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Elizabeth Miller, Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion

Date:27 January 2023

Literature gives expression to ‘what industrial extraction meant, and how it transformed humans’ relation to and perception of the natural world’ (Miller, 2021: 2). On 17 January 2023, Professor Elizabeth Miller (UC Davis) discussed her recently published book Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion (Princeton University Press, 2021) with the AFREXTRACT team. The webinar highlighted surprising parallels between British works of fiction, such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) and Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904), and post-colonial literature such as Helon Habila’s Oil on Water (2010).

Miller’s writing approaches the topic of resource extraction through historicist literary analysis. In her reading of literary texts, Miller focused on durable forms and genres, to recognise the patterns through which imperial extraction was conceptualised. The book is structured around three conceptual themes: temporality, space, and energy imaginaries. This allows her to connect the failed marriage plot, or the inability of protagonists to conceive children, with prevalent fears of resource exhaustion – what the book poetically calls ‘exhausted futurity’.

British Imperialism

The book’s title, Extraction Ecologies, captures a fundamental contradiction: while ecologies presuppose the interrelationality of natural life, extraction entails the removal of crucial elements from the earth and this causes a derangement of the multispecies and dynamic balance of life. On the one hand, our discussion highlighted that the British Empire was the first fossil fuel society, dependent on the burning of coal. This dependency generated societal structures tethered to coal. Yet, at the same time, Miller underlined that literature about extractivism proved mobile and repeatable across time and space. Literary form and genre thus produced and extended extractivism as a mode of environmental understanding beyond the boundaries of the British Empire. Extractive imaginaries at the end of the nineteenth century tended to portray Africa as a place to be extracted from, as illustrated by H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885).

The literary texts that Miller analysed clearly showcased a division between the Global North and the Global South: whereas some localities were imagined as storehouses of raw materials (as represented in the ‘treasure hunt’ narrative plot), others became the sites of manufacturing and value addition. This resource imbalance also applied to parts of rural Britain, though, as coal mining localities in Yorkshire or Cumbria became environmental sacrifice zones just as gold mining localities in South Africa did.

Miller brilliantly illustrated how Britain itself was transformed by overseas and imperial extraction, as expressed in literary genres. Looming resource exhaustion in Britain further prompted ever-increasing extraction on the imperial frontier, setting in motion the spatially expansive dynamics of resource extraction with which we are still grappling today.

Narratives of Environmental Change

We also discussed the tensions between the visibility and the invisibility of resource extraction in literature. Miller (2021, 17) referred to Amitav Ghosh who spoke of ‘the “modes of concealment” that prevent us from recognizing the environmental catastrophes of modernity.’ Closely examining how literature deals with the everyday vs. the transformative and exceptional aspects of resource extraction becomes important in this respect. For Johannesburg’s mine dumps, this issue has recently been flagged up by Chris Thurman (2022), who argues that exactly because of the omnipresence and familiarity of mine dumps in Johannesburg, literature rarely engages with them.

The stories we tell about resource extraction and environmental change have important consequences. Rebecca Solnit (2023) made the point that we need new stories to address the climate crisis. Miller’s examples show that already in the nineteenth century there was pushback against the environmental devastation caused by coal mining in Britain through literary works. Miller (138) writes that one element of experiencing ‘extraction-based life is to become acclimated to the habits that facilitate environmental catastrophe by learning to pass over … the everyday fossil fuel infrastructure that has overheated the atmosphere.’ A more activist stance towards environmental issues has been adopted by some forms of postcolonial literature (see for example Saro-Wiwa, 2014; Okorafor, 2011). However, at present, literature is no longer the dominant medium of popular entertainment. While authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson still show that literature can be a potent tool in narrating the climate crisis, addressing climate change requires more kinds of stories, written from different perspectives, and in a variety of genres.