We thought that the “commodity frontiers”, the new mines that we dig on earth to take out the oil, gold, uranium or copper that feeds our consumer economies, are somewhere else; in the “South”, far from us, in the jungles of Amazonian or the desserts of Southern Africa. Well, the frontiers have now come back, next to our homes.
In my country Greece the response to the crisis and the quest for growth to pay off debts is a new, ugly sort of “extractivism” similar to that of Latin American countries, and unlike anything the country has seen ever before. The police used plastic bullets for the first time in Greece to put off demonstrators in the new gold mines opened in the peninsula of Chalkidiki in Northern Greece, previously known only for its long shores, pine forests and marvelous beaches. Plans for gold mines and new exploration contracts are signed as I write this piece. The Aegean is the new El Dorado, and spokesmen, from right and left, seriously argue that the future of Greece lies in its oil, soon to be discovered in the deep waters of the Aegean. Never mind that the Aegean with its blue seas and the mosaic of islands is the cradle of Greek civilization and the motor of its tourist economy.
Some wonder: how come and we had all these resources and we never knew it. Were we sitting on top of so much gold and oil and never cared to use it?
Let me be more academic here and propose a theory that may explain what is happening in Greece. I propose that this rise of a new extractivism is directly linked to the crisis, and in effect what we are observing today in Greece (and soon in Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe) is the same that we saw in indebted Latin American and African countries back in the 80s and 90s. It is not that Greece has today more resources than it had before. It is that the economic crisis reduced the cost of extraction and made accessible resources that previously were not. The crisis lowered costs by:
i) reducing the cost of labour (devaluation of salaries and of the value of health of workers) used in extraction activities;
ii) reducing the opportunity costs of extraction;
iii) reducing social resistance and the costs this brings through the delay of projects;
iv) reducing the monetary cost of externalities and the monetary value of impacts (‘the poor sell cheap’- health, visual or environmental impacts are no longer that highly valued).
Resources that were considered out of limits in Greece, for social or cost reasons, from gold and copper in the north of the country, to oil in the Aegean, are as a result now under a frenzy of exploration and development.
This provides evidence for the claim that economic crises are necessary for creating new exploitable territories when limits have otherwise been reached. They achieve it by the devaluation of economic and social capital.
My pessimistic conclusion is therefore: facing its limits the growth economy destroys what already exists by devaluing it and thereby creates fresh opportunities for accumulation. From the Second World War, to the crisis of the 70s, to the crises in Latin America and Asia, this is the repeated pattern. Only by escaping this growth economy and changing its institutions can we ever hope to find a way out of this vicious cycle of frenzied, meaningless expansion and bottomless destruction.