Extraction was central to the colonization of half of the world in the twentieth century, having played a key role in enriching already wealthy countries. But while colonization seems to belong to the past, the extractivist mindset based on the notion of extraction continues to pervade all aspects of our lives. In this blog article, a condensed and partial version of the inaugural lecture given by incumbent ISS Rector Ruard Ganzevoort on 12 October 2023, Ganzevoort discusses how extractivism shapes our lived realities and proposes a radically alternative approach to extractivism rooted in compassion.
In recent years, a new ‘Space Race’ has emerged, but instead of states trying to send rockets to space, this new one is centred on resource extraction. Corporations and start-ups are now seeking to extract resources from neighbouring planets and even asteroids — and programmes are being launched that bring them closer to doing so.
I confess that I am overwhelmed by the technological skills that make such endeavours possible. It is amazing that we can send humans to the moon and even actively envision journeys to other planets. And yet… There is something fundamentally unsettling about this story. What is deeply disturbing about this story is the unencumbered thinking about extraction — treating territories as terra nullius, no one’s land, just because the state or the population is not recognized by us, implementing laws alien to that land, and defending mostly the interests of the colonizers. And especially worrisome are the treaties that colonizing countries conclude in order to divide the territories between them without acknowledging the intrinsic rights of people indigenous to those territories.
Of course, one might object that these territories in space are uninhabited and that there are therefore no humans, animals, or other life forms whose rights might be compromised by our explorations and extractions. But first of all, that was also the argument in the past when the indigenous populations were not recognized as people with rights. It still happens in contemporary land grabbing at the expense of indigenous ethnic minority groups, pastoralists, and peasants who need the land the most. It is still the argument when we discuss the intrinsic rights of nature. And secondly, it is completely beside the point I want to make. That point is that such endeavours are emblematic for the extractivist agenda and attitude that has been so dominant and now is so contested in the development discourse. It is linked to the agenda of neoliberalism.
On the origins of extractivism
The concept of extractivism has migrated from its original location in the context of mining and producing raw materials and natural resources, usually shipped out of producing countries without much processing in the country of origin. In colonial times, this was of course the dominant model for North-South international trade. Countries like the Netherlands, England, and Spain would conquer or claim territories on other continents with the main purpose to extract valuable natural resources and produce whatever they could not grow in Europe.
Today, countries don’t officially call these activities colonialism anymore, but the underlying model has not changed. In many places, economic development is defined in terms of trading possibilities and trading is often focused on those resources and products that can be sold to strong economies like Europe and the USA, and increasingly also China. Even when we buy fair trade and organically produced coffee and cocoa (things we want and cannot produce ourselves), even when we improve local economies by stimulating the local processing of these resources, we are still working within the extraction-based economy in which the rest of the world serves the needs of the economic and political centers of power.
But extraction is not yet extractivism. Extractivism refers to a philosophical perspective that questions the broader discourse of the mindset and cultural frameworks of extraction. It is a mindset that is pertinent to our thinking about development, about politics, about economy, and much more. It is a cultural framework underlying a significant part of at least European cultures and that is central to many geopolitical dynamics.
This extractivist approach is found everywhere and it may be helpful to explore some of these fields and reflect on the nature and consequences of extractivism. Beyond the first dimension of extraction — Planet Earth and other territories — we can reflect on extraction in the dimensions of finance, time, data, relationships, religion, and knowledge. Some of these dimensions operate primarily on the systemic or institutional level; other dimensions play out mostly on the individual level, which shows that it is indeed a dominant perspective across our personal, social, and organizational existence. I don’t try to be comprehensive in any way, and I will certainly generalize far too much, but I only aim to show how widespread and taken for granted this perspective is. Below, I briefly show the extractivist approach at work in our daily lives.
The more complex financial systems are, the further they move away from intrinsic value and the more they are part of an extractive system. Extractivism in a financial sense is visible in the accumulation of wealth on the one hand and debt on the other. In fact, following credit theories of money we can claim that money is identical to debt, only seen from the opposite perspective. Development is often financed by loans that create a new dependency and reinforce the dominant economies of the Global North while at the same time creating a market for the North to sell our superfluous or even defected products, thus extracting even more from the Global South under the guise of development. By providing money, we are therefore creating more debts and in fact, global debt (as a share of global GDP) has tripled since the mid-70s.
It is well understood by now that there is no such thing as free data. While Big Tech wants us to believe they are creating new possibilities for us to connect and communicate and to access unlimited data and information, the reality is the other way around. By using Facebook, Netflix, Tiktok, and whatever we have on our smartphones, we are allowing these companies to gather data about us and our societies. We are not watching Netflix; Netflix is watching us. The surveillance society that has become possible through data technology is not only a threat for individual privacy. By extracting data, it creates power for the state and for commercial organizations that was formerly unheard of.
Extractivism is not only present in the actions and structures of institutional powers. It is also part of our own cultural attitude. At least in the West, I must add, because I don’t want to generalize too much across cultural differences, although cultural globalization is visible everywhere and Western culture remains dominant in many parts of the world and is propagated through commercial activities and especially popular culture. One dimension in which this plays out is how we relate to time. Expressions like “wasted my time” and “you have to get the most out of it” or “YOLO, You only live once” reveal this extractivist mentality.
The idea that time is a commodity of limited supply also leads to a perversion of how we look at ageing, again especially in Western cultures. The older people get, the less productive time they have left and therefore the less value they represent. In contrast, we can also see cultures where old age represents not a lack of future time but a richness of experiences.
The commodification of time is paralleled in a commodification of relationships. The most dramatic version perhaps is found in forced marriage, sexual or domestic abuse, and marriage murders. But it is much broader. Modernization and industrialization have led to differentiation in tasks and activities and therefore also in relationships. Colleagues, friends, family members, neighbors, caregivers, trade partners… Many or all of these relational categories could coincide in pre-industrial times but are now commonly organized through different and separate relational spheres. And although there is in many cases still a good degree of mutuality and intrinsic value, there is also at least the risk of commodification where relationships are evaluated for their utility in satisfying specific needs.
And then religion, which I mention specifically because my chair here at ISS is in Lived Religion and Development. Religion can easily become part of the extractivist mindset for example when it takes on magical characteristics. Especially in critical circumstances, people may turn to religion trying to avoid imminent danger. In contexts of poverty, there is a strong temptation to follow prosperity preachers who claim that their approach to religion will bring health, material wealth, and much more. Religious leaders may of course act with sincerity, integrity, and humility, but they may also capitalize on their charisma and extract power, honor, and money from the community they are leading.
I may note here one interesting parallel between missionaries and humanitarian aid organizations. Both are not only engaged with a society in need, usually far from their homeland and constituency. They also both typically share stories about their work in the field, highlighting the dire predicament in which they find the people they want to reach, the beneficial effects of their intervention, and the impact of the financial support of their donors. Everybody wins. The receivers of care or mission are supposed to benefit, the donors can feel good, and the missionaries or aid workers remain in business. Good intentions notwithstanding, both missionary and humanitarian work can easily turn out to be extractive sectors, and in fact, examples of white saviourism. The challenge is to explore alternative spaces of local agency.
Finally, and added here specifically because it regards us as an academic institution, is the role of extractivism in the generation and distribution of knowledge. The contemporary movement of open access and open science is at least trying to correct the perverse system in which public money and the individual drive of researchers have been exploited by commercial organizations.
But there is more. Even an academic institution like ISS that proudly carries the banner of social justice and invests in what we call Recognition and Rewards can in fact perpetuate a competitive rat race for especially younger scholars, whose energy and ambition are being used to further the academic reputation of the institute. Are we really building a nurturing and secure environment in which people can grow under fertile circumstances, or are we just as extractive as we reproach other institutions to be?
And even more seriously. Do we truly embrace different epistemologies and forms of indigenous knowledge, also when they come from other, previously colonized parts of the world? Or do we hold on to our Eurocentric model of knowledge generation and transmission, in which students from the global south are part of our business model, leading to the continuation of North-South knowledge-power dynamics and a potential brain drain from the south? I am not doubting anyone’s intentions, but we also need to reflect on our own role in development studies.
Compassion as radical alternative to extractivism
Maybe you are not convinced by every single example that I mentioned, but I hope that you can follow me when I suggest that extractivism is central to the Western mindset and potentially also influences other cultural contexts. It is at least, I would say, very much present in development discourse and practices. Can we reconceive development in non-extractive ways? We can learn from the debates about decoloniality and degrowth or post-growth. But if extractivism is an underlying cultural mindset that plays out across many domains of how we interact with the world around us, then we also need an alternative fundamental mindset that leads to different ways of relating to the world.
This alternative mindset may go by many different names. One concept that I personally find very appealing is compassion. Compassion is not a soft-hearted emotional response; it is a virtue that is developed over time through a long series of warm and painful experiences, hard and daily choices, honest reflection and introspection, and especially concrete actions. It is also a virtue that is central to many global and indigenous worldviews and religious traditions and therefore can be seen as a core element of human wisdom accumulated over many centuries, as religious studies scholar Karen Armstrong (2010) has outlined.
The concept of compassion combines three interrelated aspects that are relevant for our considerations today. First, it takes its starting point in recognizing that everything is connected. Second, the concept of compassion implies being willing to be affected by ‘the other’, be it fellow humans, animals, future generations, or anything else. “Willingness to be affected”. And then the third aspect of compassion is turning that awareness and willingness to be affected into action.
But this action can no longer be the paternalistic expert-driven top-down form of helping that dominated older paradigms of development and care. It must be based in the awareness of interconnectedness and accountability and therefore breathe the values of mutuality, equality, and justice. To quote the famous words of Aboriginal scholar-activist Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
 Riofrancos (2020) offers an even more precise differentiation between extractivism as the policies and ideologies involved in extraction processes and extractivismo as the, especially Latin American, discourse critically reflecting on this.
 See Ganzevoort (2020) for further reflections on data and humankind.
 Nicely captured in the recent PhD thesis of Constance Dupuis (2023).
 See Sanders (2000) for an insightful analysis of charisma in early Christianity and in contemporary cases.
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About the author:
Prof.dr. (Ruard) RR Ganzevoort is the rector of the International Institute of Social Studies in Den Haag (part of Erasmus University Rotterdam) as well as professor of Lived Religion and Development.
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