Kings of the Underworld

Mining, labor, and the incoherence of anti-extractivism

“You were being sarcastic when you said he loved the mines, weren’t you?” asked a perplexed Dick Cavett during a 1980 interview with the Hollywood Golden Age actor Richard Burton. “I didn’t know anyone could have such a … romance.”

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From the "Ten Words You Can't Say About Climate Change" Issue

Burton had just recounted to the talk-show host an anecdote about how much his older brother adored his job down a pit in Pontrhydyfen, the small coal-mining village in South Wales where the two had grown up. Despite the star’s considerable cinematic wealth, he had never been able to bribe his brother away from the pit he loved so much.

In fact, six of Burton’s brothers and his father had been miners. The eldest brother, the stubborn one, would go on to die of pneumoconiosis—black lung. His father had been the victim of an underground explosion that left him bandaged head to foot. Barely two years after Burton was born, his mother, a barmaid at The Miners Arms pub, had died of puerperal fever—an infection complicated by the ubiquity of coal dust even above ground, according to a biographer. Surely, a baffled Cavett insisted, the mines were fearful, “something to escape.”

“No, no, he really did love them,” Burton corrected, enthusing about the men’s swagger and how thrilling they found the work, how exciting. “Every little boy’s ambition in my valley was to become a miner,” he continued. “There was the arrogant strut of the lords of the coalface. One could stand on the street corners and look with hostile eyes at the posh people walking past.” The miners “would insult them with these cold looks because they” … Burton paused and then growled in his famous, honeyed baritone … “were the kings of the underworld!”

The miners’ pride in their skills—and their knowledge that every single person walking around above ground depended upon the miners’ labor deep in the Earth—certainly didn’t compensate for black lung, injuries, and tunnel collapses. Still, as Burton was trying to convince Cavett, the son of two respectably middle-class teachers, the bad had to be placed alongside the good.

Besides acting, Burton was a lifelong socialist and supporter of the Labour Party. For him, it was not mining itself that needed to be escaped, but rather, the economic and social relations surrounding the mines. That relief was provided by trade unions and the socialist political parties. They worked with considerable success to improve wages and conditions through collective bargaining, regulation, and economic planning.

From this classical left-wing point of view, extraction itself was never the problem. It could even be a boon—a driver of economic development, high wages, and strong communities. The aim should not be, could not be, to eliminate these tasks. Rather, the goal should instead be to improve the conditions of work.

Four years later, the year Burton died, the economic and social relations surrounding Britain’s coal mines, along with the work right across the economy more broadly, would change once again. The harsh response from the Margaret Thatcher government to a national strike against colliery closures would ultimately break the back of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). With the 1985 return of miners to work, having won essentially no concessions, the government believed itself to have a free hand to shutter or privatize not just coal mines but also great swathes of industry across the country—a process that many of the working-class subjects of these policies blame for the deindustrialization and economic dislocation that followed.

At the time, the left at was for the miners and against the closure of the mines—a position any leftist around the world would regard as self-evident. Given that support, it has been an astonishing turn to witness the rise of anti-extractivism among contemporary progressives. Suspicion about mining, miners, drillers, and the like are now so entrenched that Burton and his brothers and the defeated ranks of the NUM may no longer recognize the movement.

Extractivism: the original sin

Extractivism is a slippery term. It was first used in 1996 by French ethnobotanist Laure Emperaire to describe deforestation practices in Brazil. As Google Ngram Viewer—the service that tracks the frequencies of use of words in books over time—shows, the term largely disappeared after that until suddenly coming back around 2007-8, just after the release of Al Gore’s blockbuster global warming documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and coinciding with the global financial crisis that struck around the same time.

In 2014, left-wing journalist Naomi Klein’s bestseller, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” further popularized the term. Her analysis of what caused climate change centers on what she calls the extractivist mindset—the catalyst for everything that’s wrong with the world. In her telling, there can be no good extraction.

Klein argues that if extractivism has a patron saint, it is Francis Bacon, the father of empiricism and author of the first formulation of the modern scientific method. Bacon’s casting of the earth as a “machine whose mysteries could be mastered by the human mind” convinced “Britain’s elites to abandon, once and for all, pagan notions of the earth as a life-giving mother figure to whom we owe respect and reverence.” Bacon’s extractivist beliefs in a “completely knowable and controllable Earth” gave rise to the scientific and industrial revolutions and thus capitalism.

Since the publication of Klein’s book, the term extractivism has found a welcoming home within the environmental humanities academia, among NGOs, and on the green left. In these circles, the neologism may refer to the extraction of any natural resources from the land or underground, without replacement, and done in such a way that the environment is permanently transformed. However in most cases, extractivism mostly refers mainly to clear-cutting and mining—not just of rocks but also oil and gas—activities that it believes are definitionally harmful. In a recent Guardian write-up of a report from the New York-based Climate and Community Project, climate-justice reporter Nina Lakhani wrote, “Lithium mining is, like all mining, environmentally and socially harmful” [emphasis added].

To be sure, we should want any activity we humans undertake on the planet—including extraction and the uses to which its resources are put—to be as efficient as possible, using no more material and energy than necessary. We should also want it to become ever more efficient over time, ultimately achieving an absolute decoupling of resource use from sectoral economic growth. But that is different from assuming, as both the Guardian journalist and the report authors do, that extraction, and mining especially, is not something that—per Richard Burton and the strikers of the NUM—can and should be improved. Instead, per the naive belief of Dick Cavett, it is something bad from which we must surely escape.

Some anti-extractivists might counter that it is a straw man to suggest that they want to eliminate all extraction (even though this is the logical consequence of wanting to do away with extractivism); they only want to reduce the amount of extraction because of its ineluctable harms.

But that rejoinder is less than satisfying. Where the classical left critique of the anti-extractivist position would argue that so-called sacrifice zones—that is, according to Klein, the mines and the communities surrounding them that are inevitably “poisoned in the name of progress”—can be eliminated through trade union power, regulation, economic planning, and so forth, the anti-extractivist position ironically accepts that some sacrifice zones will still be necessary.


Etractivism is a term that has gained significant attention in environmentalist discourse in recent years. It refers to the economic model of resource extraction, where natural resources such as minerals, fossil fuels, or timber are extracted from the earth for export and profit. Extractivism is often characterized by the exploitation of resources by foreign companies or governments in developing countries, leading to environmental degradation, social conflict, and economic inequality.

Environmentalists argue that extractivism is harmful to the planet, ecosystems, and human communities. The extraction of natural resources often involves the destruction of forests, pollution of water sources, soil degradation, and the displacement of indigenous communities. Extractive industries can cause significant harm to the environment, resulting in the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems, and contributing to climate change through the release of greenhouse gases.

In many developing countries, extractive industries have been linked to the destruction of ecosystems and the displacement of indigenous communities. In many cases, governments have granted licenses to foreign companies for resource extraction without adequately consulting local communities, who may depend on the natural resources for their livelihoods.

Anti-extractivists discover critical minerals

However incoherent, the anti-extractivism discourse could be ignored if it remained limited to a few pop climate-crisis books and the slings and arrows of Twitter outrage. But anti-extractivism thinking dominates environmental activism and NGO spaces, and it sets the contours of the debate over environmental policy in the media and, therefore, society as a whole.

In that way, anti-extractivism poses an obstacle to decarbonization in much the same way that A) NIMBYism builds barriers to many renewables projects, and B) anti-nuclear sentiment holds back advanced nuclear innovation. It also unwittingly turns industrial labor—which tends to favor expansion of extractive industries for the good jobs that they can, in principle, deliver—into an enemy of the climate activists who oppose extraction.

This division between labor and the green left is a great shame: Trade unions with their large memberships and economic and political muscle could be one of the most powerful allies pushing for climate-industrial policy to deliver more rapid and comprehensive decarbonization.

And the problem is set to get worse. In recent years, the challenge posed by the anti-extractivists has become heightened in reaction to some of the first attempts at rigorous quantification of the scale of mined resources required for full decarbonization of the global economy—a world where there are net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by midcentury. Wind turbines, solar panels, transmission lines, and batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage, as well as the turbines, reactors, pipes, and other attendant machinery of hydroelectric dams, geothermal wells, and nuclear plants, all require a colossal volume of mineral inputs—and clean technologies are more mineral-intensive per unit of energy produced than fossil-fuel-based electricity generation technologies.

In 2020, the World Bank and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development published a first pass at a realistic accounting of the clean transition’s requirements for copper, nickel, silver, cobalt, rare earth elements, and other key resources. They concluded that under a scenario where the world’s average temperature is kept to within 2°C of warming above preindustrial times in line with the Paris Agreement, the production of graphite, lithium, and cobalt alone would need to rise by over 450% compared to 2018 levels by 2050—and that’s just minerals for energy storage technologies, totally outside of any other needs, like for the raft of information technologies, from mobile phones to laptops, those minerals also go into.

In 2021, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the U.S. Geological Survey both produced their own reports on the critical mineral requirements. The IEA document has quickly become the standard reference for any discussions of the extraction needs of climate mitigation. It concludes that keeping below 2°C would require a quadrupling of mineral requirements for clean energy technologies by 2040. An even faster decarbonization rate, enabling global net-zero emissions by midcentury, it calculates, would demand six times the current mineral inputs by 2040.

The World Bank and IEA critical mineral projections prompted a slew of national critical mineral strategies from the likes of the United States (2021) and United Kingdom (2022), but also from countries for which mining remains a large part of the economy, including Canada (2022) and Australia (2019, 2022). Those strategies have, in turn, produced pushback from environmental NGOs. In 2022, the U.S. National Wildlife Federation published its guide to the risks to wild nature posed by critical minerals, and campaigns have been launched by Greenpeace and other groups to oppose seabed mining and other new critical mineral projects, even though the former may turn out to be less resource-intensive.

A pushback to the pushback has also come in the form of the Sustainable Critical Minerals Alliance, formed in December 2022 and announced at the COP15 talks on biodiversity in Montreal. The initiative brings together mining powers Canada and Australia, with the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan, to—the allies claim—produce and buy critical minerals only from countries with strong environmental and labor standards. The public relations machines of both sides are gearing up for battle.

But the bounds of the pro vs. anti-extractivist battlefield terrain remain unclear. For sure, the IEA mining projections sound staggering, but they need to be put into context. Hannah Ritchie of Oxford University’s data visualization website, Our World in Data, recently totted up the numbers in the IEA report and compared them to the volume of mining required for fossil fuels. Fossil fuels aren’t critical and aren’t classified as minerals, and far fewer critical minerals are involved in converting them into electricity. But fossil fuels do still come out of the ground. Ritchie notes that while we currently produce 7 million tonnes of minerals for low-carbon technologies each year—a figure that will need to jump to 28 million tonnes by 2040 according to the IEA—these sums are tiny compared to the 15 billion tonnes of coal, oil, and natural gas that we extract each year.

So does this mean a clean transition would actually come with a reduction in mining? It depends on how we measure mining and its impacts.

The IEA assessment is only for critical minerals, not other less critical substances like steel and aluminum that are also needed for many clean technologies, and it only describes the mass of the final elemental product used. Additionally, the calculations do not include the overburden—the rock or soil layer that needs to be removed above the target ore—or the other rock that might be pulled out with the critical mineral. And it may require a greater number of mines to access the roughly geographically dispersed concentrations of critical minerals than the number of mines and wells needed to produce coal, oil, and natural gas—even if the final mass extracted is lower. Does a greater number of mines but a lower mass of mining outputs mean a greater overall environmental impact or a lower one?

Moreover, not all mining has the same environmental impact. In Cornwall, it dates back to 2150 B.C., and it was one of the otherwise largely rural county’s main industries from the Industrial Revolution through to the 1980s. Today, with its sandy beaches, almost Mediterranean climate, and great surfing, Cornwall’s principal industry after agriculture is tourism. The sale of quaint old stone cottages as holiday homes to wealthy Londoners can skew data describing the level of poverty there, but alongside pockets of prosperity, most wards fall within the most deprived two-fifths of England’s income distribution ranking—a product of the collapse of the mining sector and the failure of new industries with well-paying jobs to replace it.

Demand for critical minerals for the clean transition—in particular lithium mining from geothermal waters—has the county, which is home to the largest lithium supply deposit in Europe, excited about the possibility of a return of mining. And mining from these geothermal waters has a miniscule environmental impact compared to the hard-rock mining of lithium in Australia (before remediation) or the brine reservoir “salars” of Chile and Argentina.

According to a full life-cycle analysis by raw materials consultancy Minviro, measuring carbon intensity, water use, and land footprint, there are zero carbon dioxide emissions from geothermal waters compared to 15 tonnes per tonne of lithium hydroxide via hard-rock mining, or 5 tonnes at the salars. For each tonne of lithium hydroxide extracted from hard-rock mining, meanwhile, water use hits 170 cubic meters, rising to 469 cubic meters from salar brines. Geothermal waters need only 80 cubic meters. The contrast in land footprint is even starker: 464 square meters of land are needed to lift a tonne of the white gold from hard-rock mining—and an eye-popping 3,124 square meters from the salars. Lithium from Cornish geothermal waters will need just 6 square meters.

And there is no reason to presume that the working conditions and pay of the professionals and skilled & unskilled workers in a 21st-century Cornish mining operation would replicate anything close to Industrial Revolution-era mining in the United Kingdom or current labor conditions in parts of the Global South.

Beyond recycled ideas

But what about recycling—environmentalists’ favorite solution, particularly when it comes to batteries and the lithium inside them?

For one, that would bring far less opportunity in the developing world for industrialization, economic development, good jobs, and the funds that can pay for expansion of social services. In addition, even if it is right for society to desire greater re-use of materials to assist with decoupling of output from material input and to deliver greater efficiency and productivity, we should keep in mind that the tasks required to recover and recycle the materials in a product are not necessarily safer than the tasks involved in extraction.

Anti-extractivist critics appear to think mining in all locations remains stuck in a Victorian era of labor conditions, despite over a century of trade union struggle, occupational health and safety regulation, and technological advance. The reality is that in most Western countries, mine work lies far down the list of dangerous occupations. In the United States, for example, per-capita fatal work injury rates for mining lie below those for truck drivers, pilots, fishery workers, and even recycling workers. Recycling and refuse actually has one of the highest workplace fatal injury rates amongst all civilian occupations, with 27.9 such deaths per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, according to 2021 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Mining had 16.15 such deaths in 2021, according to the Mining Health and Safety Agency.

Thus, to increase the rate of recycling at the expense of mining would—in the absence of better regulations, protections, and stronger unions in the refuse and recycling sector—increase harm to workers and their communities. The anti-extractivists might respond, “But we can improve workplace safety in refuse and recycling.” They are not wrong, but why can that not happen in mining? In fact, if we look at the data, a steady improvement in working conditions in the mining sector is exactly what has happened. The workplace fatality rate in mining in the United States has ticked up slightly since the historic recorded low point of 9.77 in 2015, but it remains far lower than the recorded high point of 58.43 in 1984—the year after such rates began to be formally tracked.

And if we look at pay, we find that average annual earnings in ore mining (excluding oil and gas) in the United States hit over $90,000 (covering all occupations in the sector, according to BLS data for 2018), while workers in the waste collection sector earn $48,000 (all occupations, BLS data for 2021), and refuse and recycling collectors specifically earn an average of $43,000.

It is no wonder, then, that unlike environmental NGOs, trade unions expressly do not call for less mining, but instead recognize the opportunity that an increase in critical mineral mining potentially offers for their members and their members’ families and communities.

Crucially, industrial trade unions, naturally including mineworkers’ unions, also recognize that mineral extraction for the clean transition offers a relatively smooth Just Transition away from fossil fuel extraction, often employing many of the same skills with less need for costly and time-consuming retraining. In December, the United Steelworkers cheered on the decision by mining giant Vale to supply battery-grade nickel sulfate from Canadian mines, mills, and smelters to General Motors for its electric vehicles. Myles Sullivan, the union’s director for Ontario and Atlantic Canada, said he was “thrilled” about the GM-Vale deal that will significantly expand mining operations (while also expanding research into battery recycling). For the steelworkers, the outcome of was a clear example of the Just Transition in action: “… ensuring that workers are not left behind and sustainable work also means good-paying, family-sustaining union jobs.”

Sudbury is also a key example of how good union jobs in extraction don’t have to come at the expense of the environment. For almost a century, the city—the largest in Northern Ontario—was one of the most polluted urban areas on the continent, with the air and waters infused with the sulfur dioxide and metals released from the smelting of nickel ore. Such pollution acidified the soil, the city’s 330 local lakes, and its rain. Blackened rock replaced vegetation that could not withstand such conditions. The situation was so grim that the word “Sudbury” was used as a unit of pollution against which other cities were measured. But today, decades of strict regulation and environmental restoration have returned fish and swimmers to the lakes and produced some of the cleanest air in the province.

Contrast the Sudbury example to the United States. In January, the Laborers’ International Union of North America decried the Biden administration’s decision to impose a 20-year moratorium on underground copper-nickel mining in the Rainy River basin in Minnesota—one of the world’s largest untapped copper deposits. Biden’s move came under pressure from environmental NGOs, such as the Save the Boundary Waters campaign, which claimed that acid mine drainage from a proposed $1.7 billion project would threaten wildlife there. Both the union and the mining firm Twin Metals Minnesota reject this, saying the project can be performed safely and that the permitting framework protects the environment. “Our union is leading the way on climate action here in Minnesota, but without reliable supplies of copper, nickel and critical minerals, our climate goals will not be achievable,” said Joel Smith, the union’s president for Minnesota and North Dakota.

The union and mining firm are not unbiased observers, and Sudbury is not proof that all mining in the Global North is now environmentally benign. Illegal practices in the sector do continue to occur—as they do in all sectors—but these happen in breach of the law, not as the result of completely legal business as usual, as happened in decades past. Such legal protections need to now be won everywhere in the world, alongside the establishment of free and strong trade unions.

One is tempted to think that it is better for extraction to be restored to the Global North—in places like Sudbury, Cornwall, or Minnesota, where the practice can in principle be strictly regulated and where we have free trade unions—instead of in China, where mining is rife with slave labor; in Indonesia, where it’s executed by the overseers of Indonesia’s cartelized democracy and systemic corruption; or under the gun of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s authoritarianism, armed militias, and severe human rights abuses. But even that accepts the premise of the anti-extractivists: that mining is ineluctably abusive there and that it is impossible to win democracy, free trade unions, and good regulation in the Global South. The priority of any progressive concerned about labor rights and the environment must be less intent on boycotting the products of these countries than on offering solidarity to workers the world over.

But even if we accepted that ecologically sustainable mining is impossible—which flies in the face of the evidence that we have of a steady turn-around in mining practice in the Global North from places like Sudbury, then surely the elephant in the room is the anti-nuclear energy preference of these same anti-extractivists.

A 2023 study looking at material inputs across the board for electricity generation options, (so not just critical minerals, but this time including more common-place materials such as steel, cement, aluminum and fiberglass as well) found that nuclear had a far lower material intensity than wind, solar, and even hydroelectricity or geothermal.

A left turned upside down

If all this feels head-spinning, it should be. From the liberal center to the far left, and from NGO staffers to academics and campaigners, anti-extractivists consider themselves to be progressive. But the league of anti-miners forget that miners played a central role in the very construction of the left in the 19th century and through the 20th century in Belgium, Germany, Poland, Japan, Canada, Chile, the United States—pretty much wherever you want to look.

In Britain—the first country to industrialize—the origins of much of the left can be traced back to coal mining regions. The parliamentary leadership of the left often came from the mining sector. The very first working class MPs in the UK were all miners. The first leader of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie, was a miner. The coal-bearing Ruhr valley was Germany’s original industrial heartland and the birthplace of its labour movement. The strike movement of Asturian miners in 1934 was a major, if not the major catalyst of the Spanish Civil War—the great lost cause of the 20th Century left.

There are many reasons why, after exiting the salons of the French Revolution, the rest of the left’s origin story is to be found deep in the Earth. It was conditions in mines that radicalized laborers; it was the separation of workers underground from management above that could allow unions to grow; it was the rootedness of mining to particular ore-body locations that meant industrialists couldn’t just pick up and leave but had to stay in place, negotiate, and offer concessions to local demands.

The miners who produced most of the materials that built the modern world—that largely built the 19th- and 20th-century left as we know it—would think it strange that today, in the first decades of the 21st century, any “left” worth its name would be anti-mining or anti-extraction. And where the anti-extractivists are genuinely concerned about workers’ rights and pollution, who would be better to pay attention to than to the workers on the very front lines of such conflicts?

Richard Burton’s kings of the underworld had the correct vision in the decades and centuries past, as did the National Union of Mineworkers fighting the colliery closures of Maggie Thatcher in 1984. And the plans, policies, and demands of the likes of the United Steelworkers and LiUNA, along with their sisters and brothers in other industrial unions today, still offer the best hope for a just, clean transition and the most rapid decarbonization possible.

Let the term “extractivism” disappear from our vocabularies.