Describing Exploitative and Extractive Systems

As outlined in previous articles, exploitation is taking advantage of someone’s vulnerabilities. Those vulnerabilities come from fundamental needs (economical, physiological, social) and create desperation. Specifically, deriving benefit from another’s desperation is exploitation even if the person willingly participates in an exploitative relationship/exchange.

Now, we will extend our definition of exploitation to systems.

An exploitative system is a system of laws and policies that permit and protect exploitation, such as through prolonged open loopholes or legalization.

As such, the system may create vulnerabilities that are then exploited or participate directly in the exploitation. Moreover, the creation of a new system may fail to address vulnerabilities that existed beforehand.

Before defining extractive systems, we must define extraction in the proper context.

Extraction, as we will employ it, is: unsustainably taking resources without consent, either because the other party cannot provide consent—such as the environment—or consent was not given.

An important variation from the dictionary definition of extraction is best understood through the following example:

Using a simplified model of the coal industry, first, coal is extracted from an underground reservoir (NEED Project). This is the most familiar idea of extraction, known as the extraction of raw materials (NASA).

During electricity generation, coal is burned, releasing poisonous gases, SOx (sox), NOx (nox), and particulate matter. Likewise, the coal industry as a whole releases greenhouse gases, such as methane and carbon dioxide (NEED Project; EIA). While the Clean Air and Water Acts in the U.S. now regulate these emissions, air quality has never been the same (Niranjan). This impact on air quality is known as an externality, a social cost that is not paid for by the coal industry or the purchase of the product (Kenton).

However, an extraction exists here: the extraction of clean air, which is necessarily unsustainable as the rate of emissions exceeds the rate of removal. In turn, people suffer the health and environmental impacts of air pollution, and this extraction of clean air is being paid for by somebody who most likely did not agree to incur such expenses. For example, a person with asthma may have medical expenses or taxpayer money may fund carbon capture technologies to remove carbon from the air. And often, low-income and ethnic minorities disproportionately bear the weight of air pollution without consenting to such burdens or being fairly responsible for it (Chalbi). Here, we see an extraction of money from communities to alleviate the impact of or solve the negative externality of air pollution.

As such, an extractive system is a system of laws and policies that permit and protect extraction. The system may participate directly in the extraction, such as the extraction of labor from prisons, or permit extraction, such as providing mineral rights for fracking operations.


Work Cited

  1. Chalabi, Mona. “Minorities in the US Breathe in More Air Pollution Caused by White People.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 June 2019,

  2. Niranjan, Ajit. “The History and Future of Coal, Explained.” YouTube, uploaded by DW Planet A, 19 Feb. 2021,

  3. EIA. “U.S. Energy Information Administration - EIA - Independent Statistics and Analysis.” Coal and the Environment - U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA),

  4. Kenton, Will. “Understanding Externalities.” Investopedia, Investopedia,

  5. NEED Project. “Secondary Energy Infobook.” Issuu,

  6. “Raw Material Production.” NASA, NASA,

Last Fact Checked on May 26th, 2021.