The Opposite of Extractivism? Resource Imperialism Under Calls for “Green Transition”

Imperial relations in geostrategic resources, notably hydrocarbons, are nowadays associated with what appears at first glance to depart from or reverse extractivism. However, ultimately imperial relations are being extended, reducing energy sovereignty and ecological justice for states of the Global South, as Anna Zalik shows in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”


Debates on the future of extractivism featured in the “After Extractivism” series helpfully examine the whole-scale critique of extraction common in left circles over the past decade. Notably, contributors to the series point out that control over extractive industries, which may entail state ownership, as well as extraction directed at domestic consumption external to capitalist markets, could lead to very different social outcomes than the large-scale export-driven extraction from the Global South critiqued by scholars such as Eduardo Gudynas. This piece considers some of these debates from two vantage points.

Imperial relations in geostrategic resources

First, the piece refers to problems in conceptualization. On the one hand, the tendency for the critique of extractivism to fetishization, obscuring how nominally extractive industries are deeply intertwined with presumably ‘less extractive,’ productive processes that share similar features of hyper-exploitation under neoliberalism. On the other hand, the associated pitfall of state reification which can lead to overlooking the role of transnational capital in the historical constitution and present day configuration of the state.

Second, the piece considers a number of empirical manifestations of what might be considered the ‘opposite of extractivism.’ Of course, this can’t be about denying the clear rise in ecologically-intensive and extensive natural resource intensive industries (from mining, to ecotourism, to palm) over the past 30 years and their embeddedness in transnational consumption patterns. But we need to critically note that imperial relations in geostrategic resources such as hydrocarbons are associated today with what appear at first glance to depart from extractivism or reverse it. One example would be export from North to South rather than South to North.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Moreover, imperial relations in geostrategic resources are also associated with purportedly redistributive global regimes, as per deep seabed mining governed by the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. A not unrelated set of developments can be seen in the ‘divestment’ of Shell from controversial holdings in Nigeria’s Niger Delta purportedly under an energy indigenization policy. That divestment, however, effectively transfers responsibility for outdated infrastructure and decades of socio-environmental devastation to private firms from Nigeria, reducing the significant liability the transnational firm that previously controlled it might otherwise face.

Thus, despite the apparent reversal in terms resulting from these departures from historical forms of extractivism, the ultimate result is to extend imperial relations, reducing energy sovereignty and ecological justice for states of the Global South.

To exemplify how the relationship between the reversal in extractive transfer and imperialism, the text attends to recent shifts in the direction of North American transfers in hydrocarbons since Mexico’s 2014 energy reform. A 2022 Mexican government bill to reverse that reform (which some critics think came too late) failed to pass. Yet, as described below, victories by social movements have occurred, notably that of a regional mobilization opposing the route of a TC Energy pipeline. The pipeline project and the government of Mexico’s liability for it, however, persist, as does Mexico’s increasing structural dependence on US energy imports.

The state reified, extractivism fetishized

The role of ecological imperialism and the metabolic rift in world history and the rise of global capitalism are among key left insights on the role of the historic intensive extraction and exportation of nature. Here, extractivism is pivotal to the emergence of the so-called anthropocene, or alternatively, the capitalocene and racial capitalocene. Other strands of left critiques of extraction, however, require interrogation due to their tendency to a) reify the state and/or b) fetishize extraction as distinct from production.

On the first point, discussions centering mineral and material exports from states may neglect state formation as a long-duree historical process and fail to question that socio-territorial boundaries have real effects but are nevertheless outcomes of social relations. Consequently, such theorizing may fall into a trap typical of conventional, liberal public policy – such as resource curse approaches – that pathologize states of the global south rather than reflecting on the interconnection of states and transnational corporations and capital blocs in shaping historical and contemporary imperialism. To this the crucial, long-standing and recently republished work of the late Jamaican economist Norman Girvan provides an important corrective.

On the fetishization of extraction, left ecological movements sometimes employ the term in a form that tends to distinguish extraction from production, or from other historical forms of exploitation. While it is important that the term ‘extraction’ remains analytically useful and is not blurred with all forms of exploitation, elsewhere we argue for the need to think how a range of hyper-neoliberal productive forms, including the maquila sector and elements of migrant labor, share various features with other forms of intensive appropriation of nature.

Indeed, for capitalist production generally, as for extractive industries, a law of value based on the exploitation of human labor – or, perhaps better understood as labor/nature – is the root source of contradiction. Following James O’Connor, it does not matter whether these contradictions arise from the inextricably intertwined consequences of the first (stemming from the falling rate of profit/ industrial capitalism and competition) orthe second (frequently understood as involving the degradation of labour and nature) contradictions of capitalism.

The contradictions of capitalism and the ‘reversal’ of extractivism

The contradictions of capitalism, a falling rate of profit among hydrocarbon capitals, alongside socio-ecological degradation have led capital toward a reversal in North American hydrocarbon transfers over the last 5 years. Here US natural gas and Canadian pipeline capital find an outlet in Mexico for protest they face within their borders. The role of transnational capital in Mexico’s previously nationalized energy sector has accelerated markedly since the 2014 hydrocarbon reform and the negotiation of NAFTA 2.0 the year prior to the election of the Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador government. The result has been a major reversal in Mexico’s energy sovereignty that shares attributes with the reversal of Mexico’s food sovereignty following the implementation of the first NAFTA agreement in the 1990s.

As of 2017, Mexico became a net importer of hydrocarbons from the United States, transported in part by Canadian pipelines – notably that of TC Energy, formerly Trans Canada pipelines the firm behind Keystone XL. On first glance this departs markedly from intense appropriation of resources for export from Global South to Global North that Eduardo Gudynas describes as extractivism. Indeed, the extension of infrastructures that solidify Mexico’s dependence on hydrocarbons extracted in the United States – if understood solely on the basis of material transfer – might be described as the ‘opposite of extractivism.’

This is not intended as a critique of Gudynas since he would certainly acknowledge this dynamic. Rather, I mean to suggest that the reconfiguration of resource transfers in a form where extraction transfers resources from North to South, rather than the reverse is heavily tied to geo-strategic, imperial relations – in this case the rise of the US as an energy superpower since 2008, and a net energy exporter as of 2019. Arguably, in the context of oil and ‘critical minerals’ the direction of export/import relations is not in itself revealing of exploitation. Indeed, in this case the outcome is a reversal of energy sovereignty for Mexico solidifying the dominance of US and Canada’s capital with that country’s generation of hydrocarbon based electricity.

Further entrenching imperial extractive capitalism

In this context US and particularly Canada’s pipelines have been highly contested by Indigenous and agrarian communities, with mobilizations against these projects across the country. In recent years a regional council of communities in Mexico’s Puebla and Hidalgo states successfully pushed TC Energy and the Mexican government to change the route of a section of the Tuxpan- Tula pipeline route passing through sacred areas and watersheds. Meanwhile, in Canada the Indigenous Wet’suwet’en mobilization against the Coastal Gas Link pipeline operated by TC Energy continues to face violent repression. In Mexico the announcement that the Tuxpan-Tula route would be changed reflects a major social movement success. Yet details of the new route remain undefined. And that the pipeline is to be built following a different route is also a reflection of how a green energy transition buttresses imperial relations, with actors such as Joe Biden praising Mexico’s government for its use of ‘clean’ energy sources, notably US fracked gas in lieu of Mexico’s ‘heavy’ oil.

In Mexico there has been a longstanding push to refine more crude within the country, rather than reimport post-refining in the United States. The apparent progress made via the late May 2022 inauguration of the Dos Bocas refinery in Tabasco State, and Mexico’s successful nationalization of the lithium sector two months earlier, however, occur alongside a new public private partnership between Mexico’s federal electricity commission and US and Canadian capital, notably TC Energy, now describes itself as Canada’s single largest investor in Mexico.

Thus Mexico’s energy sector is further tied to global capital. Contracts under which the Mexican government is held liable, and pays, for projects that may meet opposition from land defenders are entrenched, with various parallels elsewhere in the “After Extractivism” series. The twinning of the Dos Bocas opening with the TC Energy announcement is undoubtedly tied to the NAFTA 2.0 agreement negotiated prior to Lopez Obrador’s government but which he subsequently signed. Under that agreement Mexico remains subject to investor-state international arbitration in the energy sector, which was removed for the US and Canada under the same treaty. The purported ‘greening’ of electricity generation via which these moves are justified not only maintain the intensive appropriation of nature. They also reverse material transfers between states and entail infrastructural investment in the South rather than the North, all the while further entrenching imperial extractive capitalism.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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