. Why? Let’s first take a step back and outline it.

What is “green” extractivism?

Since the climate catastrophe has moved more into the political consciousness, a transition from environmentally destructive to sustainable economies has been discussed, stimulated by scientists and activists. Not all governments and corporations are responsive to this issue. Those who present themselves as “woke” propagate the transition and declare the economy is being transformed, especially in the energy sector, in a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels (oil, coal, etc.) and thus a lower turnover of carbon (keyword: decarbonization) as the core of sustainable climate policy. According to the post-carbon lobby, an economy that, like the tech industry, leaves carbon capitalism behind can be classified as “green” and “sustainable” and is therefore considered worthy of support. Consequently, the tech industry – the poster child of green capitalism – has a carbon-neutral reputation. Natural resource extractivism practiced in this context, such as of so-called rare earth metals, seems “liberated” from everything that has discredited this predatory practice. Unsurprisingly, greenwashing makes it possible.

To put it bluntly, in view of the climate catastrophe with its erratic outbreaks and its slow violence, the overton window could be opened and, under the pretext of a sustainable climate policy, the field for almost unlimited accumulation could be expanded. Waving the “green” banner, corporations and states want to be able to make profits virtually undisturbed and unregulated (Guillaume Pitron, 2020). And they may, because post-carbon extractivism is considered “green” extractivism.

What constitutes the archive of “green” extractivism?

Post-carbon capitalism – with “green” extractivism as its flagship and catalyst – is, like carbon capitalism, still a growth economy that destroys the natural environment, alienates workers and distributes wealth unfairly. Those who wish to generate profits undisturbed and unregulated under these conditions must make the archive of “green” extractivism inaccessible to democratic control and disconnect it from the grasp of civil society watchdogs, unions or “local communities.” In other words, the archive of “green” extractivism, which includes contracts, budgets, court decisions, measurement data, studies, expert opinions, critical literature and much more, must remain closed or at least remain so unreliably, partially and inconsequentially informative that the enrichment of the ruling class can proceed largely without resistance. What does it mean to interrogate such an archive? Let us first further differentiate the object.

The fact that access to the archive of “green” extractivism is obstructed is a basic condition for undesirable developments such as almost unlimited enrichment and economic crime. Meanwhile, the profiteers can maintain the narrative of the “green” transition. All of this, however, torpedoes the transition to a truly sustainable world, which, for many grassroots movements supporting that transition, should also be a just world (Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki, 2022); that is, a world in which environmental degradation of all kinds has been abolished because its causes have been identified and successfully addressed: capitalist and proto-capitalist systems based on resource-devouring extractivism, energy-wasting profiteering and excessive pursuit of endless growth.

Colnate Group: After Extractivism #7, 2022. cc by nc 4.0

In this better world, the archive of “green” extractivism has stored knowledge about the causes of the climate catastrophe and is publicly accessible. We could therefore consult the archive about the present from a point of view in the imagined future – especially about (suppressed and ignored) class struggles. Because if the major, urgent changes for the ruling class are mainly a struggle to safeguard class relations and associated privileges and to defend or expand enrichment options, but are sold as a joint, non-profit-making project under the banner of the “green” energy transition, isn’t this just another version of a familiar economic upheaval? Its script: While capitalists fight among themselves for supremacy, a redistribution takes place from the bottom to the top. If this is the case, shouldn’t we supplement the questioning of the current class struggles, from the perspective of the possible future, with an additional perspective from the past (Katarina Kušić, 2022)?

“Green” imperialism

To adjust the perspective from the past, the case of Latin America can be used as an example for the global South (and, to some degree, the global East). Over centuries, the largely unacknowledged, unexcused and uncompensated effects of European settlement, imperialism and slavery not only paved the way for economic exploitation and political domination of the region by Europeans and later the United States (Eduardo Galeano, 1971). They also formed the groundwork for todays’ neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism of almost insatiable energy-consuming states and corporations.

When critics of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism warn against “green” extractivism, they point out, for example, that the growing demand for “green” technologies increases demand for so-called rare earth metals. The rarest stable element of the rare earth metals is still more abundant than gold or platinum. But they are rare insofar as major deposits of economically exploitable minerals in this category are scarce. However, because they are available in and of themselves virtually everywhere, the high-pressure search for major deposits has gone global (Julie M. Klinger, 2018), making potentially every place on the planet (and beyond) a possible resource war zone.

As if imperialists had not already been degrading the earth to a battlefield for far too long, thus fueling the slow violence of the climate catastrophe, the hype about “green” extractivism ignited by the post-carbon lobby has further increased the potential for escalation. The negative consequences of this hype, even if global, do not affect all regions equally at present and probably not even in the long term. The demand for lithium, for example – known to be an important component of energy storage technologies – already exceeds the current supply and the production capacities of places where it has been proven to be stored in large quantities in the earth’s crust. An uncontrolled lithium boom has begun, affecting in South America, for example, the so-called “lithium triangle” in northern Chile, southern Bolivia and northeastern Argentina (Thea N. Riofrancos, 2021) and in Eastern Europe various regions in Serbia (Aleksandar Matković, 2022) but also in Ukraine (Naumenko Uliana and Svitlana Vasylenko, 2022).

Here, a new green imperialism accelerated by transnational corporations and states emerges, which is not least a reminder that decarbonization measures don’t work against the inequality between the global North and South or between the West and East. Mostly, the opposite is true. This, in turn, calls into question the viability, sustainability and equity of the “green” transition in exemplary fashion. It begs the question: At whose expense should the transition take place? And is it perhaps necessary to keep the archive of “green” extractivism inaccessible and to demotivate its questioning to prevent the opponents of predatory economic practices and the future transition losers from rebelling and organizing?

Transparency: Means or end?

The demand for transparency seems to be a logical consequence. If the archive is closed and inaccessible, it is necessary to strive for its opening and public accessibility. That this is a worthwhile cause also seems to be confirmed by the international transparency discourse in the extractive sector: Governments failing to live up to their accountability, socio-economic injustices and environmental damage caused by extractive companies could be exposed. But there are serious objections.

The discourse and practice of transparency have been co-opted by industry interests in states of the global North, including Canada, the US and the UK (Anna Zalik and Isaac “Asume” Osuoka, 2020). This is exemplified by the oil and mining industries, but is also structurally true of the lithium industry. As a result of discursive co-opting, transparency regimes are applied to “host states” – in the Global South in the oil sector, for example, to Nigeria, and in the lithium sector, for example, to Chile. This flanks, for example, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, an international initiative involving numerous nongovernmental organizations, companies and states that is specifically dedicated to the transparency of developing countries’ revenues from the extraction of raw materials. Meanwhile, the profit-seeking practices that these regulations seek to expose are rarely linked to corporate misconduct in the North where global extractivism – also in said “developing countries” – is planned and managed, calculated and billed.

In view of this, the objections to our problem can be narrowed down: Interrogating the archive of (“green”) extractivism has elevated transparency to an end, rather than seeing it as a means to make the (geo)political, social, human, and ultimately environmental costs of resource extractivism a political issue. The bottom line is that the transparency discourse and associated regulatory regimes have helped to focus attention on the wrong questions. Questions, namely, that are only interested in transgressions by the host states, i.e., rule-breaking at the sites of extractivism, but not also in who, wherever, benefits from it and who must bear the costs of the damage caused in the short term and in the long term.

Thus, as important as transparency is as a condition, the practice of transparency is not self-perpetuating. This realization throws us back on ourselves – on the individuals and collectives (however defined) who interrogate the archive of “green” extractivism. And it thus challenges us to take seriously and make productive the lessons learned from the recent history of whistleblowing and data leaks. Firstly, the transparency movement from below is followed by a transparency movement from above. This is the dialectic of social power relations. In concrete terms, this has so far taken the form, for example, of state and private-sector institutions, whose power is always constituted by their black-box character, beginning to engage in transparency-washing – or, as explained above, to co-opt the discourse and direct attention to the wrong questions. Secondly, it is not so much a matter of how many documents are made publicly accessible, how extensive the archive is and how unfiltered and unimpeded access to it is. What matters is that we understand what the compromise or limitation of the archive is and what we ultimately do with what is already accessible.

To use an example from the tech industry that relates to a neighboring problem: When the first documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden were made available by newspapers in the summer of 2013, hadn’t everything necessary already been disclosed to understand the criminal nature of the cooperation between the NSA and telecommunications and IT corporations and the compromising consequences for digital infrastructures? Or did we need ever more and ever more secret documents? The media-fueled hunger for more disclosures, new documents and full access to the archive was and is in stark contrast to the barely developed willingness to read these documents and to the clearly underdeveloped ability to cultivate sociopolitical clout from the increase in knowledge that has already occurred and can potentially be expanded.

This means, a social, collective and collaborative practice of transforming available archival material, however limited, into commons and cultivating it as such (Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki, 2017) as a basis for new questions, narratives and movements – that is missing. Especially in terms of bringing together sub-political concerns around digital infrastructures with climate and environmental justice concerns (Elmar Altvater, 2014) and turning them into a future-oriented, grassroots, transnational, decolonial, class-struggle project. One characteristic of this lack? Well, let’s call it social inertia.

Keep moving

Social inertia, it stands to reason, is related to the culture of instant answers. But how? Asking this question in the context of “green” extractivism is likely to be a central political issue of our time.

Let’s look at the struggle for the rare earth metals that are crucial for our “smart” world (whether for the miniaturization of electronics, “green” energy and medical technologies, telecommunications and defense systems, electric cars or for cloud infrastructure, artificial intelligence and the Internet). Is this struggle for rare earth metals a struggle for supremacy in green capitalism and thus, crucially, also a struggle for the socio-political perception of the ongoing climate catastrophe? Does this struggle find an echo in the culture of instant answers insofar as it is also an algorithmically-supported class struggle from above for our consciousness – as users of digital technologies and the Internet in particular, thus also as users of the archive – and thus, last but not least, a struggle for how we deal with each other, with the world and its imbalances? Is this struggle for collective consciousness not aimed at palming us off with quick answers and preventing us from relentlessly and realistically questioning the prevailing economic system? And is this struggle not ultimately a struggle for control of the future, the spectacle of which – the showdown between carbon and post-carbon capitalists, for example – aims at nothing other than extending the hegemony of capitalism and prolonging it indefinitely?

One thing seems certain: Interrogating the archive of “green” extractivism is not just about uncovering access to knowledge, legal knowledge, for example, that can help expose (ecological and economic) crime and that can thus be a starting point for empowering true alternatives and thus alternative ways of living and organizing economic processes. It is also about creating a resonant space for shared thinking and reflection in which the questions and the related social conversation remain vibrant and point beyond the limitations of the present, even, or rather, especially when, as nowadays, the power relations seem so oppressive that it seems impossible to find escape routes. Finally, however hopeless the present may seem, the power relations that give this impression are not totalitarian. There are breaking points and escape routes – constellations that nurture utopias and movements (Avery F. Gordon, 2017), which, if they reach a critical mass and develop vehemence, can turn the prevailing economic system upside down to create foundations for the political and economic participation of all, where this participation is reserved only for the “chosen few.”

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Article by Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki as part of the partnership between the Berliner Gazette project After Extractivism and The Whole Life. An Archive Project.

Translated from German by Faith Ann Gibson

Sources

Elmar Altvater, “Controlling the future. Edward Snowden and the new era on Earth,” Eurozine, Dec 19, 2014.

Eduardo Galeano, Las venas abiertas de America LatinaSiglo XXI Editores, 1971.

Avery F. Gordon, The Hawthorn Archive. Letters from the Utopian Margins, Fordham University Press, 2017.

Julie Klinger, Rare Earth Frontiers. From Terrestrial Subsoils to Lunar Landscapes, Cornell University Press, 2018.

Katarina Kušić, “Lessons for the “Green” Transition: Learning from Cooperatives in Former Yugoslavia,” Berliner Gazette/Mediapart, Feb 18, 2022.

Aleksandar Matković, “Why a New Form of Ecological Imperialism is Developing in the Balkans,” Berliner Gazette/Mediapart, Feb 17, 2022.

Isaac “Asume” Osuoka and Anna Zalik, “Beyond transparency: A consideration of extraction’s full costs,” Isaac “Asume” Osuoka and Anna Zalik (eds.), The Extractive Industries and Society, Vol. 7, No. 3, Jul 2020.

Guillaume Pitron, The Rare Metals War: The Dark Side of Clean Energy and Digital Technologies, Scribe Publishing, 2020.

Thea Riofrancos: “The rush to ‘go electric’ comes with a hidden cost: destructive lithium mining,” The Guardian, 14.06.2021.

Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki (eds.), A Field Guide to the Snowden Files. Media, Arts, Archives 2013-2017DIAMONDPAPER, 2017.

Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki, “The Ecological-Economic Complex, Green Capitalism, and Transition Justice,” Berliner Gazette/Mediapart, Feb 11, 2022.

Uliana Naumenko and Svitlana Vasylenko, “Prospects of Development of Lithium Resource Base in Ukraine,” Conference Paper, February 2022.

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