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Post-Extractivism: Debates and Practices

The Structures of Conquest: Debating Extractivism(s), Infrastructures and Environmental Justice for Advancing Post-Development Pathways

Les structures de la conquête : débattre sur l(es)extractivisme(s), les infrastructures et la justice environnementale pour avancer sur les voies du post-développement
Las estructuras de la conquista: debates sobre extractivismo(s), infraestructuras y justicia medioambiental en la construcción de caminos hacia el posdesarrollo
Alexander Dunlap


The green economy and ‘green growth’ are not solutions to ecological and climate catastrophe. The dominate trajectory of techno-industrial development has to be reconsidered and placed within ecological limits. The ‘social’, related to environmental and climate justice, tends towards subordinating the ecological in the maintenance of modernist infrastructures, and thus towards breaking efforts to achieve socio-ecological harmony. The following examines the realities of resource extractivism, but also tensions within academic debates on these matters. This entails locating an important ‘grey area’ within these debates, which has significant implications for imagining pathways to address ecological and climate catastrophe. This grey area—questioning the difference between extractivism and industrialism—also persists within archetypal positions on land acquisition and shades of reform in environmental justice studies, and, to a lesser degree, in the (academic) decolonial literature. This chapter contends that environmental justice reinforces modernist development, necessitating and expanding extractivism and ecologically destructive infrastructures. By highlighting ambiguities in critical literatures, it seeks to provide political clarity, reinforcing personal and collective self-determination and, secondarily, to encourage public policy to begin taking climate catastrophe seriously.

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I am grateful for the comments, patience and support offered by the editors, Matthew Archer and Filipe Calvão. This chapter benefited greatly from the edits and comments of, and discussions with, Philippe Le Billon and Sage. The time, energy and suggestions of the two reviewers contributed to the text of this chapter, especially their in-text comments, which proved constructive and productively stimulating—a luxurious benefit to have during a review process, thank you. Lastly, I am grateful for Sabo’s companionship and care that makes its way into this chapter.

1. Introduction

  • 1 This, of course, was in the name of defeating an enemy, even if ‘conventional bombing had already a (...)

1Extractivism and infrastructure are the two sides of the socio-ecological coin. The extraction of human and non-human life to ‘develop’ states, grow economies and modernise infrastructures, while responsible for creating living possibilities and enchantments (Alexander, 2008; Harvey and Knox, 2012), is undeniably the modality of development that is responsible for socio-ecological and climate catastrophe (Kallianos, Dunlap and Dalakoglou, 2022). ‘The invention of the boat’, as Paul Virilio ([1983] 2008, 46) reminds us, ‘was the invention of shipwrecks. The invention of the steam engine and the locomotive was the invention of derailments. The invention of the highway was the invention of three hundred cars colliding in five minutes’. Ward Churchill (2003) and Winona LaDuke and Sean Aaron Cruz (2012), taking this further, remind us that colonial genocide–ecocide process on Turtle Island are foundational to nuclear weapon production . Colonial conquest and the ‘Indian Wars’ established the means to exterminate Hiroshima and Nagasaki via atomic bombs dropped on Japan.1 With the wider public recognition of climate change, we can now say that the invention of capitalist industrialisation (as we know it) has consolidated the pathways towards ecological and climate catastrophe.

  • 2 Statist also implies corporate. The state is a framework; albeit imperfect/contested, it facilitate (...)
  • 3 Colonial and/or statist forms is a matter of temporality, making the state the current and evolving (...)

2Technological progress, its speed, convenience and possibilities, offered existential purpose and enamoured people (Harvey and Knox, 2012; Anand, Gupta and Appel, 2018), meanwhile masking, ignoring and externalising the underside and ‘costs’ of this wonder—‘[t]he negative side of technology and speed was censored’, as Virilio (2008, 46) contends. This underside is not only accidents and disasters as Virilio indicates, but an entire self-reinforcing and administering institutional network of extractivism and infrastructure powered by capitalism(s). This, of course, refers specifically to material-intensive, or ‘hard’, infrastructures, such as roads, pipes, power lines, data centres, power stations and more (Anand, Gupta and Appel, 2018; Tarvainen, 2022), which function as the skeleton of capitalism, the shape of modernity, the driving force of extractivism. Patrick Wolfe’s (2006, 388) contention that colonial ‘invasion is a structure not an event’, indicates—past and present—how the modernist process seeks to literally ‘steamroller’ and absorb Indigenous peoples and ecologies, revealing how political economy maintains this socio-ecological apparatus of conquest. Wolfe’s ‘structure’ refers to settler colonialism and colonial societies, their political economy and forms of political organisation—the state (Dunlap, 2018; 2020). Viewing statist2 infrastructures as conquest reminds us of the extent to which intense socio-ecological destruction is tolerated and normalised within the current institutions and economies. This is to say that colonial/statist3 invasion is also infrastructural (Dunlap and Arce, 2022, 461; Tornel, 2020), which implies the necessity of rethinking and changing ‘resource’ extraction practices and modern infrastructural construction (Kallianos, Dunlap and Dalakoglou, 2022), which extends to bureaucratic, judicial and mental infrastructures. Mental infrastructures are formed by systematically bombarding people with efforts at subjectivity persuasion (e.g. ‘brain washing’) by private industries and governments in order to cultivate particular forms of public conduct and consumer practices (Bernays, [1928]2005; Herman and Chomsky, [1989]2010; Verweijen and Dunlap, 2021). If people want to mitigate ecological crisis, they must become responsive and challenge the persistence of ecologically destructive infrastructures and begin (re)transforming their habitation practices to support their environments. This chapter seeks to address an anthropocentric extractive and infrastructural bias that predominates within extractive and environmental justice (EJ) literatures. This bias relates to how people chart (multi-scalar) extractive supply webs, the state and ‘justice' phraseology. Critical approaches, the chapter argues, still suffer from ‘infrastructural coloniality’ (Dunlap, 2021a, 6), which underestimates the accumulation and interdependence of extractivism(s) and enables them through processual and egalitarian concerns that maintain the supremacy of modernist infrastructures over ecosystems. Infrastructural coloniality frequently results in ‘selling out’ ecosystems/habitats, thereby subordinating non-human life (e.g. animals, rivers, mountains, trees and habitats) to the desires of various human populations under the influence of colonial mentalities and, later, industrial-‘technocapitalist’ desires. Civilisation, Empire, Monarchy and Colonialism, guided by various statist forms and economic logics, have progressed alongside technological developments, which reinforce each other to continue industrial capitalist trajectories into cybernetic and computational capitalism(s) that remain normal features of (statist) market societies.

  • 4 This chapter avoids the concept of ‘infrastructuralism’ as it has many diverse meanings and raises (...)

3This chapter proceeds by examining the realities of extractivism and infrastructure, but also the political perspectives and ideologies that enable them. The ‘social’, related to environmental and climate justice, tends towards subordinating the ecological to the maintenance of modernist infrastructures. By attempting to reconcile capitalism with ecology, there is risk of stultifying efforts at achieving socio-ecological harmony. Harmony, in opposition to extractivism, refers to creating reciprocal and relational health within habitats/ecosystems; so, for example, to not degrade or over-exploit any humans or non-humans. The following examines the realities of resource extractivism, but also tensions within academic debates on these matters. This entails locating an important ‘grey area’ within the debate, which has significant implications for imagining pathways to confront ecological and climate catastrophe. This grey area—questioning the difference between extractivism and industrialism4—which also persists within the different seven archetypal positions within land acquisition, discussed below, and corresponds to reformism with environmental justice studies and, to a lesser degree, ‘academic decolonial scholarship’ (Dunlap, 2022, 3). This chapter contends that environmental justice systematically promotes inclusion into the project of modernist development, necessitating and expanding extractivism and modernist infrastructures. By highlighting ambiguities in critical literatures, this chapter seeks to provide clarity, reinforcing personal and collective self-determination and, secondarily, to encourage public policy to begin taking climate catastrophe seriously. In its conclusion, the chapter advocates (decolonial) degrowth reforms and post-development pathways aimed at mitigating socio-ecological catastrophe.

2. Extractivism: Recognising the Depth of Socio-ecological Destruction

4Energy demand is rising. According to Our World in Data (OWD), the amount of mined material has only grown exponentially. In 1880, approximately 43.2 million metric tons of minerals were consumed. By 2013 this figure had increased to 2.64 billion metric tons of iron ore, tungsten, bauxite, copper, and so on (OWD, 2021a), a figure projected to grow as the rapid roll-out of low-carbon infrastructures for the ‘green energy transition’ (Hickel, 2020; EC, 2020, 4) and economic growth continues. Low-carbon infrastructures, the World Bank recognises (Hund et al., 2020, xi), ‘are in fact significantly more material intensive in their composition than current traditional fossil-fuel-based energy supply systems’. This includes expansive spatial demands, consuming large swaths of land and hillsides (Mulvaney, 2019). ‘The global population doubled between 1970 and 2017, yet the extraction of materials (including fossil fuels for energy) tripled, from 27.1 billion tonnes to 92.1 billion tonnes per year,’ explains Meadhbh Bolger and colleagues (2021, 6). The increase of material consumption coincides with a rising energy consumption, totalling 171,240 terawatts in 2019, with oil accounting for 53,181, coal 44,109, and gas 38,517 terawatt-hours (TWh). (OWD, 2021b). Meanwhile, ‘75% of the terrestrial environment and 40% of the marine environment are already severely altered, combined with an alarming and rapid loss of biodiversity, with close to one million species facing extinction’ (Bolgher et al., 2021). Despite all the enchantments of capitalism and modernity (Alexander, 2008; Harvey and Knox, 2012), current modes of extractivism, infrastructural development and urbanisation are far from being ecologically sustainable. This places greater importance on the debates and existing gaps within the literature on extractivism.

5Given increasing rates of material and energy consumption across all sectors, claims of an energy transition are unjustified (Bell, Daggett and Labuski, 2020). While there is a socio-technical energy transition currently in action that is restructuring infrastructural organisation, development and capital accumulation, there is only one long-term energy transition, or continuity—it points in the direction of industrialisation and mass consumption (Dunlap, 2021a). This trajectory should raise concerns for all the inhabitants of the planet. The green capitalist solutions—such as market-based conservation, carbon capture and storage, offsetting, and low-carbon infrastructures—promoted by governments at the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are inadequate (Böhm and Sullivan, 2021; Stoddard et al., 2021). The responsibility for socio-ecological catastrophe rests with governments, corporations and international bodies. Meanwhile, governments and companies systematically work to repress environmental, Indigenous and anti-capitalist movements attempting to mitigate socio-ecological crises and defend ecosystems. While Indigenous groups and other land defenders continue to protect their territories from mines, pipelines and wind turbines, the responses from (mainstream) environmentalists celebrating low-carbon infrastructures and, implicitly, so-called ‘green mining’ appears painfully inadequate. On the 14 November 2021 Wet’suwet’en issued an eviction order against the Coastal GasLink pipeline, demonstrating an example of enforcing treaty rights and protecting ecosystems (IGD, 2021). This, however, has resulted in the intensification of police, security and paramilitary occupation of Wet’suwet’en land (Temper, 2019), policing Indigenous and other bodies challenging extractive and infrastructure projects (Simpson and Le Billon, 2021). While committed resistance to socio-ecological destruction continues, there remains a general lack of confrontation and commitment from policy makers and established movements alike.

6This lack of commitment from policy makers, however, is rather unsurprising. Governments are intended to facilitate (and expand) territorial control, infrastructural development and economic growth (e.g. profiteering) no matter the consequences, as it appears. The European Green Deal (EGD) remains an exemplar in the energy sector (Dunlap and Laratte, 2022, 2), where the extractive realities related to the ‘rapid rollout of renewable energy deployment’ remain either ignored or only acknowledged in the matter related to supply-chain bottlenecks and critical raw material insecurity (in terms of foreign dependence). The rapid roll-out of low-carbon infrastructures is leading to land grabbing via expulsion orders (including Declarations of Public Utility or Projects of Common Interest), which reinforce the neo-liberalisation of the European energy market through the EGD. The EGD, moreover, seeks to expand energy markets, high-voltage power line (HVPL) infrastructures, (extractive-intensive) digitalisation and ‘smart’ censor schemes, and the rapid expansion of wind, solar and other low-carbon infrastructures (Dunlap and Laratte, 2022). The EGD, we must remember, was heavily influenced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—specifically in the energy sector—and will replicate similar problems of socio-ecological dispossession (Larsen, Haller and Kothari, 2022). Policy reactions to climate change have resulted in efforts to ‘decarbonise’ hydrocarbon and mineral extraction companies by employing carbon capture schemes and natural gas and powering resource extraction via low-carbon infrastructures (E&M, 2022; Equinor, 2022), which ignores the hydrocarbon-dependent and mineral-intensive realities of low-carbon infrastructures themselves (Dunlap and Marin, 2022). While policy frontiers remain limited, or disappointing, political and environmental movements—especially the younger ones (e.g. Extinction Rebellion)—could benefit from learning from longstanding struggles and committed land defenders. With the struggle in Lützerath fighting the open-pit Garzweiler lignite coal mine (Brock, 2023), it appears the climate justice movement is learning through the harsh lessons of green political party betrayal, police repression and, inversely, the importance of embracing a diversity of tactics in their struggles.

  • 5 This does not deny that conquest and modernist development can have, thinking of Foucault, ‘positiv (...)

7The concern here is how movements are defanged and divided, often from within. The recent debates on extractivism are telling, crossing over into academia. This general concern with extractivism and infrastructure, presented in this chapter, questions the totality of state and capital (Dunlap and Jakobsen, 2020; Kass, 2022), viewing the entire structure of political economy as a machine of socio-ecological conquest.5 The debates over the definition of extractivism actually illuminate key political tensions and fault lines that create discursive, but also practical, divisions. Extractivism, according to Eduardo Gudynas (2009), involves acquiring large volumes of raw material for export, profiting national or international business classes (or governments, in the case of neo-extractivism), while breaking down existing sectors and social and ecological relationships. Extractivism entails a high intensity of environmental degradation and, finally, corresponding deleterious labour opportunities and conditions (Gudynas, 2009; see also Lang and Mokrani (2013) Nygren, Kröger, and Gills (2022)). The volume of material extracted (e.g. timber, minerals, hydrocarbons, produce, or biodiversity), the intensity of that extraction, and the destination and concentration of ownership by foreign or national industries are, it can be said, the main attributes of extractivism. While boundary making is useful for conceptual development, extractivism—contrary to the view of Eduardo Gudynas (2021)—in practice has few if any boundaries. And worse, the perverseness of the phenomenon is normalised and thereby underestimated.

8This raises the issue of calling ‘everything extractivism’ (see EXALT, 2020; Gudynas, 2021; Chagnon et al., 2022). The primary concern of calling everything extractivism, as Gudynas (2021, 4) warns, is that ‘almost any activity could be considered extractivism’ and ‘rigour and precision [will be] lost’. A lack of rigor and precision generates ‘ambiguity’, which—Gudynas (2021, 4) explains—allows advocates of mineral and oil companies ‘to insist that any use or abuse of Nature was ultimately extractivism, and therefore it should be tolerated and protected as a fundamental condition for humanity [sic] survival’. An example of this, as illustrated by Ben Mckay (2020, 106), is Evo Morales’ ex-Vice President García Linera, who justifies extractive operations this way. On the contrary, the misuse and manipulation of information by mining companies and politicians should never temper our criticisms or assessments. Otherwise, like the concerns with environmental justice discussed below, the ecological is sacrificed in the name of the ‘social’, the ‘industrial’ or the ‘good’ of the nation, perpetuating socio-ecological imbalance and crisis.

9Gudynas’s points, then, raise a central question at the core of calling ‘everything’ extractivism: How can industrial capitalist operations not be extractivism? (Dunlap, 2021b, 4). What is not extractivism within an industrial capitalist system? Important criteria for judging whether something is extractivist, Dunlap and Jakobsen (2020, 14–15) contend, is assessing what development initiatives or operations produce or leave in their wake and how they structure the future. This implies assessing development based on the product and end result of socio-ecological conditions. This resonates with Markus Kröger’s (2022) ‘political economy of existences’, which examines the process of landscape change, or, more accurately, exterminations and reconfigurations that transform rainforests into soy monocrop plantations or wetlands into strip malls. Is the soil, water, food, non-human, climate and relational qualities being improved or degraded by development operations? Maybe the outcome is variegated, yet this asks whether particular activities—developments, constructions, forms of organisation and relationships—are socio-ecologically sustainable or renewable.

  • 6 While Endgame is an appreciated classic, citing Jensen’s work here is in no way an endorsement of h (...)

10Establishing renewability is challenging, but it remains a remedy to extractivism and ecological catastrophe. Various Indigenous traditions and practices that, before the onset of industrialisation (Deloria, 1999; Hatfield et al., 2018; Ulloa, 2020), cohabited and continue to this day to cohabit with the planet are certainly examples of (real) socio-ecological sustainability and renewability or, at least, are closer to it. (Neo)colonialism, modernity and capitalism, and their products, are spreading everywhere—creating ruptures with renewable socio-ecological relationships. Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen (2020, 253) remind us that human activity should be ‘rooted in a practice of relationality that understands human and more-than-human life as kin, as familial relations’ (see also Simpson, 2014). Acknowledging, respecting and living with non-human life (e.g. animals, trees, rivers, mountains), and challenging anthropocentrism and materialism (in the mechanical philosophy sense), offers important pathways to challenge extractivism—as countless Indigenous land defenders do across the world (Blaser, 2013; Escobar, 2020; Springer et al., 2021)—and to begin conceptualising real socioecological renewability. This means remembering, as Leanne B. Simpson (2014, 9–10) explains, that humans are ‘dependent upon intimate relationships of reciprocity, humility, honesty and respect with all elements of creation, including plants and animals’ (see also Escobar, 2020). Extractivism denies this reality, instead viewing everything as a ‘resource’ and a commodity to be taken, marketed, and sold (Grosfoguel, 2016; Simpson, 2019). This also relates to the ‘predator prey bargain’, popularised by Derrick Jensen (2006, 179),6 which conceptualises, based on Indigenous practices, our responsibility with regard to consumption and, by extension, ‘resource use’.

If you live on a piece of land -if you own a piece of land- if you consume the flesh that is on that land, you are now responsible for the continuation of that land and its health. You are now responsible for the health of all the various communities who share that land with you. And because members of this community will consume your flesh, too, they will be just as responsible for the continuation and health of your community. At that point you will own the land, and it will own you. (Jensen, 2006, 197)

11This conceptualises how to organise systems based on care and renewability, as opposed to plunder and extractivism. Moreover, it is a reminder that we share our habitats with other peoples, which also stresses that if people damage or destroy their habitats, they are destroying themselves. The anarchist slogan, ‘destroy what destroys you’, obtains greater significance from this perspective. The carelessness of and the destruction wrought by modernist development have gone on so long that they are resulting in climate change and weather extremes (Hickel, 2020). This understanding, then, adds to our conceptualisation of renewability as well as of extractivism. Extractivism is thus defined as cutting, fracturing, taking, usurping and disregarding humans and non-humans without intention or plan to fully and adequately redress the resulting violence and harm.

  • 7 Thanks to Philippe Le Billon for pointing this out to me.

12Definitions of renewability and extractivism are established above, but the question persists: How can industrial capitalist operations not be extractivism? Based on institutional structure and development priority, academics—and people generally—have become accustomed to and enamoured by the products of extractivism. This normalised—everyday—infrastructural reality of roads, individualized automobility, utilitarian architecture, pipes and power lines, to name a few, have consumed people wilfully, begrudgingly or somewhere in between and beyond. Remembering how Walter Rostow weaponized capitalist consumerism to win the Cold War (Cullather, 2013, 161), we might understand convenience and entertainment as capitalist ‘weapons of mass destruction’ against the planet. Modernist infrastructural regimes allow us to ignore, or even to forget, how we accommodate capitalism, industrialisation and our (forced or voluntary) servitude to the development of computational technologies. As the Mining Association of Canada (MAC, 2021) exclaims: ‘Before it’s yours, its mined’.7 Thus, this bounded definition of extractivism, put forward by Gudynas (2021) and many others (Mckay, 2020; Ye et al., 2020 ), is accused of ignoring the complex financial and material supply webs of monocultures, research labs, schools, hospitals, police, prisons and all the rest that depends on plundering habitats for either materials or energy production (Dunlap, 2021b). In order for agro-extractivism to be possible in the first place, there needs to be an entire political-economic regime—the structure of conquest—in place to create the means, scale and intensity that allows agro-extractivism: chemical factories—extracting, dividing and synthesising nature—to produce pesticides and/or fertilisers; the scientific expertise and laboratories to research, develop and create genetically modified organisms (GMOs); and, now, the existing supply webs behind the application of digital technologies in agriculture, which ‘appropriate decision-making based on the flow of data from individual farms and farmers’ (Stone, 2022, 3). While Glenn Stone (2022) refers to this as ‘surveillance agriculture’, indicating how agriculture is becoming digitalized, automated and eroding control from farmers, the purpose here is to emphasises how extractive processes, or extractivism(s), are connected at various intensities through production supply webs, violent histories, economic and financial actors, and/or institutions. Agro-extractivism requires mining, and more of it as it digitalises and intensifies. The ‘innovation economy’, Antti Tarvainen (2022, 2) reminds us, depends on, emerges from, and systematically affirms settler colonialism, meanwhile refining ‘the violence of technocapitalism’ and ‘data colonialism’. The relevance of ‘global extractivism’ as an organising concept (Nygren, Kröger and Gills, 2022; Chagnon et al., 2022), affirms its relevance, as extractivism, infrastructural colonisation, and economic forces proliferate, transcend borders, intersect, and depend on multiple extractive companies and trajectories.

13Coming to terms with the reality that ‘everything is extractivism’ within the dominant development paradigm is important to any effort to resituate the present planetary situation—and the action that should follow. This extractive reality should also allow people to resituate how they conceive of politics, conflict, political organisation and, consequently, ‘justice’ the last of which is discussed in the next section. Academically, if not practically, the imperative exists to take the socio-ecological damage and harm created by industrial, bureaucratic and capitalist systems seriously. Non-humans, the Indigenous, the marginalised, peoples that consume little materials and energy, moreover, are the least responsible for this socio-ecological catastrophe (Bolger et al., 2021), which is not to forget the psychosocial decay and discontent emanating from modernist affluence of high-income countries and neighborhoods (Lane, 2000; Alexander, 2008). Properly recognising the scope of this problem is the first step. Technologies and infrastructures, however, can be appropriated. This appropriation indicates the importance of taking the ‘best’ innovations from this global development process. If socio-ecological transformation is to take place, it will require serious and committed efforts to redress the violence done by technocapitalism and to build new types of (post)developmental infrastructures.

14Finding a way between industrialism and extractivism, Markus Kröger (2022, 47–49) views extractivism through different intensities across a seven-point scale from -1 to 5. This is instructive to, first, create greater specificity within the extractivisms’ debate and, second, to resituate our understanding of industrial activities so that we may re-conceptualise our productive relationships with our ecosystems and the planet.

5 = hyperextractivist

4 = very extractivist

3 = notably extractivist

2 = partially extractivist

1 = limitedly extractivist

0 = non extractivist

−1 = anti-extractivist

  • 8 ‘Convivial technologies’ refer to tools designed within the socio-ecological fabrics of a given bio (...)

15Anti-extractivism includes recognising non-human life and practicing food procurement, housing and daily life in a way that supports habitats and begins restoring ecosystems subjected to extractivist relationships and habitats. ‘Green’ buildings, ‘convivial’ technologies,8 agro-ecology, permaculture, and degrowth systems designed with and connected to habitats and people remain an important direction in which to develop (see Jacke and Toensmeier (2005); Lockyer and Veteto (2013); Rosset and Altieri (2017); and Hickel (2020)). Developing post-development, degrowth, non- and anti-extractivist pathways remains a global challenge for humanity, which is something that Peter Gelderloos (2022) imagines and outlines in the last chapter of The Solutions Are Already Here. Current practices of resistance to megaprojects (Menton et al., 2020; Dunlap, 2022), convivial living and ecological restoration spanning Latin America—including the Viva Campinas Network (Rosset and Altieri, 2017), Proceso de Liberación de la Madre Tierra in Colombia (Reyes and Santamaría, 2020), the Teia dos Povos network, and the Cultive Resistência collective in Brazil—are excellent, self-organised initiatives (Gelderloos, 2022). This entails, as Julia Schöneberg and colleagues show (2022, 2), that despite geographical diversity, cultural specificities and, even, a lack of formal organised movements, ‘strategies of reciprocity, solidarity, and commoning’ are ‘means for survival and/or provide alternative pathways for societal and economic transformation’. These movements and political struggles are, however, violently repressed by governments, companies and subverted by the myths of ‘green growth’(see Hickel, 2020)—green capitalism as a viable solution to socio-ecological and climate catastrophe. Extractivism remains a weapon against life, meanwhile producing infrastructures to control, capture and enchant—facilitating dependency, false hopes and addiction (Harvey and Knox, 2012; Anand, Gupta and Appel, 2018; Kallianos, Dunlap and Dalakoglou, 2022). The challenge from our environments, the planet and ceaseless technocapitalsit ‘fixes’—delivering technological enchantment, convenience, and mobility—has culminated in is generalised socio-ecological catastrophe. There is no shortage of opposition and resistance to the present path of extractivist development. Like extractivism debates, however, there is an avoidance of confronting the realities of industrialisation and capitalism, which extends to Marxian scholars conceptualizing anti-capitalism as state capitalism, modernist development and ‘socialist accumulation’. This translates into inadequate reform that tends towards ignoring the destructive trajectory of colonial powers have created for this planet.

3. The Dilemmas of Extractivism and Infrastructure: Environmental Justice?

16Avoidance of considering industrialisation as inherently extractivist has similarities within the environmental justice and, to a degree, decolonial studies (see Dunlap, 2022). Environmental conflicts—whether they are struggles against mines, infrastructure, or plantations—differ from one another, but there are archetypal political positions that also surface (see Hall et al., (2015); Geenen and Verweijen (2017); Dunlap (2019b; 2021d); Prause and Le Billon (2021)). First (see table 1) there are the people who are in favour of large-scale development projects, viewing them as opportunities, pathways towards material well-being and modernity. The land deal, then, is received positively by all parties involved. Second is the position in which people are in favour of the development project, but are adversely incorporated into the project and subjected to various and unequal forms of exploitation and deteriorating labour conditions in the service of national or transnational capital accumulation. The third position is representative of people who are indifferent to and/or opportunistic with regard to the project, ‘flip-flopping’ between whatever position will serve their personal material and social interest. Fourth, people are against—and even resent—the project but actively collaborate with the companies and/or political representatives involved in order to gain access to work and various political, economic, and material benefits. This position recognises the large socio-ecological problems that lead to resistance but whether due to poverty, obligation or ambition people (often begrudgingly) choose to collaborate with extractivist projects and their representatives. Fifth, is a general acceptance of the conceptual idea (e.g. mines, wind turbines, plantations), but profound concerns regarding the terms of project incorporation and benefits, revenue sharing, social development funds and who bares the socio-ecological impacts of the project (Jakobsen, 2022). The next position blurs into position six, where people who are against the project but want differentiated forms of social development. For example, they may not want a field of corporate wind turbines, but would like a community-scale wind factory or micro-scale projects to provide them with the energy they need (Dunlap, 2018). There is a spectrum of alternative or post-development positions related to self-organised grassroots, or ‘do-it-yourself’ initiatives, which are either completely autonomous or supported by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), municipalities or state funds. State, and to a lesser degree NGO, funding can create intense internal political debate, controversy and divisions within political movements and networks (see Dunlap and Correa-Arce, 2022). Finally, overlapping with the previous point, the seventh archetypal position is the total rejection of the imposed project. This position is typically cultivated by previous experiences with political parties or development projects or through existing commitments to livelihood or cultural–spiritual practices (Blaser, 2013; Conde and Le Billon, 2017; Dunlap, 2019b; Escobar, 2020). This general, seven-point spectrum of positions within environmental conflicts blurs and mutates between armed and criminal organisations, yet what is significant here is that the more recalcitrant positions of total rejection tend to be erased, minimised, or blurred with more liberal positions within the academic literature.

Table 1 Land control archetypes

Land contracting

Mutually agreed upon transfer of land with little to no controversy within the community. An ideal business transaction with full information on market values and socio-ecological costs, and, more importantly, general agreement from all involved and surrounding parties.

Deceptive land deal

Land transfers or contractual deals based on manipulation, deception, and lies. This generates (minor) community discord and resentment when the terms agreed to are more unfavourable than expected and the levels of incorporation and benefit sharing are more unequal than originally imagined. Benefits are limited and/or concentrated around selected actors (often reinforcing power and gender disparities). Political mobilisations can begin, or fail to get off the ground.

Land deal opportunism

The land deal and/or project remains exploitative and unequal with regard to benefit sharing and ecological impact, yet people use the arrival of land deals, and resistance to them, as opportunities for negotiation and (adverse) inclusion into the projects.

Land deal panic

The land deal is more akin to a land grab with noticeable economic exploitation, ecological impacts, unequal benefit sharing and a local concentration of wealth, but people choose to submit—‘give up’—at some point in the process and collaborate with the companies and/or their representatives or local intermediaries. Land deal panic represents the successful dividing and pacification of resistance.

Land deal injustice

Acceptance of the development project, but local representatives, towns, or communities take an active stance in order to secure greater inclusion in project planning and (re)negotiation of the terms of the project. Desires for project inclusion and greater benefit sharing can manifest in larger contestations and conflicts. Manifestations and uprisings are used by actors to (re)negotiate terms and conditions.

Land grabbing contestation

The land deal is land grabbing (i.e. deception, coercion, and dispossession), generates mass mobilisations and concerted resistance, and attracts the attention of NGOs. Despite ardent opposition, the desire for development and inclusion results in protesting for environmental justice to balance local socio-ecological and developmental concerns.

Land grabbing rejection

This is the ardent rejection of land grabbing, reflecting a political maturity, or cynicism, that does not believe that projects from state, national or transnational actors will ever respect the land, culture or bring development. In fact, this position believes that particular development projects will bring (greater) exploitation. The total rejection of the project remains the trajectory for residents and land defenders. This position overlaps with aspirations of political autonomy, resulting in combative direct-action strategies, legal strategies, and political mobilisation. This position overlaps, and at times clashes, with the ‘Land grabbing contestation’ position.

Source: Author.

17These positions are, however, largely movable and changeable in every direction. Mining and infrastructure companies work diligently, usually after effective opposition, to gain the ‘social acceptance’ from locals necessary to commence and operate extractivist projects. The ‘social engineering of extraction’ documents how companies, whether building wind turbines (Dunlap, 2018), mining gold (Geenen and Verweijen, 2017) or operating coal mines (Brock and Dunlap, 2018), work by any means to persuade people to accept resource extraction projects (see also Le Billon and Sommverville, 2017). This entails constructing local interests as the same as company objectives, meanwhile sending the message that resistance to project development is futile, using legal regimes, police, the military and private security companies (Dunlap, 2020; Verweijen and Dunlap, 2021). The social engineering of extraction has been discussed in the context of deep-sea mining in the Pacific (Childs, 2019) copper mining in Peru (Dunlap, 2019a) and Ecuador (Leifsen, 2020), coal mining in Mozambique (Wiegink, 2020) and Colombia (Jakobsen, 2020), hydraulic fracturing in the UK (Brock, 2020), ilmenite mining and conservation enclosures in Madagascar (Huff and Orengo, 2020) and nuclear development in India (Kaur, 2021). Social engineering and counter-insurgency, Alleen Brown and colleagues show (2017), are also instrumental to the development of hydrocarbon pipelines on multiple sites (Brown, 2021). The efforts of extraction companies to shape the perceptions, interests and, even, the subjectivities of inhabitants (Frederiksen and Himley, 2020) are nothing new, but the persistence of these activities and the lack of institutional opposition should raise serious concerns. Company-led manipulation and coercion to enforce infrastructure and extractivist projects are institutionally normalised, if always contested and negotiated (Rajak, 2011; Dunlap, 2019b; Ulloa, 2020; Kröger, 2021; 2022), and deserve greater consideration within environmental justice studies.

18Environmental justice, as a term, emerges from struggles against environmental racism and waste incinerators in the United States in the 1980s (Pulido and De Lara, 2018). ‘Mainstream’ environmental justice, as it has been called (Menton et al., 2020, 3), adheres to roughly five dimensions. Distributional justice focuses on the distribution of environmental ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ from a particular development project, such as revenue sharing, material benefits, land-use changes and so on. Recognition justice seeks to establish social equity and dignity by respecting socio-cultural difference and collectivities. Procedural justice examines the procedural aspects of development projects, seeking to advance popular participation in project design, siting, and implementation. Capabilities seeks to establish and ensure people have the capacity to engage and participate in development projects. While environmental justice has experienced conceptual expansion (Pellow, 2016; Ulloa, 2017; Pulido, 2017; Temper, 2019; Rodriquez, 2020), it has emerged as an umbrella term, encompassing various political tendencies and struggles that relate to the environment. Environmental justice is synonymous with all ecological and territorial struggles (see Akbulut et al. (2019); Scheidel et al. (2020); Temper et al. (2020)). This has led to adapting the concept to more expansive understandings, for example making it applicable to Indigenous groups. ‘[E]nvironmental self-determination’, Astrid Ulloa (2017, 176) explains, ‘refers to Indigenous notions of environmental justice that come from a sense of responsibility and interrelations between human and nonhumans’ and is ‘based on other valuations and rights relating to territory, culture, and the nonhumans’. Recognising the shortcomings of mainstream environmental justice (EJ), Leah Temper (2019) proposes a decolonial environmental justice to better represent Indigenous self-governance, socio-ecological relationships and epistemologies (see also Menton et al. (2020); Rodriquez (2020)). The term justice, while rightly interrogated by decolonial EJ scholars, mostly for its limited Western or singular connotations, is preserved or augmented to suite Indigenous struggles.

19Branding all socio-ecological and territorial struggles as ‘environmental justice struggles’ necessitates further consideration. Discussing the issue of popular justice’ with French Maoists, Michel Foucault ([1972]1980) reminds us that justice tends to conjure up specific spatial infrastructures (e.g. the court and tables) and ideologies (e.g. liberalism). Justice is a loaded term with different histories and meanings, yet simultaneously enacts claims of ‘neutrality’ in relation to each litigant, no prejudgment before a trial, dominant epistemological conceptions of justice, and the necessity of authority to enforce decisions. People ‘do not rely on an abstract universal idea of justice’ explains Foucault 1980, 8) referring to acts of popular justice. Instead, people rely only on their own experience, that of the injuries they have suffered, that of the way in which they have been wronged, in which they have been oppressed; and finally, their decision is not an authoritative one, that is, they are not backed up by a state apparatus which has the power to enforce their decisions, they purely and simply carry them out.

20Foucault raises structural concerns regarding the concept of justice, specifically around processes of deliberation, institutional arrangements and enforcement, which have consequences for the meaning but also how environmental justice brands or directs struggles. What political frameworks govern or represent struggles and what actors does this framework empower? And, like Laura Pulido (2017, 524) contends in the United States, it is questionable over the last 35 years of environmental justice struggles ‘if the environments of vulnerable communities have actually improved.’

21Similar to extractivism debates, mainstream environmental justice tends to favour industrial capitalism and its corresponding statist infrastructures. Justice presupposes situations that necessitate a mediator or an authority to dispense justice—whether it be environmental, energy, climate, or other varieties of justice (Jenkins et al. 2016). Highlighting this issue, Lina Álvarez and Brendan Coolsaet (2020, 55) explain how solutions to environmental injustice are conceived within the realm of the state, which delimits political autonomy, implies epistemic valuations (and devaluations), and imposes a rights-based framework wedded to bureaucratic administration that affirms statist control (Dunlap, 2021c). The managing of Indigenous territories in North America through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in the United States and Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development in Canada remain notable examples of (neo)colonial control mechanisms (Churchill, 2003; Coulthard, 2014). All political issues intersect within state governance frameworks (Dunlap, 2021c). Recognising this issue, Temper (2019, 104) explains that ‘justice must include self-governing authority; that rather than distribution (of nature), environmental justice calls for breaking down the dualism between humans and nature, and beyond recognition, what is needed is epistemic justice and self-affirmation’. While this expansive version of EJ is highly welcomed, it also refashions the concept of EJ to signify anything related to ecological struggle and environmental liberation. Self-government speaks to autonomous and anarchistic struggle. With the exception of efforts to decolonise (Ulloa, 2017; Pulido, 2017; Temper, 2019; Álvarez and Coolsaet, 2020), environmental justice studies depend on and celebrate the state as a framework of justice or, at the least, EJ is theoretically assuming or systematically ambiguous on the matter of statism.

  • 9 The Invisible Committee (TIC, 2015), while more militant, did a similar thing by relating all riots (...)
  • 10 As a contributor to, reader and fan of the EJAtlas, I note that there has been a (strict) non-viole (...)
  • 11 There has been a lack of critical reflection on Gandhi’s role (as a colonial collaborator), tactics (...)
  • 12 See Gelderloos (2013; 2022) and Dunlap (2019a) on protest and action standards crafted as ‘good/bad (...)

22Distinctions are made between environmental justice movements, environmental conflicts, and NIMBY (‘not in my backyard’) struggles (Akbulut et al., 2019), yet all environmental conflicts or contestations are labelled as environmental justice struggles in the Environmental Justice Atlas (Scheidel, et al., 2018, 2020; Temper et al., 2020).9 This risks erasing militant autonomous and anti-colonial actions by absorbing them into justice frameworks, which also tend towards extending normative Western conceptions of ‘social movements’ that assume a particular form of (bureaucratic) organising and underwriting the prevalence of ‘property damage’ and ‘sabotage’ in non-violent political struggles (cf Scheidel et al. (2020).10 These tactics are legitimate, if dubbed illegal by a system mandating and regulating accelerating extractivism and urbanization (Sovacool and Dunlap, 2022). Individuals and action groups and various militant actions tend to be erased under normative conceptions of social movements (e.g. Gandhian civil disobedience),11 which ignores or side-lines the multiplicity of self-organisation and/or militancy related to uprisings in general or relegates it to groups in the ‘global South’ (e.g. Zapatistas or Indigenous collectives). Raúl Zibechi (2012, 268) counters ‘social movement’ labelling by describing the multiplicities of struggles and tensions as ‘societies in movement’, which speaks to the diversity and multiplicity of actors, forms of organisation and methods of fighting. Are all ecological struggles—rooted in autonomous self-determination, militant struggle and insurrectionary action—environmental justice struggles? The line between offering support to those engaged in ecological conflicts and integrating these conflicts into an academic framework and assumed social movement etiquette can reinforce statist/counter-insurgent categories of ‘good/bad’12 protests or actions. This raises questions regarding political strategies (e.g. reinforcing or breaking with parliamentary or colonial governance systems) and the objectives of numerous actors (politicians, NGOs, farmers, anarchists, and the undecided). While many academic and NGOs situate themselves within the environmental justice framework, what are the ideologies, feelings and language propelling these struggles?

  • 13 See Churchill (2012), Bryan and Wood (2015) and Weston and Djohari (2020) for more on this topic.

23The close association of environmental justice with ecological distribution conflicts (EDCs) further enunciates this concern. EDCs are defined by Arnim Scheidel and colleagues (2018, 587) as ‘social conflicts arising over the unequal distribution of environmental benefits, such as access to natural resources, fertile land, or ecosystem services, as well as over unequal and unsustainable allocations of environmental burdens, such as pollution or waste’. Ignoring the anthropocentric and utilitarian language of ‘ecosystem services’ employed, the emphasis on distribution and unequal benefits makes environmental justice susceptible to liberal reformism necessitating statist legal frameworks. The ‘state’, Ulloa reminds us (2017, 176–7), ‘is a principal actor in constructing ideas of territory and nature, and in generating territorial confrontations’. Advocates of environmental justice, critical or otherwise, often find themselves lobbying and demanding that the state pay attention and administer recognition and/or justice. This relates to the monopoly, or partial monopoly, of violence that the state maintains—consequently raising issues of political agency, capabilities to enact self-determination and sustaining politico-ecological autonomy. Reliance on the state, while logical in many ways, potentially forecloses opportunities for political struggle, but—moreover—risks transposing Western conceptions of justice onto long-established customary law and territorial struggles facing counter-insurgency warfare by state and corporate actors. The state organises dependency, imposing its relevance and existence by enchanting populations, meanwhile dispensing coercion and deception (Kass, 2022). Temper (2019) cogently confronts this tendency within environmental justice studies, yet the justice framework continues to instill real or imagined vulnerabilities within ecological conflicts. ‘Epistemic justice’, for example, still suffers from the liberal sensibility of ‘making visible and politically relevant ways of knowing that have been marginalized as a result of the imposition of a dominant knowledge system over others’ (Temper, 2019, 98). Establishing visibility to gain media attention for environmental struggles and preserve (sacred) spiritual, ecological or medicinal knowledge to integrate into state archives or knowledge apparatuses still relies on the myth of liberalism, which forms a scaffolding for colonial/statist society. Foucault ([1978]1998), James Scott (1998; 2009), anarchists (Bonanno, [1977]1998; Green Anarchy Collective, 2012; Loadenthal, 2017), and autonomists (Holloway, 2010; TIC, 2009; Culp, Lana and Rosales, 2015) demonstrate how creating statist ‘legibility’, or visibility in general, can have a double-edged effect by advancing discursive or material knowledge of people, places and non-humans (branded as ‘resources’) to statist and corporate powers seeking to enact conquest, control and production strategies. Legibility, cultural visibility, and geographical mapping, it could be argued, are the ‘first steps’ towards colonial/statist control—the original purpose of (colonial) anthropology and geography!13 As valuable as epistemic justice might be, maybe epistemic affirmation or evasion might represent another set of pathways for the long-term survival or resurgence of traditional knowledges, practices and peoples. Authorities cannot conquer or make illegal what they do not know exists. This can be double-edged as well, yet remains another avenue for consideration.

24The state, decolonial or otherwise (Anthias, 2018; Vela-Almeida, 2018; Dunlap, 2022), is an extractivist system dependent on particular infrastructural and political forms that, to varying degrees, exemplify resource and energy intensive statist bureaucracies. This presents two substantial barriers to environmental justice. First, the past and present extractivist foundations and evolution of the state, which daily celebrates ecologically unfriendly infrastructures, logistics, and energy use. Second, the problem of ‘reason of state’ (raison d’état), where the state as an entity prioritises its own existence and survival above anything else (Agamben, 2005; Dunlap, 2014). The state, and its reason, is currently threatening the biosphere and climate through its existence and its maintenance and protection of economic actors (Hickel, 2020; Whyte, 2020; Dunlap and Brock, 2022). The problem with environmental justice is the implicit belief that the state is neutral and capable of administering justice, when in reality it is just the opposite (or remains complicit, in areas of ‘weak states’), spreading extractivism and material and energy-intensive infrastructures—the imperative of industrial market economies. This is manifest by governments selectively (or under political pressure) administering social justice. Recognising the problem of ‘coloniality’, Temper (2019, 98)—along with so many others—asserts with (normative) postcolonial logics that ‘physical control of territories has ended, the cultural logic of colonialism still operates, and silences other ways of doing, being and knowing’. This standard phrase from decolonial theory, while true, underestimates how modernist infrastructures continue coloniality through the physical control of territories, landscapes, habitats and ecosystems (Dunlap, 2021a, 6)—alluding to ‘infrastructural coloniality’ and statist hang-ups, reproduced through ‘academic decolonial theory’, that accept statist and infrastructural domination as acceptable if they are ‘non-Western’ or ‘pluri-national’ (Dunlap, 2022, 3, 10–11). This raises issues regarding how people self-identify (Dunlap, 2020). Do people identify with colonial/statist institutions or their infrastructures—‘our nation’, ‘democratic’ decisions (via voting) and infrastructure—or are they understood as structures of conquest, domestication and ecocidal processes inherited and imposed on one’s life? How people relate to, understand and view bureaucracies, modern infrastructures and economies will have significant political consequences.

  • 14 See Sullivan (2017) for epistemic problems of compensation and offsetting.

25Scholars have criticised how the principles of environmental justice inadequately address the realities of resource control, racism, patriarchy and militarisation (Pulido and De Lara, 2018; Velicu and Barca, 2020; Brock and Stephens-Griffin, 2021). Transposing ideas of ‘environmental equity’ that are ‘intrinsically linked to an idea of environmental exploitation’ to other contexts, Álvarez and Coolsaet (2020, 55) remind us. There is a risks of subordinating or silencing sensitive ecological concerns that reject this exploitation, including those of the more militant and self-determined actors mentioned above (see also Dunlap, (2021d)). The message conveyed, at least by mainstream environmental justice, is ‘that this exploitation does not necessarily need questioning as long as its most harmful effects are being distributed equitably within society’ (Álvarez and Coolsaet, 2020, 55; Temper, 2019). The central mechanism is compensation, which scholars demonstrate ‘commodifies justice in the language of cheap licenses for development projects to operate’ (Velicu and Barca, 2020, 265). The fact remains, companies cannot compensate for climate change or watching your friends and family—human and non-human—being wounded (in the broader sense of the word) or killed. Compensation and making equivalences14 to justify extractive development and conservation enclosures is a notable mechanism for ensuring climate and ecological catastrophe. Compensation, then, emerges as a self-reinforcing socio-technical infrastructure designed to facilitate continued land control and extractivism. Environmental justice, as criticised by Ulloa (2017), Pulido (2017), Temper (2019), Álvarez and Coolsaet (2020), Menton and colleagues (2020), Rodriguez (2020) and Dunlap (2021c), is statist and anthropocentric and, ironically, reinforces modernist development. The result has been an attempt at decolonising environmental justice studies (Ulloa, 2017; Temper, 2019; Álvarez and Coolsaet, 2020; Rodriquez, 2021), in order to respect and afford agency to non-human life, celebrate self-determined autonomy, and allow a total rejection of socio-ecologically destructive development projects. This means drawing on the non-academic works arising from movements and combative communiques (Rodriquez, 2021; Mullenite, 2021; Loadenthal, (2017)). In sum, emphasis on the distribution of socio-ecological harms and benefits as well as inclusive participation within extractive project preserves the modernist project. Moreover, distributive and inclusive EJ approaches can marginalise sensitive ecological concerns, thwart combative energies and finally further mystifies alternative post-developmental pathways. Post-development, again, seeks locally produced, small-scale and non-capitalist solutions to habitation, energy production, medicine and food procurement. Emphasis on distributing the ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ and permitting greater participation within modernist development shields people from the difficult questions of how to stop ecological catastrophe and organise forms of habitation and development complementary to humans, but more so to non-humans (Ulloa, 2020), such as rivers, mountains, trees and the numerous communities of flora and fauna. This is not about what ‘people want’— we know that desires are shaped and engineered—but about how people can create socio-ecological harmony with our habitats and planet and avoid extractivist approaches that require the exploitation and killing of humans and non-humans.

26Environmental justice is about inclusion into the project of modernist development (Temper, 2019), necessitating and expanding extractivism and modernist infrastructures. These distributional and inclusive reforms are obviously welcomed and fought-for social additions, but at the same time they do not adequately challenge the structure of industrial capitalism or the ‘Worldeater’ (Dunlap and Jakobsen, 2020). Technocapitalism is the elephant in the climate catastrophe room. As Irina Velicu and Stefania Barca (2020, 267) explain, the emphasis EJ places on compensation, distribution, and procedure, ‘tend[s] to lock the working class within a political horizon limited to maintaining the same system, accepting its exploitation and structural inequalities’. Justice theory ‘reproduces a paternalistic and inequalitarian logic of emancipation’, Velicu and Barca (2020, 268) contend following Jacques Rancière, ‘verifying, confirming, and thus, reifying inequalities while setting the ideal of equality in a future that never seems to arrive’. Justice theories tend towards reformism (Brock and Stephens-Griffin, 2021), meanwhile luring people into believing that courts will legislate against extractivism and ‘leave it in the ground’ so that habitats remain undisturbed and waters uncontaminated. The more common result, however, is that infrastructures of inequality and extractive development are frequently affirmed by courts. The piecemeal and retributive reforms—often fought for militantly—and that keeping mines closed or preventing them from ever (re)opening remains a long-term and continuous struggle, a truth to which the Tía Maria project in Peru (Dunlap, 2019a) and the numerous cases referenced above or documented in the Environmental Justice Atlas can attest (Scheidel et al., 2020). Reforms, when placed next to the coercive violence of riot police, paramilitaries and long prison sentences (Gelderloos, 2022), appear better than the alternatives—and understandably so. This, however, does not change the harsh reality that political violence maintains the present socio-ecological situation (Dunlap and Brock, 2022). Political pacification is constantly hiding behind a veil, changing its clothes, and feeding on our productive energies to perpetuate political economy and its extractive activities.

27This issue, as with the debates on extractivism, represents a failure to adequately question the roots of the capitalist machine that is responsible for systematic ecological destruction and inequality. Environmental justice reforms and social development, combined with the political violence of the military, police, and extrajudicial forces, have a way of enticing people to ‘sell out’ or stop fighting for their habitats and culture, leaving larger technocapitalist structures intact. This acknowledges the psychosocial trap—a sort of ‘Stockholm syndrome’—that infrastructures and politics create (Dunlap and Correa-Arce, 2022). The psychosocial trap avoids challenging modernist progress itself and stifles the difficult academic debates around the civilisational, societal or post-developmental transformations necessary to sustain the planet. Infrastructural development, or colonisation (Dunlap, 2020; Dunlap and Correa-Arce, 2022), is an apparatus of social warfare designed to reinforce extractivism, exploitation and planetary ecological conquest.

  • 15 For an extended discussion of ‘‘academic decolonial theory’ see Dunlap (2022).
  • 16 ‘[D]ecolonising participatory parity’ (Temper, 2019, 105) has arguably been an issue since the rise (...)

28Critical or decolonial environmental justice seeks to address this destructive gap, but even decolonial theory exclaiming the need for self-determination and statist powers giving ‘land back’ based on original treaty agreements tends to avoid the issue of capitalist industrialisation by relegating it to Indigenous leadership (see Liboiron (2021)) or non-Western governments (Dunlap, 2022).15 Indigenous self-determination and returning land is mandatory, but the history of colonial Indigenous administration, (postcolonial) governance, and internalising colonial structures still presents a challenge to those confronting extractivism and modernist development. Cogently provoking the roots upholding the politico-economic structures of conquest, Fredy Perlman (1984: 58) once asked: ‘What concentration camp manager, national executioner or torturer is not a descendant of oppressed people?’ Decolonial environmental justice, while challenging the environmental justice imperative to include people ‘within existing governance structures’ and recognising how it ‘is a less appropriate fit for the settler-colonial context’ as ‘Indigenous peoples have to address their claims within a sovereignty they do not recognize’ (Temper, 2019, 105), ends up wrongly assuming that statist frameworks, law and institutions are then appropriate for non-Indigenous people. While anti-colonial struggles differ from other anti-capitalist contestations, this categorisation remains divisive. Environmental justice frameworks only being ‘a less appropriate fit for the settler-colonial context’ ignores autonomous and (eco)anarchist struggles that reject state/corporate governance frameworks and laws, but also the common ground—or complicity—between people that recognise the state and capital as obstructions to socio-ecological well-being. This division, moreover, reveals that it is difficult for people to remember, see or feel how non-indigenous peoples or ‘settlers’ do not identify with statist institutions, laws and the modernist/extractivist way of life. Let militant autonomist and anarchist struggles across the globe (Holloway, 2010; Loadenthal, 2017; Dunlap, 2022) that reject government itself be a reminder that the issues of state, ecocide and political subjugation are not strictly limited to Indigenous people.16 While environmental justice studies recognise the need for self-governance within Indigenous territory, the problem of power-hungry politicians, bureaucratic controls, and political pacification techniques still persists, in addition to wider national colonial-political occupation.

29Environmental conflicts have movable positions, as already mentioned—subjectivities are influenced, people persuaded and regions shaped to accept extractivist projects (see Verweijen and Dunlap, 2021). Environmental justice, for all its popularity, frequently avoids the difficult questions of challenging the state and its corresponding infrastructural regimes outside individual projects or the global problem and extractive reality of modernity itself. The by-product of this political preference is omitting autonomist and anarchistic land defenders, either Indigenous or non-Indigenous from the political or academic conversation (Dunlap, 2021d; 2022; Gelderloos, 2022). This presumably is because they reject the existing regime of modernist development, which is conferred an inherently elevated status by industrialised societies and is familiar to the habitus of researchers. Even when environmental justice scholars rightfully reject the state, for example: “[W]e should help expose the fraudulent nature of the state, how it has sought to co-opt EJ communities, its support of racial capitalism and its willingness to forsake poisoned communities” (Pulido, 2017: 530). Anarchists—Indigenous (Dunlap, 2022), black (see Ervin, 2021 [1979]; Anderson, 2021) or otherwise—who have been at war with the state for centuries are omitted, which extends to enduring anarchist anti-colonial action and solidarity (Ó Donghaile, 2010; Ferretti, 2018; Dunlap, 2022). Autonomist and anarchist positions are legitimate, yet frequently mined selectively or buried within environmental justice research.

30The task remains—to acknowledge the legitimacy of recalcitrant autonomist positions in permanent conflict, meanwhile theorising and practicing post-development practices that exercise degrowth and convivial infrastructures. Why cling to ‘environmental justice’ when we are talking about anti-colonial, autonomous, socio-ecological struggles or, even, uncompromising citizen initiatives? While reform positions remain a dominant tendency within environmental conflicts—making environmental justice suitable for a wide audience, even ecocidal governments—why impose a concept of justice, with its colonial, liberal and academic baggage, that necessitates constant reformulations (e.g. critical, decolonial, abolitionist)? Why not call the struggles what they are, foregrounding the uncompromising elements concerned with habitats being consumed by extractivism, infrastructure and technocapitalist projects? Addressing ecological and climate catastrophe means struggling where we live and unravelling the difference between industrialisation and extractivism, and the shortcomings or multiplicities of justice(s), in order to create clear visions of how to create real renewability in our habitats in the best ways possible.

4. Conclusion: New Ways of Conceiving Infrastructure

31The socio-ecological impacts of industrialism, capitalism and technological progress are extensive, and the proposed mitigation pathways and discussions—even those proposed by the concept of environmental justice—are either limited or inadequate. This chapter, following Virilio, is a call for greater attention to the daily harms being perpetrated by industrialism and extractive capitalism. Critical approaches, the chapter demonstrates, still suffer from infrastructural coloniality, which underestimates the accumulation and inter-dependence of extractivism(s). This relates to the statism and coloniality of environmental justice frameworks, which tend to enable extractivism and infrastructural domination despite processual and egalitarian concerns. This, moreover, results in subordinating non-human life (including animals, rivers, mountains, trees and habitats) to the desires of various human populations operating under the influence of technocapitalism. Recognising the spaces between extractivism and capitalism remain fundamental for expanding post-development alternatives, while acknowledging the strengths of environmental justice in resisting the expansion of extractivism, but also its discursive and material weak points.

  • 17 For detailed criticism of energy justice please see Tornel (2022) and Partridge (2022). This chapte (...)

32Environmental justice offers important reformist pathways, yet this reformism appears inadequate and anthropocentric. The ‘justice’ in environmental justice, or in energy justice for that matter (Jenkins et al., 2016),17 ignores holistic ecological concerns, extensive material requirements for infrastructure and offers an inadequate pathway to the resolution of socio-ecological catastrophe. Decolonial environmental justice scholars acknowledge these issues (cf. Pellow (2016); Ulloa (2017); Pulido (2017), Temper (2019); Álvarez and Coolsaet (2020); Menton et al. (2020); Rodriguez (2020), yet further reflection is still warranted. Participatory inclusion, visibility of knowledges, identifying infrastructural coloniality, and designating self-governance and/or the militant rejection of the state solely for Indigenous peoples indicate a need for further reflection on our relationship and integration within technocapitalist systems. At worst, environmental justice studies, thinking of Gelderloos’s (2022, 86) critique of NGOs, risk normalising development and state institutions, creating divisions between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous even when these share a common cause, and falling into legal traps of ‘good/bad’ militant tactics that isolate dedicated land defenders. The act of viewing habitats as commodities or ‘ecosystem services’ to be controlled and exploited, instead of as living with and a part of us, remains a pressing issue. The perspective of ecological economics, relying on reductive data sets, high levels of conceptual abstraction, macro/mega level approaches and short-term fieldwork, contributes to these weak points within environmental justice studies. There remains, overall, a discursive and practical risk that reformist approaches are slowly transforming people into accomplices that assist in subjugating ecosystems and people to the trajectory of modernist progress. We have to become more critical of our immediate environments (e.g. Universities) and the materials and energy they use, and transform them in socio-ecologically enriching directions, as challenging as that task may be.

33The alternative is to affirm post-development pathways that reject development or create culturally/locally appropriate and convivial developmental solutions that ensure shelter and access to water and high-quality foods, prevent the spread of toxic waste, and affirm ecologically co-creative modes of production and alternative technologies (Kothari et al., 2019; Gelderloos, 2022). This could also be complemented by (decolonial) degrowth approaches (Nirmal and Rocheleau, 2019), which actively seek to re-conceptualise growth and to degrow capitalism, and consequently extractivism (Hickel, 2020; Mastini, Kallis and Hickel, 2021; Trainer, 2019). If public policy has any purpose, thinking of Hickel (2020), it will be to cut back on destructive chemical and extractive industries, eliminate planned obsolescence or ‘desired obsolescence’ (e.g. product upgrade purchases), revamp repair and recycling processes, recentre development on use value, rather than exchange value, cut the advertising budgets that manufacture mass consumption, and expand public goods and direct democracy. In short, to organise policy that promotes collective emotional and social well-being, with the impacts on ecosystems and the climate as a central priority, because—after all—we are our habitats. We must radically change the material, energy and socio-ecological relationships of existing infrastructures. There are numerous ways to cultivate subjective well-being, yet—as has been known for some time—market democracies tend to generate social discontent, dependency and addiction (Lane, 2000; Alexander, 2008). Ecological crisis, social uprisings, depression, anxiety and ill health are opportunities to create socio-technical and ecological change, to use critical knowledge to make genuine social change to remediate harms, restore ecosystems, and create socio-ecological systems and forms of habitation that are genuinely renewable. If these changes are not made—where rebellion, suicide, and cries for help are met with political violence—if we pretend that structural issues do not exist, and if, overall, we intensify matters through the European Green Deal and UN Sustainable Development Goals, then the road to immiseration will be affirmed, and only dystopia awaits.

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1 This, of course, was in the name of defeating an enemy, even if ‘conventional bombing had already achieved such a high level of destruction that atomic bombs could not inflict dramatically more damage’ (Pape, 1993, 155).

2 Statist also implies corporate. The state is a framework; albeit imperfect/contested, it facilitates political economy and everything that entails.

3 Colonial and/or statist forms is a matter of temporality, making the state the current and evolving form of the colony model. State-making, necessitates ‘internal’ colonialism to organize people and ecologies in the service of centralized power, which organizes the possibilities of becoming a ‘colonial power’. Once states emerge, a campaign of ‘external’ colonization in the service of capitalist accumulation and modernist developmental can then take hold.

4 This chapter avoids the concept of ‘infrastructuralism’ as it has many diverse meanings and raises various questions. Yet, Rubenstein and colleagues (2015, 579) ask an important question: ‘When are we justified in decrying the intrusions of infrastructure and when ought we to defend the progress it does, sometimes, represent?’ This question underlines this chapter, but also maintains a democratic illusion that ‘we’—people— have a choice over planning, developmental decisions and how computational technologies are integrated into institutions and markets.

5 This does not deny that conquest and modernist development can have, thinking of Foucault, ‘positive’ or enchanting features to facilitate political control (Verweijen and Dunlap, 2021; Rubenstein et al., 2015).

6 While Endgame is an appreciated classic, citing Jensen’s work here is in no way an endorsement of his later statements, political positions and media collaborations.

7 Thanks to Philippe Le Billon for pointing this out to me.

8 ‘Convivial technologies’ refer to tools designed within the socio-ecological fabrics of a given bioregion. This might include activity limited the production and types of tools used for their impact on people, nonhumans and ecosystems. Socially and ecologically conducive technologies allow autonomous and creative engagements among its users and the environment. Convivial technologies are scaled, social and environmentally responsible technologies, connected to broader social ecologies.

9 The Invisible Committee (TIC, 2015), while more militant, did a similar thing by relating all riots and uprisings from the period 2009–15 as part of the ‘imaginary party’ ushering in a new historical epoch.

10 As a contributor to, reader and fan of the EJAtlas, I note that there has been a (strict) non-violence bias built into the questioner, which leaves out the arguably important grey area of vandalism/property destruction instrumental to protest and social change. This issue appears to have been rectified approximately two years ago with the inclusion of ‘property destruction/arson’ and ‘sabotage’. Yet ‘property destruction’ does not always have to be related to ‘arson’. It could be artistic expression and disgruntled public communication.

11 There has been a lack of critical reflection on Gandhi’s role (as a colonial collaborator), tactics and general shortcomings by academics and activists (see Gelderloos, (2007)).

12 See Gelderloos (2013; 2022) and Dunlap (2019a) on protest and action standards crafted as ‘good/bad’.

13 See Churchill (2012), Bryan and Wood (2015) and Weston and Djohari (2020) for more on this topic.

14 See Sullivan (2017) for epistemic problems of compensation and offsetting.

15 For an extended discussion of ‘‘academic decolonial theory’ see Dunlap (2022).

16 ‘[D]ecolonising participatory parity’ (Temper, 2019, 105) has arguably been an issue since the rise of democracy as a social control mechanism.

17 For detailed criticism of energy justice please see Tornel (2022) and Partridge (2022). This chapter was written before the publication of these works.

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Alexander Dunlap, The Structures of Conquest: Debating Extractivism(s), Infrastructures and Environmental Justice for Advancing Post-Development Pathways International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 16 | 2023, Online since 02 May 2023, connection on 01 October 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Alexander Dunlap

Alexander Dunlap is a visiting research fellow at the University of Helsinki. His work has critically examined police–military transformations, market-based conservation, wind energy development, and extractive projects more generally in Latin America and Europe. He is the author of Renewing Destruction: Wind Energy Development, Conflict and Resistance in a Latin American Context (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), the co-author of The Violent Technologies of Extraction: Political Ecology, Critical Agrarian Studies and the Capitalist Worldeater (Palgrave, 2020), and the co-editor of Enforcing Ecocide: Power, Policing and Planetary Militarization (Palgrave, 2022).

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