Neoliberal Extractivism of the Global South

By Dr Aiman Khattak

The Global South has mostly been a site of extraction for the Global North, extraction of wealth, extraction of natural resources, extraction of knowledges, extraction of labour and extraction of cultivated commodities. On the pretext of the ‘civilizing mission’, the North went into the South to carry out such extractions by coercive measures during colonial times between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries. Colonialism in its original sense may have ended with the independence of all former colonies after World War II, but the legacies of such extractivist colonialism persist to this day in the form of capitalistic expansionism of neo-liberalism. As prosperous countries in the North stabilize their economies with the help of their neoliberal policies of economic growth, the South is exploited during this process. Resources and labour are bought cheap from the Global South, duly processed, and sold at high prices in the North or back in the South. Transnational corporations (TNCs) largely controlled by the Global North and operating at various locations in the Global South, are a perfect example of such neoliberal extractivism prevalent today. This is relevant to highlight here specifically in terms of the dual harm caused by TNCs in the South: first, resource extraction, and second, environmental pollution.

Being a commodity frontier (i.e. a site of extraction) to the North, the South therefore loses out both in terms of its resources and its economy. The different forms of neo-liberal extraction create and maintain a divide between the Global North and the Global South, thereby causing harm to the natural environment we all share together, including human as well as non-human life. The natural environment is reduced to the commodity form, a basic understanding of which I draw from nineteenth century Marxist theories which state the commodity as something that can be bought and sold in the marketplace. Amidst this process, just like the use-and-throw-away culture of consumerism, the natural environment is also gradually considered as something that can be used, exploited, and then discarded or abandoned. Whatever harm is caused to the environment as a result is left unquestioned. The perception of the environment as a commodity is therefore embedded in the neoliberal capitalist culture. This, I think, has become a pressing concern for inhabitants of the Global South, but ultimately for those in the North as well, due to the largescale impact it has on our shared planet in terms of global warming, bio-diversity loss, extinction of animal species, and land and water degradation. A large proportion among those in the South are lower-middle class people struggling to find basic necessities of life, and those struggles often do not allow their thinking to go beyond their own individualised problems. Even if their thoughts do reach out to such concerns, they do not find the right kind of space and resources to materialise their concerns.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

At the interface of neoliberal expansionism and the commodification of natural environments in the Global South, I think people at the grassroots of the society have to be mobilized. To counter and diminish the effects of neoliberal environmental degradation, work needs to be done to make people ‘think’ green and also ‘act’ green. They can do this by shirking consumer throw-away culture where possible, by carrying out recycling procedures, and by reducing their individual shares of bio-degradable waste in whatever manner they can. On a broader level, they need to resist the onslaught of neoliberal extractivism by involving in fair procedures of trade and bringing its adverse environmental effects to a minimum. This type of a concern has to be shared by the stakeholders of the neoliberal extractivist agenda, like the TNCs, and the inhabitants of the Global South, equally. Being aware of the livelihoods of people being associated with neoliberal trade, I suggest that comparatively just procedures have to be designed and promulgated surrounding neoliberal extractivism so as to minimize its adverse impact on natural environments in the Global South, which are ultimately tied to those in the North, in the planet we all share. 

These ‘shared’ environmental problems posed by neoliberal extractivism that I highlight here need to be addressed both from within the Global South and the Global North. However, considering the fact that the North is largely in charge of all the policy-making and implementing, it has an upper-hand in this process and needs to put in its share accordingly. We all owe this much to the planet earth which is kind enough to house us all impartially and equitably—a characteristic which neither neoliberal extractivism nor its drivers and victims share with it at present.

Dr Aiman Khattak

Aiman has completed her PhD at the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick. She has worked on Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani literatures in relation to theories of empire and biopolitics to investigate the conflict in these regions. 

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