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The new language of resource exploitation

Aerial photo of natural gas extraction in La Plata, New Mexico. Photo: Anita Gould/Flickr

"Staples dependency" we know from Innis onwards. It can mean reliant upon or dependent on the export of staples, and permits a staple theory of linkages as economic theory. It can also mean a resource margin of a more developed imperium. Economic theory is infused with the power relations inherent in "dependency" and is transformed into political economy. In the shifting fashions of scholarship, over time "dependency" came not to be permitted as appropriate political economy. This in turn meant the purging of "nationalism" as a tolerable response at the risk of losing a political edge. But the idea of a "staples trap" implicit in Innis could not be wished away.

Take the phrase "extraction empire." "Empire" takes on a new meaning. On the one hand, it is the terrible colonization within Canada of Indigenous people. Canada as a settler society is exploiter rather than exploited. On the other hand, it is the transformation of resource exploitation at home into resource exploitation abroad. Comparative advantage in trade becomes over time comparative advantage in outward direct investment, notably in mining. Canada becomes an imperium in its own right, though note, this by no means requires it to shed its "dependency" within a larger imperium, such as the United States.

"Extraction" is a potent word that conjures up the wrenching, the wounding of the planet, the violation of nature as technology deeply alters environment. It gives a whole new perception to the staples trap which, in the contemporary case of bitumen, becomes a deadly carbon trap. Governments, national and regional, are sucked into a black hole.

Our old friend "dependency" takes on a stark new dimension. Economics alone exposes economic rents, or surplus, which can be captured by the state and in what would seem like the best of all worlds, can be used to help the poor, creating safety nets and building a welfare state. But the society then becomes massively dependent on the surplus from the revenue resulting from resource exploitation, and dangerously exposed to social breakdown in the event of a plunge in the price of the staple -- as we are presently seeing with respect to oil and Venezuela.

What triggers these ruminations on staples one more time is the appearance of a monumental 800-page book, titled Extraction Empire, published by MIT Press and edited by Pierre Belanger, a landscape architect at Harvard. Full disclosure: the opening essay in the book titled "Unsettling the Mining Frontier" is mine, billed as a foreward. It takes off from Innis's neglected classic Settlement and the Mining Frontier but shows Innis's limitations as a white male with respect to the consequences of staples exploitation for Indigenous people, for women, and for the environment, a.k.a nature.

The book has the revealing subtitle "Undermining the Systems, States and Scales of Canada's Global Resource Empire 2017 to 1217." Counting back 800 years to the Magna Carta, which reified property and distinguished between property rights, to the surfaces of lands and subsurface rights. This was critical to the appropriation of the rights of Indigenous peoples in the so-called New World, who not only failed to make settled use of the surface resources  and certainly had no claim through use to subsurface rights.

Mel Watkins is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is Editor Emeritus of This Magazine and a frequent contributor to Peace magazine. This blog was first posted in the Progressive Economcs Forum.

Photo: Anita Gould/Flickr

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