Just Sociology

Extractivism and Sacrifice Zones: The Devastating Consequences of Economic Exploitation

Nauru, a small island nation in the Pacific, provides a tragic example of what can happen when a country’s economy is based on extracting natural resources. For decades, Nauru relied primarily on phosphate mining to fuel its economic growth.

However, this approach has led to a range of disastrous consequences, including environmental degradation, poor health outcomes, and widespread corruption. In this article, we will explore the history of phosphate mining in Nauru and its impact on the island’s ecology, economy, and people.

Nauru’s Economic Growth Based on Polluting Extraction

The extraction of phosphates from Nauru’s soil provided the island with a relatively quick and easy way to generate wealth. However, this approach had suicidal results.

As the extraction process was centered on fossil fuels, it not only impacted the air pollution but also the carbon footprint of the geographical location. The extraction process resulted in the complete devastation of the island’s environment.

The destruction of the environment led to negative impacts on the physical and mental health of the people of Nauru.

History of Phosphate Mining in Nauru

Phosphate mining’s history began in Nauru with the colonial rulers. At the time, Nauru was under Australian, British, and New Zealand rule, and exportation was necessary to pay back a loan from the then League of Nations.

The extraction of phosphate from the island began in 1906, continually. As the global industrial agriculture boomed, so did the demand for phosphate in fertilizers, and Nauru became a critical supplier of this commodity.

This extractive practice required the entire sacrifice of the physical environment of the island through the excavation of the land. Nauru’s Failed Attempt to Rehabilitate its Ecology

Phosphate mining proved so lucrative that it was difficult to wean Nauru’s economy from it.

Despite good intentions, Nauru’s leaders failed to invest sufficient resources in sustainable and eco-friendly alternatives. In the 1960s, the island began to set aside some of its mining profits for the creation of a trust fund, which was meant to provide a buffer against the inevitable depletion of phosphate reserves.

However, the trust fund was poorly managed and suffered from bad investment advice, leading to a loss of much of the island’s wealth. Consequences of Mining on Nauru’s People and Island

The extensive and careless mining of phosphate had severe consequences on the environment, leading to the formation of underground caverns, sea-level rise, and coastal erosion.

As a result, much of Nauru’s land is now uninhabitable, and the island has become hollowed out, with limited options for the growth of agriculture, communities or renewable energy generation. Additionally, mining left a lasting impact on the people of Nauru, with economic mismanagement and corruption leading to widespread poverty, high rates of obesity, and a range of other health problems.

Extractivism and Sacrifice Zones

Extractivism as a Non-reciprocal, Dominance-based Relationship with the Earth

In general, extractivism refers to a relationship with the earth that is largely based on taking, rather than on holistic or mutually beneficial stewardship. It is a non-reciprocal relationship as it is one-sided, where benefits flow out, including industrialization, financial profit, and livelihood security for some, while the extraction which occurred most commonly is the depletion of natural resources and the degradation of the planet.

Extractivism does not respect the natural cycles and limits of ecosystems, leading to the exploitation of those very resources that provide life to both humans and the natural world.

Sacrifice Zones and their Connection to Extractivism

The term “sacrifice zone” refers to those geographical zones or regions that have been poisoned, destroyed, or otherwise negatively impacted by extractive practices. Sacrifice zones are often exploited areas with large fossil-fuel or mineral resources potential, where the extraction results in considerable ecological destruction and social destabilization.

They are typically home to communities that are marginalized or lacking political power, with their properties and health put at risk by extractive activities. In many cases, “sacrifice” might be more accurately described as “sacrificed” as communities are exploited without receiving appropriate economic or environmental benefits.


In conclusion, the story of Nauru highlights the dangers of relying on extractive practices for economic growth. Despite a wealth of natural resources, Nauru was unable to translate this into sustainable economic development, and instead was left with a depleted, hollowed-out island and a range of ongoing health and economic problems.

The case of Nauru highlights the importance of eco-friendly and sustainable economic practices that ensure the protection of natural resources and benefits shared equally amongst all stakeholders involved. Additionally, extractivism and sacrifice zones have become prevalent globally, driving environmental concerns as well as equity and social justice issues.

It is essential to recognize that exploring alternative paths to resource management is a pressing need, and determining chances to work towards this goal is central to addressing the challenges of the current economic system. Extractivism in the Global EconomyExtractivism is a term used to describe the exploitative approach that dominant economic systems have in regards to natural resources.

While economic progress is necessary, this kind of “progress” can often result in environmental destruction as well as social and human right violations. This article expands on the concept of extractivism, discussing its connection to colonialism and modernity with the impact of leftist movements in Latin America.

Additionally, it will explore the challenges that mainstream Green Movement faces in opposing the extractivist model through suggestions such as big tech solutions and consume less. Finally, this article will highlight the importance of global grassroots movements as well as the role of Scandinavian social-democratic models in promoting a more sustainable future.

Extractivism’s Role in the History of Modernity and Colonialism

The late 20th century saw a rise of neoliberalism, an ideology that favors free market capitalism and the privatization of natural resources. This view dominates global economic policy-making, creating economic models that promote the commodification of natural resources.

In many ways, neoliberalism echoes previous models of economic exploitation employed during the colonial period. The extraction of resources from underdeveloped countries by developed countries was a significant aspect of colonialism.

The rise of modernity has also been related to the exploitation of natural and human resources through the encouragement of capitalism. Leftist movements in Latin America have been integral in challenging and destabilizing decades-long economic models that favored extractivism.

In countries like Bolivia and Venezuela, democratic socialist governments have taken steps to move away from the colonial and neoliberal economic models. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s former president, promoted indigenous rights and called for the returning the land to indigenous communities, which saw an increase in environmental justice but also faced backlash from the government and corporations.

Challenges to Mainstream Green Movement’s Failure to Challenge Extractivist Model

While environmental conservation has become a salient issue for many people, mainstream environmental organizations have not been as effective in challenging the status quo. Often, solutions presented by mainstream organizations rely on the amplification of big tech solutions or advocating for strategies such as “consume less.” Big tech solutions, like renewable energy, may help mitigate the effects of extractivism but do not address the root cause of the problem.

Consumption habits may take center stage in some talks and campaigns, however, it does not seem effective as consumption solely doesn’t provide a solution to the profound problem. The extractivist model is upheld by powerful figures in government and corporations, making it difficult for most people to enact responsible changes in consumer habits alone.

These models require huge infrastructure, established socio-political and economic practices. For large breakthroughs, a systemic change is necessary, which includes rethinking the dichotomy between environmentalism and capitalism.

Hope for a Sustainable Future Lies in Scandinavian Social-Democratic Models and Global Grassroots Movements

The model of Nordic countries, like Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, can be an aspirational point for sustainable living. The concept of social democracy, integrating economic, as well as social and civic equality forms a strong foundation for progressive policies.

The Nordic countries have demonstrated their commitment to sustainability by establishing and investing in green technologies, and promoting communal and public ownership of natural resources. While policy-making is necessary for the sustainable goal, human organization at the international level makes a significant difference.

Prominent figures like Naomi Klein posit that today’s movements have to engage in dissent beyond a single issue or location, primarily as a worldwide activism. Grassroots and indigenous-led movements across the globe speak of an environment based on reciprocity, balance, and respect for biodiverse systems, challenging the exploitation of natural resources, the dominance of the extractive economy, and the neoliberal development model that oppress disadvantaged communities.


Extractivism continues to perpetuate social and environmental injustices on a global scale. It is rooted in the history of colonialism, modernity, and the rise of neoliberalism.

Mainstream green movements often fail to present viable alternatives beyond big tech solutions and personal-consumption adjustments. The change that is necessary to create a sustainable future that respects natural resources and human rights is systemic and requires a more equitable, just, and socially democratic approach.

Involvement of grassroots movements and indigenous knowledge, along with political will at the macro-level, can build a pivotal ground for this desired transformation.


In conclusion, this article highlights the devastating consequences of extractivism on countries such as Nauru where extractive practices have depleted natural resources, damaged the environment and resulted in human rights abuses. Additionally, the article explores the role of extractivism in modernity and its connection to colonialism with the emergence of democratic socialist movements.

Furthermore, the article discusses the challenges faced by mainstream environmental organizations in challenging the extractivist model and the need for global grassroots movements and sustainable policy-making exemplified by the Nordic countries. Ultimately, a systemic change is required to ensure a more sustainable future.


Q: What is extractivism? A: Extractivism refers to an exploitative approach that dominant economic systems have in regards to natural resources that leads to environmental destruction, human rights abuses, and social injustices.

Q: How is extractivism connected to colonialism and modernity? A: Extractivism echoes previous models of economic exploitation employed during the colonial period whereby underdeveloped countries were exploited.

The rise of modernity has also been related to the exploitation of natural and human resources through the encouragement of capitalism. Q: What is the role of the Green Movement in opposing extractivism?

A: The Green Movement has failed to challenge the extractivist model. Commonly presented solutions such as big tech solutions or “consume less” do not address the root cause of the problem and require systemic change.

Q: Are there examples of sustainable models of development? A: Denmark, Sweden, and Norway’s social democracy models provide a foundation for progressive policies that promote communal and public ownership of resources and investment in green technologies.

Q: What role do global grassroots movements play in creating a sustainable future? A: Global grassroots movements based on indigenous knowledge and principles, challenging the exploitation of natural resources, and the neoliberal development model, can build a pivotal ground for transformative sustainability.

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