Saturday, 7 February 2015

Eldorado, or the Utopia of Extractivism

One of the memorable terms in Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything is extractivism, defined as “a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking” (Klein 2014:169). Naturally, the term fits in very well will most of the ways we humans today extract resources from the earth. I was particularly gripped by the example of Nauru, a ghastly and tragic story which highlights the fact that places where extraction takes place often turn into what she calls "sacrifice zones" – “places that, to their extractors, somehow don’t count and therefore can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic progress”. Such zones, she adds, are often “bound up with notions of racial superiority, because in order to have sacrifice zones, you need to have people and cultures who count so little that they are considered deserving of sacrifice” (ibid. 169f).

Potosi (From Hermann Moll's 1726 map of South America) 
An aspect of extractivism which deserves attention is its utopian aspect. New oil fields are always greeted with joy and a sense of triumph. The same goes for new technologies. Every new discovery seems to extend a new lifeline not only for present lifestyles in the wealthy North but also for dreams of affluence in the South. Not to speak of profits everywhere, of course.

To trace the genealogy of this utopia of extractivism is also to venture into how colonialism and capitalism have been legitimated. Part of the way, one might make use here of Carl Schmitt's discussion of how the European powers divided the earth. Not to celebrate Schmitt, of course, but to display him, in the manner of an exhibit. Listen:
The traditional Eurocentric order of international law is foundering today, as is the old nomos of the earth. This order arose from a legendary and unforeseen discovery of a new world, from an unrepeatable historical event. Only in fantastic parallels can one imagine a modern recurrence, such as men on their way to the moon discovering a new and hitherto unknown planet that could be exploited freely and utilized effectively to relieve their struggles on earth. The question of the new nomos of the earth will not be answered with such fantasies, any more than it will be with further scientific discoveries. Human thinking must again be directed to the elemental orders of its terrestrial being here and now. (Schmitt 2003:39)
Who said Schmitt was insensitive to the lure of Utopia, despite the reservation expressed in the last two sentences? What he expresses here, even as he cautiously retracts his own words, is the utopia of a repetition of the conquest of the New World, that one-off historical windfall that founded not only European world dominance but also capitalism (see Blaut 1993, or Wallerstein). Hasn't, in some sense, capitalism been trying to repeat this discovery again and again ever since, on a smaller scale? Isn't this desire for a repetition quite homologous to the dream of new oil fields and new miraculous technologies that will help capitalism (and us) extract ever more free lunches from the earth?

To bring out this utopian aspect, I turn to Ernst Bloch. In a chapter of The Principle of Hope ("Eldorado and Eden: The Geographical Utopias”) he describes how the early Europeans arriving in the Americas viewed the land in terms reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, modeled on Marco Polo’s fabulous Asia, as a land of gold, happiness and marvels. Columbus himself was convinced that he had reached Paradise, as evinced in his letters (Bloch 1995:775f). As Bloch points out, what drove these early voyagers wasn't only a dream of wealth but also the dream of “the abolition of death” (751). This point is further emphasized by Beatriz Pastor, who has the following to say of maps showing a river of immortality, a fountain of eternal youth, the silver mountains, and, of course, the city of El Dorado (33f).
The illustrations and captions are not descriptive. They are figurative and indicate the specific function of these images in the configuration of utopian America. The miraculous fountain and the river of immortality constitute one of the central features of utopian America: the suspension of natural laws exemplified by the defeat of aging and mortality. The Seven Cities of Gold inscribe the presence of a perfect society in utopian America, with the city as a space of prosperity and harmony. With its image of limitless riches, the mythical El Dorado summons the symbolic eradication of poverty and social inequality in the America this second map displays. (Pastor 2011:34)
Something of the luster and radiance surrounding the legendary names that spurred the imagination of the conquistadors, like El Dorado or the Seven Cities of Cibola, can certainly be felt already in the rumors that Marco Polo transmits of the gold of Cipangu and in other medieval tales of Oriental splendor. Like the more familiar utopias of Cockaigne or Schlaraffenland, these accounts evoke dreams of plenty. Like them, they function as imaginary utopian projections in which real present problems are magically erased. However, the focus on gold and riches implies that greed and envy was never far removed from admiration in these accounts.

1625 map showing El Dorado west of lake Parime
What I’m interested in here is Utopia’s link to private greed and plunder, to extractivism and sacrificial zones. Unfortunately, Bloch pays very little attention to the conquistadors. Isn’t the barbarism of paradise-seekers relevant to him? But he does acknowledge them: “The instinctive desires for loot and for marvels here astonishingly often merged or went hand in hand” (Bloch 1995:747). Furthermore, it is “impossible to know where Eldorado ends and Eden begins” (ibid. 751). He also acknowledges that “if the impoverished hidalgos, who later so quickly turned into the white gods of murder, had not desired to see in Eden primarily the Eldorado which would make them rich overnight, then the whole search for paradise would not have had a single ship at its disposal” (ibid 773). But he still defends the utopian side of the search for geographical utopia: “The fact that... criminals like Cortez and Pizarro then penetrated into the continent beyond... this does not rob the intention pursued by Columbus of its strength and dignity” (ibid. 777). But doesn’t it? At least it robs it of its innocence.

These dreams appear to have been the utopias of merchants and adventurers rather than of common people. Unlike the utopia of Cockaigne, they expressed a desire, not so much for a life without toil as for an easy prey. Sadly, they were Utopias to be plundered rather than to build and inhabit. Rather than being shared and enjoyed by all common people, they were imagined as the reward of conquest. They had a particular affinity with colonialism, but the dream of easy riches could easily shift its object: from the gold-rush to the opportunities offered by capitalism to the ruthless “self-made” entrepreneur the victim to be plundered could variously be nature itself or fellow human beings. Common to all these versions of the Utopia is a denial of universalism: they are all premised on the existence of sacrifice zones, of people or areas worth so little that they can readily be sacrificed for the greater good of the accumulation of wealth on the part of the conqueror or the capitalist.

Today this Utopia lives on in the form of extractivism, the utopia of discovering new untapped resources such as oil or gas, or achieving some new technological breakthrough that will miraculously make new sources of energy available. Today too there is a colonialist tinge to the dream: in the fight over oil fields, in the rivalry over exclusive economic zones. Furthermore, the urge to extract is turned on society as well - pension funds, public assets to be privatized, knowledge to be turned into patents and copyrights.

From Diego Rivera's mural The arrival of Cortes
To say that there is a utopian side to this hunt for profit may sound outrageous. Still, there is something to Bloch's idea of a fusion of Eden and El Dorado. They are by no means wholly opposed to each other. It is striking how they go hand in hand, at least part of the way. The Renaissance wasn't just the feeling of dawn and morning air, Bloch's incipit vita nuova, but also the age when European capitalism and colonialism took off. The French Revolution was a bomb of utopian energies that coincided with the Industrial Revolution. The ferment of the 60's gave rise both to the upheavals of 1968 and to le nouveau esprit du capitalisme. In all these cases, it seems possible to identify on the one hand a broader longing for universal happiness and on the other a naked hunt for power and profit. Although these appear to be separate and opposed tendencies they also appear to have shared roots in a common atmosphere, characterized by youthful energies breaking with the past and a feeling of spring in the air. In this atmosphere, Eden and El Dorado may indeed have been hard to disentangle. Yet with time, the promise of gold and marvels for all shifts into the promise of new profits. A split occurs. The private greed for power and money wins out, parting ways with the residue, which becomes a mere dream of what could or should have been.


Blaut, James M. (1993) The Colonizer’s Model of the World: Geographical Diffusionism and Eurocentric History, New York: The Guilford Press.

Bloch, Ernst (1995) The Principle of Hope. Vol. 2, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Klein, Naomi (2014) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, New York: Simon & Schuster.

Pastor, Beatriz (2011) “Utopia in Latin America: Cartographies and Paradigms”, pp 29-49, in K. Beauchesne & A. Santos (eds) The Utopian Impulse in Latin America, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schmitt, Carl (2003) The Nomos of the Earth in the International Law of the Jus Publicum Europaeum, New York: Telos Press.

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