This article first appeared on the Association for the Tree of Live Website.
By JEAN ARNOLD
A ravenous, yet decrepit cyborg – part machine, part zombie – lurches onward as it is programmed to do. Its hunger is so insatiable that it eats its own flesh; it eats its offspring; and it eats the future. The catabolic effects are inescapable and its death rattle reverberates for miles. An entire city lives inside this beast. Yet in this late hour, inhabitants put their heads down and carry-on as usual, for they are all dependent upon this monster for their very own food, water, and shelter. No one dares utter a stray word, until the day one brave soul holds up a mirror that reveals who they have become.
A decade ago, I attended a series of contentious activist meetings with Rio Tinto, the mega-mining corporation that owns the massive Kennecott copper pit in the Salt Lake Valley. Rio Tinto planned to expand the mine, and activists were pushing back. The meetings foundered and collapsed upon the lack of viable possibilities for avoiding local impacts and for making operations more sustainable. Activists’ proposals were considered impractical and unprofitable. Ultimately, Kennecott got its expansion and activists got nothing.
Jean Arnold, Civilization, 2012, oil on canvas, 42 x 42 inches.
An early Egyptian pyramid is seen with the gaping hole of the Kennecott copper pit. As civilization builds up monuments to itself, it must tear down into Earth for her treasures.
As a visual artist, I took my angst to the studio and captured eviscerated earth in a series of paintings and drawings, depicting large-scale mining operations that are rarely seen or considered by the public. What better way to reveal our civilization’s insatiable hunger for resources?
I realized that the mining industry cannot be greened, intrinsically by its very nature. Mining casts a long shadow: habitat loss, land theft, worker exploitation, local health impacts, and groundwater contamination, to name just a few issues. Without mining and other forms of extraction, Industrial Civilization could not exist. Yet we rarely ponder our Wonder-World’s material basis and its extraction costs.
Turns out I’m not the only one working in this vein – far from it.
This year a broad panoply of photographers, painters, poets, and printmakers are raising a ruckus in a four-continent constellation of almost sixty exhibits, installations, performances, and events under the rubric “EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss.” When EXTRACTION originator Peter Koch announced the project, it took off like wildfire. Creators are shining lights on all forms of the omnivorous extractive industry, “from mining and drilling to the reckless plundering and exploitation of fresh water, fertile soil, timber, marine life, and innumerable other resources across the globe.” The project’s broad definition begs the questions: In our civilization, what isn’t based on extraction? What isn’t affected by extraction?
The Algonquin word “wetiko” reveals extraction as a symptom of the culture-wide soul-sickness driven by domination, greed, and consumptive excess. It blinds humans from seeing ourselves as part of an interdependent whole, in communion with all of life. It is through this toxic mindset that the world is divided up and consumed for profit.
Extraction is an uncomfortable topic: it confronts us with our system’s voracious appetite for taking Earth’s riches without reciprocity – the very epitome of wetiko. Sure, we can point at capitalism, corporations and elite interests, but as participants in this wetiko culture we are all infected by this mind virus.
Far beyond a “problem” – extraction and its consequences pose a predicament without escape. Humanity is hitting planetary limits: declining resources, excess CO2 in the atmosphere, and plastic choking our oceans. Many of the proposed “solutions,” are just new iterations of the same paradigm, bringing more extraction. For example, see our blog “We are Strip-Mining Life While We Drink ‘Bright Green Lies’” as to why “green” tech will never save us. Humanity has dug itself deep into a hole from which few of us may emerge.
Since stories create meaning, the “wetikonomy” seeks to maintain itself through a tight control over its own narratives. In our situation, the system rewards those that uphold its delusions: endless growth, techno-magic, fulfillment through consumption, and superiority over nature. We are told there is no alternative and things are getting better all the time.
Stephen Braun, The Hoarder, 2009, raku ceramics, 24 x 30 x 8 inches.
Clinging to the same mentality at the root cause of the crises.
The pressure to act according to these grand-yet-contradictory narratives is pervasive, which means compliance is near-universal. Witness the charades played by world leaders and diplomats at decades of climate conferences, giving lip service to fossil fuel phase-out while maintaining the techno-growth-extraction paradigm – essentially mocking the stated climate goals by clinging to the same mentality at the root cause of the crisis. Does anyone think this year’s climate conference, COP26 in Glasgow will play out differently?
Why are people so willing to surrender their agency? Society is captivated by a grand bargain described by social critic Lewis Mumford in his 1964 essay “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics”:
The bargain … takes the form of a magnificent bribe … each member of the community may claim every material advantage … food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education. But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered … Once one opts for the system no further choice remains.
In other words, the bribe offers everyone a share in the largess, that is, the cornucopia of material goods unleashed by this industrial economy — as long as one does not question the costs to others, to ecosystems, or to the future.
The wetiko-spirit hates to be seen and named, as this begins to dissolve its parasitic power over its host. Dissent against the existing paradigm is ignored, penalized, or co-opted – that is, absorbed into the hegemony. Until it’s not. The time comes when costs become unbearable, limits are reached, and opposition finally boils over.
Thus, the last thing the power structure wants is a cultural spotlight on extraction, which exposes the core of our malady. And certainly not through art, which has a visceral, soul-level power – a power that scientific reports, statistics, and warnings do not have. Art can play a prophetic role: bearing witness to unsettling matters and grabbing attention before we can turn away. It can portray possibilities previously unconsidered, vitally needed at this time.
Jos Sances, Or, the Whale, 2108-2109, scratchboard, 14 x 51 feet
This very large scratchboard drawing was inspired by Moby Dick and the history of whaling in America. The whale’s skin is embedded with a history of capitalism in America—images of human and environmental exploitation and destruction since 1850.
EXTRACTION co-founder Edwin Dobb (now deceased) posed the question of our time: Can we break the spell? A growing chorus on the periphery – Greta Thunberg, poets, painters, performance artists, Extinction Rebellion – is revealing the sociopathic end-game holding us in its grip and unraveling slowly in real time. Learning to see wetiko within ourselves and our culture can begin to break its spell. Can we come to see our own hubris? Contraction is coming whether we like it or not – how can we deal with this if we are spellbound? We have no individual or collective roadmap for the coming post-extraction Reality.
The EXTRACTION project’s exhibits and events are winding down, although organizers hope for continuation in some form. Only a few more venues are scheduled to open, yet its effects will continue rippling outwards. The project has legitimized the extraction art movement and showcased some of today’s most potent work. It has broadened my own definition of extraction-inspired art, which helps me see new possibilities. The project will live on in the evolving work of extraction artists and in others forging authentic responses to our global predicaments. Art is all-too-often wed to money and societal embrace, compromising its own power and obscuring rather than illuminating Reality. Artmaking on the margins is not easy, so supporting this work is necessary.
Chris Boyer, Atlantic Salmon Pens, Welshpool, New Brunswick, Canada (44.885980°, -66.959243°), 2018.
Art that challenges the wetiko-extraction paradigm will become even more relevant, as extraction’s impacts widen. Extraction art is not going away, until extraction itself goes away. While industrial-scale extraction has “only” been with us for four hundred years, art has been with us for thousands of generations, since our early ancestors rendered images inside caves.
Listen to an audio of this blog, narrated by Michael Dowd.
Learn more about the EXTRACTION project.
EXTRACTION megazine (648 pages): download for free or purchase a printed copy for $25 + $7 shipping.
Partly a group catalog of extraction-related artwork, each artist or creator’s individual contribution documents their own personal investigations into the extraction question. The project is by no means limited to the visual arts—in these pages you will also find poetry, critical writings, philosophical treatises, manifestos, musical scores, conversations, historical or found photographs, and much more.
Make a donation to the EXTRACTION project.
No. 2 from Russian Drone Paintings (Mir Diamond Mine, Siberia) by Lawrence Gipe
Standing on the brink, before the towering back wall of the Berkeley, whose semi-circular sloping terraces resemble a gigantic Greek amphitheater, one is overtaken by a sense of doom…Viewed from the edge, the pit is a théâtre du sacrifice. The gateway to dominion is also a staircase to hell – Milton’s ‘wild Abyss’, the womb and grave of nature.
– Edwin C. Dobb, ‘The Age of the Sacrifice Zone’, EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss
In 2016, tens of thousands of snow geese, midway through their winter migration from Alaska to northern Mexico, diverted from their route in order to avoid a storm. Many landed on a blue lake at the bottom of a deep crater. But the water was not right; it hurt. Within minutes the exhausted birds were dropping dead in their thousands. Officials from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, examining the corpses afterwards, found burns inside their bodies, evidence of the cadmium, copper, arsenic, zinc and sulphuric acid they had sought to shelter on. This deadly toxic soup was what filled Montana’s milelong Berkeley Pit, leftover tailings from Butte’s heyday as the copper mining capital of the world, now one of the largest environmental clean-up sites in the country.
In 2020, the poisoned rivers, the hacked, fracked and exploded ground, the countless wounds from the thousands of mining projects in the American West inspired Peter Koch, founder and director of the CODEX Foundation, a California-based arts nonprofit, to launch a project called EXTRACTION: Art on the Edge of the Abyss. This ‘multimedia, multi-venue, cross-border art intervention’ invited artists from around the world to examine all forms of extractive industry, from open-cast mines in Butte to the exploitation of water, minerals, timber, coal, sand, animal and marine life, and the innumerable other ‘resources’ that fuel the global economy. EXTRACTION co-founder Edwin C. Dobb, who passed away in 2019, called this the ‘age of the sacrifice zone’, after an official government term for the areas that are left despoiled as the accepted collateral damage of so-called ‘progress’.
Dark Mountain’s 20th issue, ABYSS, is a response to that project’s call, bringing an uncivilised eye to the mindset of extractivism: an insatiable, pathological drive that has fuelled a seemingly endless expansion in energy use, manufacturing and economic activity. Just as our consumption appears to have no end in sight, there are no geographical limits: as mining or drilling operations shut down in one part of the world, having exhausted their seams or become economically unviable, new ones open up elsewhere – many of them to power the so-called ‘green’ technology boom.
Governments and billionaires dream of extending this frontier deeper and higher than ever before, from deep-sea mining on the ocean floor to plundering the minerals of other planets. Impelled by the need to take, take, take, the appetite of extractivism is all-consuming and unending.
In ABYSS , Alnoor Ladha and Martin Kirk write that we are living in the age of wetiko, an Algonquin term for a cannibalistic spirit that spreads like a virus. Amitav Ghosh draws the link between capitalist imperialism today and the 17th-century Dutch colonists in Indonesia’s Banda Islands, who massacred the indigenous population in order to gain control over the trade in nutmeg. And in South Africa, colonised for its mineral wealth and fertile land, Sage Freda writes of how environmental and human exploitation are inextricably linked; the more we wreck and ravage the Earth, the more deeply we damage ourselves. As wetiko spreads across the world, all of us – and all other species – end up living and dying in the sacrifice zone.
From the Amazon to the Niger Delta, the Atacama Desert to the Minnesota wetlands, communities and indigenous people are attempting to defend the living world from devastation. Many contributors to ABYSS are part of the pushback against the pillage: from the protest camp at the proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nevada, and from a deep-sea oil rig in New Zealand’s Great South Basin, we bring you stories from the activist front line. Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert take us to China’s giant black lake full of toxic run-off from the rare-earth metal mining that powers our laptops and phones. And we meet a Romanian peasant farmer whose fight against fracking and open-cast mining has helped to save one of Europe’s last medieval landscapes.
How do we remain fully human while so much around us is being destroyed, especially as we (at least, some of us) enjoy so many of the material benefits that devastation brings?
Extractivism’s story can be told through these struggles, as it can be told through statistics: that China now consumes more sand for concrete and cement every three years than the US consumed in the entire 20th century; that wild animal populations have decreased by 60% in the last 50 years. But this book also tells the story of how extractivism feels – how do we remain fully human while so much around us is being destroyed, especially as we (at least, some of us) enjoy so many of the material benefits that devastation brings? The fiction and poetry in this book navigate this tricky terrain, from Claire Wahmanholm’s haunting depictions of glaciers melting on the page to Tacey Atsitty’s wrenching depiction of the poisoned water supplies of the Diné in the American Southwest.
Photography, observes Richard Misrach, is a profound means of bearing witness. Many images in this all-colour issue come from the EXTRACTION project, giving evidence of the otherwise invisible toll of our voracious appetites, from David Maisel’s turquoise lithium ponds in the Atacama Desert to Lawrence Gipe’s stunning cover image depicting the largest hole on the planet in Siberia. Noble views of sublime natural landscapes give way to surveys of industrial ravages, as artists behold the world’s dams, tailing ponds, abandoned mines, oilfields, slag heaps and quarries, and the walls of granite, marble and coal that lie beneath. Among the litany of disappeared places, Jaime Black’s The REDress Project alerts us to the absences of indigenous women in Canada, while Aboriginal artist Betty Muffler shows the scale and beauty of the Earth repair required in her post-nuclear work, Healing Country. This is the world we do not see: the reality that powers the illusion of our spellbound lifestyles, with our sparkly wedding rings, our magical keyboards, our salmon and steak dinners, our electric cars gliding towards the emerald green cities of the future.
Once you start looking through the lens of extractivism, you start to see it everywhere – in the intellectual industries’ absorption of organic life and culture to feed its never-ending appetite for analysis and codification; in the teetering stacks of digital finance, each newly created layer of speculative instrument appropriating value from the one below it; and in the exploitation of ‘human resources’, making ever-greater demands on workers’ psychological and physical labour while demanding they carry ever more of the economic risk. And the suspicion arises that, behind all these manifestations of extraction, lies the same emotional and metaphysical vacuum – a hole in the heart as long and wide as the Berkeley pit: unappeasable, irrational, and ultimately incapable of ever being filled.
IMAGE: No. 2 from Russian Drone Paintings (Mir Diamond Mine, Siberia) Oil on canvas Courtesy of the artist
Gipe’s latest series, Russian Drone Paintings is based on images taken by drones for news programmes and surveillance posted on the government–run RUPTLY Network. Each painting consists of a frozen frame from this feed with subjects like pit mines in Siberia, bombings in Syria, ghost towns on remote mountains, towns abandoned because of radiation, and other residual evidence of interventions into nature.
Lawrence Gipe’s practice engages the postmodern landscape and the visual rhetoric of progress, in media that ranges between painting, drawing, video and collaborative curatorial projects. Gipe has had 60 solo exhibitions in galleries and museums in New York, Beijing, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Munich, Berlin and Düsseldorf. Currently, he splits his time between his studio in Los Angeles, CA, and Tucson, AZ, where he is an Associate Professor of Studio Art at the University of Arizona.
Order Dark Mountain: Issue 20 – ABYSS now from our website for £19.99 (plus postage) – or take out a subscription to future issues of Dark Mountain and receive Issue 20 for £11.99.
Planet of the Humans, an outstanding documentary by Jeff Gibbs and Michael Moore, drew a lot of attention when it was originally published on YouTube for free. But a coordinated censorship campaign lead to it being taken down from YouTube where it had been viewed 8.3 million times.
As Michael Moore wrote on his Facebook page:
“Day 4: Still banned. Our YouTube channel still black. In the United States of America. The public now PROHIBITED from watching our film “Planet of the Humans” because it calls out the eco-industrial complex for collaborating with Wall Street and contributing to us losing the battle against the climate catastrophe. As the film points out, with sadness, some of our environmental leaders and groups have hopped into bed with Bloomberg, GoldmanSachs, numerous hedge funds, even the Koch Bros have found a way to game the system— and they don’t want you to know that. They and the people they fund are behind this censorship. We showed their failure and collusion, they didn’t like us for doing that, so instead of having the debate with us out in the open, they chose the route of slandering the film — and now their attempt at the suppression of our free speech. “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Fascism is given life when “liberals” employ authoritarian tactics. Or sit back and say nothing. Who will speak up against blocking the public from seeing a movie that a group of “green capitalists” don’t want you to see? Where is the Academy? Where is the International Documentary Association? If you leave us standing alone, your film may be next. What is pictured above could be the darkened screen of your next movie. Do we not all know the time we are living in? All this energy spent trying to save our film when we should be saving the planet — but the green capitalists have once again provided a distraction so that no one will see what they’re really up to, so that no one will call them out for thinking we’re going to end the climate crisis by embracing or negotiating with capitalism. We call BS to that — and that is why our film has vanished. But not for long. We will not be silenced. We, and hundreds of millions of others, are the true environmental movement — because we know the billionaires are not our friends.”
Now the movie is up on YouTube again
Michael Moore presents Planet of the Humans, a documentary that dares to say what no one else will — that we are losing the battle to stop climate change on planet earth because we are following leaders who have taken us down the wrong road — selling out the green movement to wealthy interests and corporate America. This film is the wake-up call to the reality we are afraid to face: that in the midst of a human-caused extinction event, the environmental movement’s answer is to push for techno-fixes and band-aids. It’s too little, too late.
Removed from the debate is the only thing that MIGHT save us: getting a grip on our out-of-control human presence and consumption. Why is this not THE issue? Because that would be bad for profits, bad for business. Have we environmentalists fallen for illusions, “green” illusions, that are anything but green, because we’re scared that this is the end—and we’ve pinned all our hopes on biomass, wind turbines, and electric cars? No amount of batteries are going to save us, warns director Jeff Gibbs (lifelong environmentalist and co-producer of “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine“). This urgent, must-see movie, a full-frontal assault on our sacred cows, is guaranteed to generate anger, debate, and, hopefully, a willingness to see our survival in a new way—before it’s too late.
From Julia Barnes, the award-winning director of Sea of Life, Bright Green Lies investigates the change in focus of the mainstream environmental movement, from its original concern with protecting nature, to its current obsession with powering an unsustainable way of life. The film exposes the lies and fantastical thinking behind the notion that solar, wind, hydro, biomass, or green consumerism will save the planet. Tackling the most pressing issues of our time will require us to look beyond the mainstream technological solutions and ask deeper questions about what needs to change.
The movie is available on Vimeo:
Upon the Proposed Mining of “Thacker Pass, Nevada”.
A poem by Sarah Gar, a visitor to the land of the Paiute and Shoshone people and the sagebrush creatures.
It’s quiet here.
And I’m not talking
about experimental silence,
American guru silence,
or any sleek human site
that seeks inner peace
(and other noise)
to drown out the drawing-down
and drying-up of every sacred thing.
I’m talking about silence
of lands beyond witness,
a silence embedded and embedding,
the one nestling in the nighthawk’s cries
and cradling these words.
Tall sagebrush touches it —
4 feet 33 millimeters
of branching space,
where voice and silence
play by listening,
weaving water and light
without worrying who
appears as what
It’s as if nothing can be said
to arrive or leave in wild places.
Even our breath cannot be said
to enter this place
where it meets other selves
always here and already inside.
But when Grandmother comes,
wakes the fire with practiced taps,
the flames flare in reminder
of whose Spirits keep this place.
Even in “deserted” places
dry soil knows to gather
soft and firm around water,
forming delicate strata
to nourish roots
and catch the drifting seed.
We, too, know to gather,
asking if we are also this place,
and if so,
how we can return.
To get here
we must track ourselves
by species memory,
a long way back,
to when losing one’s way
first became possible.
We trace back to the end’s beginning,
when the volume had to rise,
to create an endless diversion,
to mask the pesky screams
of women and slaves.
Yes, we tracked ourselves,
even did a blood spatter analysis.
A few facts emerged to tell us:
- We are the losing and the lost.
- There’s nothing lonelier than empire, and nothing stranger than killing one’s beloved.
These facts cleared the room.
Even history couldn’t erase them.
The clock ticked.
Corporations continued to cut down the ancient ones.
And so we rose, rotating and revolving
pulled forward by the falling-apart feeling
which is love.
This must be love because,
as sung by Paiute and Shoshone,
danced by pronghorn and coyote,
this place would hold forever,
through trouts’ gills,
sun glancing off scales
and into eagle’s eyes
as she watches over.
Past and future
would nest together,
quiet as grouse eggs,
speckled and constellating,
in tacit reference to each other.
Birth and death would spiral together,
strong and fragile as pyrg shell,
and we would learn again
to listen and to hold
the spinning of the silence
that found us first,
soft as jackrabbit,
buried as bones,
strong spines of sage
and mountain song.
As a former English professor from the East Coast, Sarah now focuses on writing and activism in the Pacific Northwest. Her poetry grieves patriarchal and colonial violence, summons reverence for the natural world, and upholds matriarchal cultures which cherish life.
In this final Green Flame episode of 2020, we listen to a discussion between Jennifer Murnan and Trinity La Fey about the love and support of women, resistance, writing, reminders of beauty, performance and people. We are blessed with Trinity’s performances of poetry. Their discussion is woven into a chorus of other poets.
With a recital from Aimee, we celebrate Shahidah Janjua by listening to a poem from her book Dimensions. We also share poems from Max, Jennifer, Ross, Ben, and Salonika, and revisit the poems of Dominique Christina which were part of our December 2019 Radical Feminism episode.
This wonderful new year celebration episode concludes with a medley of music from prior episodes including the lyrical “Shchedryk” by Beth Quist. Thank you all, thank you for listening and Happy New Year.
Special thanks to our editor for this episode, Iona.
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About The Green Flame
The Green Flame is a Deep Green Resistance podcast offering revolutionary analysis, skill sharing, and inspiration for the movement to save the planet by any means necessary. Our hosts are Max Wilbert and Jennifer Murnan.
I lay in my bed
Waiting for the soft lull of sleep to embrace me
To take me to the land where dreams come by
I know it won’t come soon
I know she faces the blockades
Obstacles block her way
I wake up to the low drum of the machine
I sleep to the blaring of the neighbor’s TV
Every moment in between is as loud as the other
The horns of vehicles speeding by
The excavators in their pursuit of development
Violence on my brothers and sisters
The rape of the natural world
Does it pierce my ears alone
Or is it my heart that suffers more?
If sleep finds her way through these
Could she also pass the bright night?
The flood light glowing outside my window
Keeps everyone safe, they say.
What dangerous world do we live in?
To keep one safe, ones must die:
The bugs, the plants, the birds, the frogs.
Don’t they know lights kill these all?
Moonlight and fireflies don’t bother me much
Neither does the beetles’ mating calls
I bet I could learn to sleep through
The mosquitoes buzzing around me
I long for the day when these are the only voices
That pierce the silence and darkness of night.
Salonika is an organizer at DGR South Asia and is based in Nepal. She believes that the needs of the natural world should trump the needs of the industrial civilization.