By Sebastián Ureta & Patricio Flores, co-authors of Worlds of Gray and Green: Mineral Extraction as Ecological Practice

“We are walking, talking minerals” —V. I. Vernadsky[1]

Mineral extraction has a bad reputation nowadays. Decades of relentless extraction of minerals throughout the world has left behind a legacy of disasters and extensive pollution. Especially in the global south, such damage is usually accompanied by multiple forms of violence and dispossession against local populations, mainly indigenous groups. Under the term “extractivismo,” mineral extraction is commonly seen as the ultimate source of lasting environmental injustices. Even the Cambridge English dictionary defines the term as “the process of removing something, especially by force”[2], and provides this phrase as a typical example of its usage: “the extraction of minerals has damaged the countryside.” Extraction and damage are inseparable, it seems.

Nevertheless, we cannot avoid extraction. From massive concrete and steel structures to tiny copper wires inside our phones, the skeleton and veins of our ways of living are made of minerals, minerals that were extracted somewhere. In fact, we have lived in mineral orderings since the dawn of human civilization, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. As recognized by P. J. Usher, “if we have stumbled into the Anthropocene, this age in which humans are the major geological re-shapers of Planet Earth, it is not only because we emit but first and foremost because we extract.”[3]Even the ongoing urgent efforts to deal with the negative consequences of such relentless extraction rest, quite paradoxically, in more extraction. Our toxic carbon regimes are being replaced by new mineral regimes, this time comprised by elements such as lithium, cobalt and rare-earths, all of them compulsory to any form of transition towards less polluting energy systems. Some of these minerals could be recycled from discarded infrastructures (as happens in urban mining), while some others could be used in a much more efficient way, but most of them would need to be extracted from its original bedrock.  Whether we like or not, we are —and will continue to be— “walking, talking minerals.”

This relatively unchanged centrality of mineral extraction does not mean that we have to merely accept its negative consequences. The urgent need to decarbonize our energy matrix is just one of our environmental problems. Issues such as biodiversity protection and controlling toxicants are just as relevant, and they are meant to be greatly affected by increased mining for this so-called “transition minerals.”[4] Hence, we need to radically transform the principles and practices behind extraction in the Anthropocene, so the search for minerals to deal with one critical environmental issue (such as climate change) does not end up worsening many others. The critical question is not whether extraction would continue to be relevant in the Anthropocene, but which kind of extraction are we going to pursue.

Our book Worlds of Gray and Green: Mineral Extraction as Ecological Practice claims that a necessary step towards rethinking extraction is to start seeing mines as parts of complex ecological systems. Through a case study of a massive mining waste dam located in central Chile, we highlight how the disruptions associated with the extraction of massive amounts of minerals not only cause disruptions in preexistent local ecologies. In parallel, extraction is centrally related with the emergence of novel arrangements of the living. Adapting the concept of geosymbiosis from geologists D. E. Caldwell and S. J. Caldwell[5], we claim that once released into an environment full of living entities, minerals become entangled in multiple relationships with them. Some of these geosymbioses are toxic — no doubt about that. Others are mutualistic, allowing the proliferation of all the involved. Most of them, we would say, exist between both extremes, allowing certain life in certain ways, but canceling out many others.

From a geosymbiotic perspective we start seeing mineral extraction not merely as the removal and processing of inert materials, but also as an ecological practice through which novel ecologies are produced. Commonly these novel ecologies are an utterly poor replacement for the ones that stood there before the mine’s arrival. We believe this is not compulsory, but reflects the utter disdain of mining companies, authorities and – even – the general public, regarding the production of ecologies through extraction. If mines and extraction were reframed as spaces for the production of novel arrangements of the living, more spaces for the proliferation of life in the Anthropocene would emerge.

[1] Quoted in Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, “What is Life?” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 49)


[3] Usher, J. “Exterranean: Extraction in the Humanist Anthropocene” New York: Fordham University Press, 2019, 1.

[4] As it is already happening in our country, Chile, regarding the extraction of lithium in the Salar de Atacama.

[5] D. E. Caldwell & S. J. Caldwell (2004) The Calculative Nature of Microbe–Mineral Interactions. Microbial Ecology volume 47, pages252–265.