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Human Waste Management


Angela P. Harris is Professor Emerita at the UC Davis School of Law.

© Fabrice Monteiro. Untitled #1, The Prophecy

In a previous post, I gave two cheers for “reproduction” as a useful verb to think with when trying to understand the relationship between “political economy” and the social-ecological world within LPE. I held back that third cheer out of a rhetorical concern. As I put it then, “‘Social reproduction’” might imply that there is a pre-existing social world, that it ‘reproduces’ in some unspecified way, and that the whole process is ancillary to the topic of Political Economy.” In this post, I return to that unease in a more theoretical key. One weakness of “reproduction” as a word to describe social and ecological dynamics is, I think, in the way it suggests long-term sameness, whether through duplication or equilibrium. A second weakness of “reproduction” is its failure to mark the processes of destruction and waste those dynamics involve. To compensate for these weaknesses, I want to offer a supplemental keyword for analyzing the social and ecological world: “extraction.” Like reproduction, “extraction” has a Marxist pedigree, but it also carries at least four connotations that “reproduction” doesn’t. The first is non-renewability; the second is corruption; the third is waste; and the fourth is violence. The examples that follow illustrate these connotations at the level of national economies; there are many other levels of scale on which the implications of “extraction” might usefully be explored.

First, non-renewability. A national economy is said to be an “extraction economy” when it derives most of its productivity from exporting lightly processed or un-processed natural resources. Countries dependent on oil, gas, and mineral extraction are the usual examples. Even an economy largely driven by agriculture, though, can be described as “extractive” to the extent that its most productive forms involve monoculture crops reliant on intensive chemical inputs (including pesticides, herbicides, and soil amendments). From an ecological perspective, as Douglas Kysar reminds us, extractive economies are unsustainable: oil, gas, minerals, and soil are resources that are not “reproducible” within a human time scale. The environmental crisis we are currently facing is the result of this non-reproducibility; even if we are a long way from “Peak Oil,” the rapidity with which soil — and fresh water — are being depleted suggests that the comfort inherent in “reproduction” is inapposite. “Extraction” reminds us that the bills for our carbon-based world economy are coming due.

Second, corruption. Countries with extraction economies are also likely to suffer from the so-called “resource curse”: the profits from natural resources are disproportionately siphoned off by a tiny political elite rather than distributed broadly. This is another connotation of extraction: the form of economic theft known as rent-seeking. But it is not limited to colonized nations rich in bauxite, diamonds, or rubber. Joseph Stiglitz argues that economic inequality is so high in the United States “not only because of the shift to a service-sector economy—it is because of the rigged rules of the game, rules set in a political system that is itself rigged through gerrymandering, voter suppression and the influence of money. A vicious spiral has formed: economic inequality translates into political inequality, which leads to rules that favor the wealthy, which in turn reinforces economic inequality.” Again, “extraction” as a key term to think with disrupts the steady-state implications of “reproduction.”

Third, waste. Extraction economies infamously leave behind piles of waste, from lagoons of cow manure to uranium tailings. More abstractly, waste is everywhere, in all economic activity. Waste, as Martin O’Brien notes, is the ghost of value. It connotes both what is marked as valueless, left over after processes of production and consumption have been completed, and what may become newly valuable under conditions of technological or cultural innovation. O’Brien argues that “the industrialized societies of the contemporary world” are “rubbish societies:” “infused by a relationship to waste and wasting but . . . at the same time, seek[ing] to deny the very fact that wasting is the basis on which [they] are able to develop and change.” Wasting, he tells us, “represents a process of generating a political economy in order to confer values on objects.” “Extraction” reminds us of waste, the surplus of production and consumption, representing not only “matter out of place” in Mary Douglas’s famous formulation, but also chaos, uncertainty, opportunity, and threat.

Fourth and finally, violence. A cursory online search provides this definition of extraction: “the action of taking out something, especially using effort or force.” Michael McIntyre and Heidi Nast argue that our world political economy — the heir of European imperialism and settler colonialism — ought to be understood as a dialectic between two analytical spaces, the “necropolis” and the “biopolis.” Following Achille Mbembe, they define the necropolis as “a space of negation and the socially dead, produced by expropriations and alienations in and outside European nation-states.” The biopolis, in contrast, is a space of economic productivity and political citizenship whose populations are valuable. McIntyre and Nast argue that the relationship between biopolis and necropolis is one of extraction, based on a “reproductive racial politics in which certain lands and persons could reasonably be disregarded and treated as waste.”

As I have recently argued, law plays an important role in shaping and governing the relationship between biopolis and necropolis. For example, our president wants to see the southern border of the United States enclosed with steel, but immigration and asylum law operate far more effectively and insidiously to distinguish lives that matter from lives that don’t. The legal differential between citizen and non-citizen undergirds a political economy of human waste, in which undocumented immigrants and would-be refugees represent both valueless life and – for detention facilities and their investors, including JP Morgan and BlackRock – an investment opportunity promising “significant growth.” But the spectacle of children in cages is the product of a much longer process of extraction in the Americas, in which U.S. trade and foreign policy has played a role.

The four aspects of extraction I have described here are often linked. For instance, political ecologist Eduardo Gudynas has coined a new Spanish word, “extraheccion,” to denote the practice of extracting oil and/or minerals through widespread human rights violations (often in peasant or indigenous communities).Industrial agriculture in the United States, similarly, extracts food and other high-value products through reliance both on chemical inputs and a racialized, undocumented labor force with reduced access to legal protections, with the waste products of poverty, illegal migration, and environmental degradation. The forms of extraction discussed here are also linked by the public-private partnerships at their center: the oil and gas economy and the industrial agriculture economy are joint ventures of “free markets” and states. Part of what is being reproduced, then, if you like, is a system of social and ecological extraction.

Words matter; keywords create path dependencies. “Reproduction” is a useful term for thinking about the law and political economy of ecology and society, but it is not sufficient. As the LPE community develops a research agenda, “extraction” should take its place alongside “reproduction” as a reminder to internalize the “externalities” of reproduction.