*** English Translation ***

Mining infinity: Extractivism’s Final Frontier

di Peter Bloom, Alberto Acosta

We publish the English translation of the important article by Peter Bloom and Alberto Acosta, which we already published some time ago in Italian.     

"what is problematic about extraterrestrial imperialism is that it will increase economic inequalities between the Earth’s nations by giving inequitable access to, what may eventually be, significant amounts of resources"

Alan Marshall3

The search for natural resources has not ceased. On the contrary, in the midst of the pandemic, extractivist pressures have grown. As physical limits appear with increasing clarity and social resistance multiplies, both representing the emergence of potentially insurmountable barriers, capitalism is raising its gaze to the heavens and the mineral resources of outer space. In order to encourage discussion on this issue, which certainly merits deeper analysis and wider debate, we begin by asking: why do we want more minerals on Earth, and who will really benefit from their increased supply? Are we going to create a more just and sustainable world as a result of space-based extractivism? Will the possibility of obtaining resources in space open the door to a more responsible management of resources on Earth?

Conquest, colonization and imperialism at the heart of extractivism

Rosa Luxemburg, renowned German economist of Polish origin, during the height of imperialist expansion, affirmed that capitalism could not survive without "non-capitalist" economies; that is, without colonies to be conquered for exploitation. In her book The Accumulation of Capital (1913)4, she explored the spatial and geographical elements of the capitalist system and how these encourage conflicts of all kinds in order to ensure the control of territories and their natural wealth.

When Luxemburg published her book, humanity could not have anticipated a series of technological advances and other tendencies, especially in the financial sphere, which have been expanding the frontiers of capitalist exploitation. Decades after classical imperialism, another phase of neo-imperialist expansion began, in which control of territories and their resources, including labor, came to be obtained by more subtle means, for example, through foreign investment or, later, through free trade agreements under the guise of “development”.

The sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman (2012), in describing what is happening currently, widened Rosa's horizon. For, as we can see today, it is increasingly difficult to find ‘virgin’ or untouched territories where capitalism’s logic is not already present, and therefore has sought to expand its orbit of influence and accumulation by other means. Thus Bauman notes that:

What has happened in the last half a century or so is capitalism learning the previously unknown and unimagined art of producing ever new "virgin lands", instead of limiting its rapacity to the set of the already existing ones. That new art – made possible by the shift from the "society of producers" to the "society of consumers", and from the meeting of capital and labour to the meeting of commodity and client as the principal source of "added value" – profit and accumulation consists mostly of the progressive commodification of life functions, market mediation in successive needs' satisfaction and substituting desire for need in the role of the fly-wheel of the profit-aimed economy.5

Here Bauman refers to those relatively new nooks and crannies, such as pension funds and credit cards, created so that financial capitalism can continue to accumulate without the need to expand spatially into new areas.

While this is happening on the finance side, we can also see how capitalism is simultaneously expanding the commodification of many areas of nature, incorporating into its logic of accumulation new carbon markets6 and environmental services, to name just a couple recent realms of expansion. In other words, forest conservation is being subsumed into the realm of business. Air, water and the Earth itself are being commodified and privatized.

In addition to the exploitation of labor, surplus value and wealth are being produced through the commodification of Nature (natural resources, environmental services, etc.), under the guise of progress and development characterized by materialism and ceaseless accumulation. Thus, as José Manuel Naredo notes, "the metaphor of production (and the undisputed goal of growth) underpins the linear vision of history governed by progress".7 Problematically, in this ideological scenario extractivism is erroneously identified as a productive activity while nevertheless acting as a fundamental source of financing to achieve the goals of linear development. So, as many economists and politicians insist, to deny or resist extractivism is to close the doors to progress and "development".

The weakening of outer space as a commons

When Rosa Luxemburg wrote her acclaimed book, it was not generally thought possible that human beings could reach beyond the limits of the planet, and only those with brilliant minds and imaginations, such as Jules Verne, posited otherwise.8 Now, after more than 100 years of scientific advancements (and unabated greed), the infinite immensity of space and its untapped resources are closer than ever.

Capitalism, demonstrating its astonishing and perverse ingenuity to seek and find new spaces for exploitation, in a renewed expansionist effort, is preparing to obtain mineral resources outside the limits of our planet and even to create new extraterrestrial colonies. We can now affirm that the commodifying logic of capitalism has set its sights on the Universe, in an attempt to neoliberalize it.

The extractivist gaze has begun to focus on space, to the extent that the possibilities of exploiting mineral deposits on Earth are declining and access to them is becoming increasingly complex, due to technological and environmental limitations, along with growing social resistance. Space represents a sort of terra nullius9 where whoever arrives first assumes sovereignty over these new territories and takes what can be had. Through these means are ensured - as in other epochs - new possibilities of capital accumulation outside the Earth and, therefore, a mechanism to avoid the stagnation of the capitalist system itself due to crises of overaccumulation.10

A useful concept for understanding this evolution of accumulation modes and strategies is the spatial fix, a term developed by geographer David Harvey, which refers to the process in which “Capital creates a geographical landscape that meets its needs.”11 This strategy is employed to alleviate the threat of over-accumulation and stagnation by moving capital or labor to a different territory or area of the economy. In this case literally to Outer Space. Taking advantage of enormous investments, especially by the State, in the development of new space technologies – with the secondary role of absorbing surplus capital - many possibilities for accumulation have recently appeared through innumerable technological innovations and communication services in space, to which might soon be added the exploitation of mineral deposits and the colonization of planets.12

Space exploration, or the “race for space” from its origins with the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 with few exceptions, has taken place on relatively peaceful, even collaborative, terms between the various superpowers involved. From its beginnings, and despite the context of the Cold War, the endeavor for space has been characterized by a sort of pacifism agreed upon between the great powers. This effort was ratified in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which prohibits the placement of massive weaponry in space and the national appropriation of celestial objects, territories or resources, as these are considered the common heritage of mankind.13

Notwithstanding, all signs point to a new reality:

Communism in space was a possibility only so long as space was materially inaccessible to capitalistkind: as space becomes a probable site of profitable ventures, the Outer Space Treaty’s proto-communism must falter and fade away.14

The militarization of space

Space has had, and continues to have, geo-strategic military importance. The hundreds of military satellites in orbit serve to control the Earth from their privileged place of observation. However, at present, a further step is being taken: the militarization of space itself is advancing in order to exert control there as opposed to only on Earth.

In recent decades, as the ability to explore beyond our planet has evolved, national security and commercial interests in outer space have converged to the point where they are now almost indistinguishable. In the United States, for example, private space launch companies, such as SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, are the beneficiaries of huge government contracts and now provide the lion's share of U.S. launch capability for both scientific and military missions. While close ties between the defense and aerospace industries are nothing new, we are in a decidedly new phase of this relationship due to technological advances, new policy priorities and the rise of serious commercial players.

There is plenty of evidence of the intertwining of public and private interests, evidenced by both facts and political pronouncements. For example, in 2020, then U.S. President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order called Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources15. In this order the President proclaimed that the United States "does not view outer space as common property" and called the 1979 Moon Treaty (never ratified by the U.S.) "a failed attempt to restrict free enterprise." During the Trump administration the U.S. took a further step in the renewed path toward the conquest of space by creating a new military command: the Space Force.

There is a need to better understand the deep ties of new space companies to the hegemonic designs of the most powerful states in space. Recently, in exchange for $28 million dollars, SpaceX's Starlink provided the services of its satellites to the U.S. Air Force for a live-fire demo test of its Advanced Battle Management System, an important step towards the creation of a military Internet-of-Things.16 SpaceX's connections to the military-industrial complex were made crystal clear in comments by it's CEO, Gwynne Shotwell, who stated in 2018 that the company would be willing, in contravention of existing space treaties, to launch a space weapon to protect the United States.17 Further proof came in 2020, when SpaceX signed a contract with the Pentagon to jointly develop a rocket capable of carrying up to 80 tons of cargo and weaponry anywhere in the world in as little as one hour.18

Space minerals in the crosshairs of the State and Capital

The erosion of space as a commons, and the weakening of its largely peaceful status, is directly related to a new space race based on a recognition of the enormous value of space mineral resources and the growing technological capacity to extract them.19 Although today, for example, it would not be profitable to extract extraterrestrial mineral resources or to establish human settlements on the Moon or Mars, such a possibility is not far off.

At present, global powers such as the United States, Russia and recently China are competing to see who will dominate this all-important leg of the space race, ultimately becoming the colonial hegemon of the void...unless, that is, Humanity encounters alien civilizations in the Universe with other ideas.

As recent news and information make it clear, the possibility of opening mining activities in space is no longer an exercise in science fiction.20 The arguments underpinning this endeavor have been well summarized by Elizabeth Steyn in an article in The Conversation21:

The need for a net-zero carbon economy requires a surge in the supply of non-renewable natural resources such as battery metals. This forms the background to a new space race involving nations and the private sector.

According to Steyn, in order for space-based extractivism to work, four aspects have to be considered: “security of tenure, the fiscal regime, the bankability of the project and the project’s feasibility." In other words, the profit motive is ever present as these efforts demand new technological advances and thereby large amounts of investment which eventually must be recouped. In relation to the first aspect mentioned by Steyn, tenure, i.e. ownership, the importance is fairly obvious. It is crucial for space miners to have sufficient clarity and security of ownership of the things they extract. As such, there are recent multilateral and national efforts to frame space resources within a new ownership regime.

Among these efforts the standout is NASA's Artemis Accords, which already has the support of twelve other nations and proposes that “the ability to extract and utilize resources on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids will be critical to support safe and sustainable space exploration and development. The Artemis Accords reinforce that space resource extraction and utilization can and will be conducted under the auspices of the Outer Space Treaty.”22 While the Artemis Accords are a multinational approach, national authorities have also sought to create favorable regimes. For example, similar to the US, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates, Japan's parliament has just ratified a new law granting Japanese companies permission to prospect for, extract and utilize various space resources, provided they first obtain permission from the Japanese government.23

Another task that is already beginning to gain momentum is "asteroid mining", where, in addition to the potential extraction of titanium, nickel, cobalt and other minerals, oxygen and nitrogen are expected to be obtained. This also involves the exploitation of frozen water, which would make it possible to create hydrogen fuel deposits on human-built satellites and/or other celestial bodies colonized by humans, an indispensable step for expanding the galactic zone of influence.24 The issue of inter-space transportation is crucial in these extractivist adventures, similar to the conquest of the globe by maritime powers in past centuries.

Whatever ends up happening, the underlying idea is that the gigantic costs of these projects will be offset by the enormous value of the resources obtained, with few if any restrictions, similar to what happened when territories in America and Africa were opened for colonization. One potential unintended consequence of this reasoning is a scenario in which the introduction of a massive quantity of minerals could create a glut of supply and put downward pressure on prices, eventually favoring greater consumption on Earth and perhaps even making the whole venture unprofitable.

Beyond our capacity to imagine different future scenarios of how space-based extractivism will work, all signs indicate that the current dominant vision will be reaffirmed: seeing outer space - Nature in short - as a mere supplier of inputs, without much concern for its particular metabolic and vital processes, all with a view to its domination and transformation according to the demands of capital on Earth. Moving extractive activities off-planet could perhaps solve, through the distance at which the areas to be exploited are located, some of the problems related to environmental destruction caused by terrestrial extractivism.25 And they could certainly be examined as a fundamental strategy toward creating a "green" economy, although nothing more than a modernized version of the current economy but one in which the commodification of nature provides a shallow and illusory way to address serious ecological and social problems, while avoiding the true cause: civilization under capitalism.

Let's go a step further and look at how space mining could aggravate or worsen current issues. First, it further entrenches a "civilization of waste"26, as the Earth would remain a repository for refuse and pollution.27 Not only that, but orbital space itself will continue to store and circulate debris, creating a potential domino effect known as the Kessler Effect: as the number of objects in orbit grows and accumulates, the risk of cascading collisions becomes greater, which would multiply accidents and create yet more debris.28 As an example of this, recall events from 2019 when India launched a missile towards a satellite of theirs in Earth orbit and destroyed it, creating thousands of pieces of debris, large and small, that remain in orbit to this day.

Galactic terrestrials, a new class empowered by technology

The illusion generated by extra-orbital space mining would be better explained if we accept that in large segments of the planet's population, starting with those in power, a kind of extractivist DNA has developed that not only limits the possibility of a broad and serious debate on these issues, but rather enthusiastically prepares itself to profit from the conquest and colonization of space. Space mining, controlled by transnational powers - large corporations and governments of the richest countries - will reinforce the logics of accumulation and exclusion; that is, the centripetal and centrifugal forces of capitalist globalization that keep wealth and technological advances concentrated in a few segments of the world population, all while billions of human beings remain structurally marginalized. We can already see the emergence of a new, privileged group around the control of these extractive activities in space, a new class of galactic earthlings, with the consequent marginalization of the majority of the planet's inhabitants.

This distorted vision is sustained by the voracity of capitalist accumulation, and is legitimized by the firm and dogmatic belief in science and technology as all-powerful, along with their strategic use by elites. In everyday life, many technological "advances" supplant the labor force - whether in physical or cognitive terms - rendering many workers obsolete, as well as excluding or displacing those who cannot access the technology, serving to redefine the meaning of work itself. Human beings end up as mere tools for machines, when the relationship should be the reverse. From this perspective, in order for there to be another technology that includes people in work and, above all, to ensure a dignified life, instead of excluding them, it is necessary to transform the conditions and social relations of production.

Let us remember that in every technology there is inscribed a "social form", which implies a way of relating to one another and of constructing and defining ourselves. Likewise, we should keep in mind that not all of humanity benefits from technological advances, since several of these generate renewed forms of inequality and exploitation, as well as alienation, a subject that deserves much deeper reflection.

Reflections on scenarios of resistance

At present, everything indicates that unlimited material growth could culminate in collective, societal suicide. Just look at the effects of further warming of the atmosphere, the loss of fresh water sources, the erosion of agricultural and wild biodiversity, the degradation of soils or the accelerated disappearance of living spaces of local communities, and ever-increasing and more destructive hurricanes. Introducing more minerals from space would not alter this cyclical process of ceaseless accumulation/destruction, rather it would maintain -literally from on high- the civilization of capital that drives the mechanistic and endless material accumulation of goods, rooted in and sustained by the indiscriminate exploitation of Nature.

In addition, taking extractivism to space will not help to avoid many of the harmful effects of mining and extractivism on Earth. Its consequences - or "spillover effects", as Eduardo Gudynas29 calls them - would continue and in some cases increase. These "spillovers", which go far beyond environmental issues, occur in various fields: judicial, political, economic and cultural. In fact, we can already see how the logic of colonization is beginning to reappear with force through an exploration of the new laws and treaties mentioned earlier in this piece. Furthermore, it is fairly clear how the rent-seeking tendencies and clientelistic practices associated with traditional mining could extend to its off-Earth version. And, above all, the authoritarian logics that are indispensable to consolidate the economic-political powers necessary for the expansion of celestial mining would be another constraint to the promotion of democratic and equitable societies.

It is not only a matter of analyzing how the comparatively scarce supply of certain minerals on Earth is pushing extractivism beyond Earth’s biophysical limits, nor only of understanding what new markets would mean for the colonial bases in space henceforth established, which will undoubtedly require a great quantity of inputs to sustain, and increasingly new technologies, which, for the time being, serve moreto sustain the domination rather than the emancipation of humanity. What we must bear in mind is that the geopolitical control of space will demand more State, corporate and military power, which will be characterized by greater control and domination within the Earth itself, reforging the links of power between these imperialist tendencies and broad-spectrum militarisms, similar to those which are so useful for sustaining extractivism today.30

By means of conclunding this initial iniquiry, which constitutes an attempt to provoke debate on these issues, it is essential to overcome the trap into which many critics of the system have fallen; those who only focus their attention on the control of the exploitation of these resources by the State, and not on the exploitation itself. The point is not whether extractivism benefits more national or transnational capital or government coffers - which often end up forming a single amalgam - the point is rther that the accumulation of capital per se is inadmissible to the extent that it denatures Nature - whether on Earth or on the Moon - and dehumanizes Humanity itself.

Therefore, the great task at hand is to continue to broaden the struggles of resistance from which to build upon all the indispensable alternatives that make up the Pluriverse.31


1 Peter Bloom: US-born activist residing in Mexico. Founder and general coordinator of Rhizomatica, an organization dedicated to reimagining new technologies in community contexts. Researcher at the Centro de Investigación en Tecnologías y Saberes Comunitarios (CITSAC).

2 Alberto Acosta: Ecuadorian economist. Partner in the struggles of various social movements. Retired university professor. Ex-Minister of Energy and Mines (2007). Ex-President of the Constituent Assembly (2007-2008). Author of several books.

3Alan Marshall (1995); Development and imperialism in space. Space Policy 1995 11(1) 41-52. Elsevier Scicne Limited. UK.

4Rosa Luxemburg (1968). The accumulation of capital. New York: Monthly Review Press.

5Bauman, Zygmunt (2011). “Capitalism has learned to create host organisms”. Guardian Comment Network. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/18/capitalism-parasite-hosts

6 Larry Lohmann (2011). The endless algebra of climate markets. Capitalism Nature Socialism.

7 See, in Spanish, José Manuel Naredo (2018); “La ideología económica en la historia y el medio ambiente - Claves para un cambio de paradigma”. Available at: http://elrincondenaredo.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/LA-IDEOLOG%C3%8DA-ECON%C3%93MICA-EN-LA-HISTORIA-Y-EL-MEDIO-AMBIENTEcor.pdf.

8Jules Verne (1874). From the earth to the moon. Scribner, Armstrong and Company. New York.

9Latin expression that was widely used in times of classical imperialism and that served to denominate the territories that were being conquered, while brutally ignoring the existence of the original inhabitants. A reality that is still in force as the frontiers of extractivism expand..

10 Sometimes the chaos of competition pressures capitalists to accumulate capital and increase production beyond the consumption capacities of the markets (especially if wages are low). When this tendency becomes generalized, over-accumulation provokes crises due to imbalances in the productive sectors and a contraction of their rates of profit. And if the rates of profit fall below a level "adequate" for the capitalists, they disinvest their capital in production (moving it towards speculation, for example), which can generate new crises and accentuate the already existing ones. Therefore, one of the causes of the cyclical crises of capitalism can be found here.

11Harvey, David. (2001) 'Globalization and the "spatial fix"', Geographische Revue, 2, 23-30.

12 See Victor L. Shammas, Tomas B. Holen (2018) One giant leap for capitalistkind: private enterprise in outer space. Available from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-019-0218-9

13 The offical name is the “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”. Available at https://www.unoosa.org/pdf/publications/STSPACE11S.pdf

14 See Victor L. Shammas, Tomas B. Holen (2018); One giant leap for capitalistkind: private enterprise in outer space

15Available at https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-encouraging-international-support-recovery-use-space-resources/




19 It should be borne in mind the growing link that exists between extractivisms and technologies: Pablo Gámez-Cersosimo, La hermandad de la industria tecnológica y la minería a cielo abierto, 30 de junio 2020. Available at: https://www.ocmal.org/la-hermandad-de-la-industria-tecnologica-y-la-mineria-a-cielo-abierto/ A relationship that has been present for more than 500 years, as reviewed in a magnificent book: Horacio Machado Araoz (2019); Potosí, el origen – Genealogía de la minería contemporánea. Serie Debate Constituyente, editores Alberto Acosta y Esperanza Maartínez, Abya-Yala, Quito. Available at: https://rosalux.org.ec/pdfs/Potosi-el-origen.pdf.

20The list of press articles on the subject is growing rapidly. Let us mention as an example: La minería espacial ya no es ciencia ficción, disponible en https://www.rcinet.ca/es/2021/04/09/mineria-espacial-ciencia-ficcion-outer-space-mining-treaty-canada-international/ o Minería Espacial: La ambición de Trump por nuevos recursos, Available at: https://www.reporteminero.cl/noticia/reportajes/2020/04/mineria-espacial-la-ambicion-de-trump-por-nuevos-recursos

21Space mining is not science fiction, and Canada could figure prominently, 4 de abril 2021. Disponible en https://theconversation.com/space-mining-is-not-science-fiction-and-canada-could-figure-prominently-155855

22The Artemis Accords cover a range of topics, including a clear position with regards to resource extraction. They can be consulted at https://www.nasa.gov/specials/artemis-accords



25 See Eduardo Gudynas’ forthcoming book, Extractivisms: Politics, Economy and Ecology fromFernwood Publishing. Similar texts can be found in Spanish by the same author i.e. (2015). Extractivismos. Ecología, economía y política de un modo de entender el desarrollo y la Naturaleza. CEDIB y CLAES, Cochabamba (Bolivia). Available at: http://gudynas.com/wp-content/uploads/GudynasExtractivismosEcologiaPoliticaBo15Anuncio.pdf

26See, in Spanish, Jürgen Schuldt (2013); Civilización del Desperdidico Psicoeconomía del consumidor, Universidad del Pacífico, Lima. Available at: https://repositorio.up.edu.pe/bitstream/handle/11354/956/SchuldtJ%C3%Bcrgen2013.pdf?sequence=5&isAllowed=y.

27See Teresa Pultarova (2021) Air pollution from reentering megaconstellation satellites could cause ozone hole 2.0. Available at: https://www.space.com/starlink-satellite-reentry-ozone-depletion-atmosphere

28 See Aaron C. Boley, Michael Byers (2021); Satellite mega-constellations create risks in Low Earth Orbit, the atmosphere and on Earth. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-89909-7#Sec7

29 Ibid.

30See Raúl Zibechi (2021); Militarization, the highest phase of extractivism. Available at: https://chiapas-support.org/2021/04/02/militarization-the-highest-phase-of-extractivism/

31 Kothari, Ashish; Salleh, Ariel; Escobar, Arturo; Demaria, Federico; Acosta, Alberto: editores (2019); Pluriverse – A Post-Development Dictionary, Tulika Books, India. Available at: https://www.radicalecologicaldemocracy.org/pluriverse/



18 settembre 2021 (pubblicato qui il 19 settembre 2021)