Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Benjamin Morgan reviews Extraction Ecologies

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller. Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2021. 304 pp.

Review by Benjamin Morgan

Embedded in the title of Elizabeth Carolyn Miller's Extraction Ecologies and the Literature of the Long Exhaustion are some challenging questions about how contemporary ecological catastrophe might shape literary criticism. Miller rebrands British prose fiction between 1830 and 1930 as the "literature of the long exhaustion," an ongoing depletion of nonrenewable mineral resources since the advent of industrialization. Given the multitude of changes that shaped the literature of this era, what does it mean to claim resource depletion as its defining quality? This question raises another: what is the link between "extraction ecologies," defined by Miller as the reorganization of society around the mining of nonrenewable resources, and the imaginary domain of literature? Is the literature of the long exhaustion that which depicts the “cluster of socio-environmental conditions” called “extractivism,” or, more broadly, must we now understand all literature to be shaped by geological contexts (p. 6)?

These kinds of questions are at the heart of recent conversations about how the humanities can address ecological catastrophe. Miller’s intervention foregrounds genre. Particular literary genres, Extraction Ecologies argues, were shaped by an increasing dependence on nonrenewable resource extraction and, in turn, produced patterns of thought that conditioned the cultural imagination. The book is organized around three genres (provincial realism, adventure narrative, and speculative fiction), each of which corresponds to a conceptual aspect of extractivist culture: the temporal dimension of futures that are foreclosed by the dependence on nonrenewable fuel (realism); the spatial dimension of resource frontiers that are exploited and abandoned (adventure); and the theoretical dimension of energy ideologies that allegorize the link between society and its material locomotive forces (speculative fiction). Fifteen close readings of literary works render this elegant structure expansive in its reach, ranging from canonical works such as Sons and Lovers (1913) and The Hobbit (1937) to lesser-known fiction such as Fanny Mayne’s Jane Rutherford: or, The Miner’s Strike (1854) and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream (1905). This body of literature reveals the ideological contours of “extractivism,” a “depletionary idea of the earth that disregards the ethic of stewardship” (p. 200).

Among the strengths of Extraction Ecologies is its demonstration of the continuing power of historicist critique. With an eye to the textual unconscious, Miller unearths manifold involvements with the ideology of extractivism. Discussing The Mill on the Floss (1860)—a novel not likely to show up on a “Literature of the Anthropocene” syllabus—Miller finds that the setting of Maggie and Philip's ultimately tragic relationship in the “Red Deeps,” an exhausted quarry, manifests a sense of exhaustion, failure, and temporal finitude. The Red Deeps seems haunted because its landscape has been ruined in the present with no consideration of future effects. Eliot’s setting shows “the dynamic bundling of human, animal and plant life with extracted commodities and the living earth; the undead futures of extraction and exhaustion” (p. 52). This is one of many examples of how the material event of extractive practices can produce an affective orientation toward exhaustion. In the chapter on speculative fiction, Miller offers an eye-opening reading of William Morris’s anarchist eco-utopia News from Nowhere (1890) in relation to the copper and arsenic mining wealth of the Morris family. Morris’s notorious aesthetic delight in natural and artificial surfaces—their decoration, appearance, and texture—depends on toxic mining processes that had made his commitment to literature possible. This reading of Morris’s most famous work reveals a direct historical link between the aesthetic qualities of utopian fiction and extractivist culture. Expressed by these and other texts under discussion is the idea that “extraction-based life is a future-depleting system” (p. 12).

Impressively wide-ranging, Extraction Ecologies understands the literary text both on its own terms and in its relation to discursive and material milieu of mineral extraction. Miller models a practice of literary interpretation that is motivated by present ecological crisis while firmly committed to a historically specific understanding of its material. In a series of political turns, previous generations of scholars asserted that the history of literary form was also the history of ideologies of capitalism, of gender, of colonialism, of racialization. Miller’s book makes the persuasive case that the history of culture is equally the history of extractivist ideology. This is a major book that will invite scholars of the period to think in new ways about “extractivism,” while also showing how vital historical interpretation is to the environmental and energy humanities, fields that have predominantly focused on contemporary culture.

I remain intrigued by the methodological questions raised by the title. How far should we go in redescribing British literary history as “the literature of the long exhaustion”? Miller goes quite far indeed: the literature of the long exhaustion is quite possibly all of the literature of the industrial era; "there may be very few prose works published from the 1830s to the 1930s without some overt thematic interest in extraction" (p. 15). From this perspective, materialist cultural analysis will need to proceed to ever deeper levels—from the social problem novel to factory labor to steam to coal to geohistory. But perhaps even trickier than the question of whether modern literature is the literature of exhaustion is the question of what is at stake in this characterization. Miller envisions a dual movement between the real domain of resource extraction and the imaginary domain of genre. Form and genre “transformed under industrial extractivism" while they also "extend extractivism as a mode of environmental understanding" (p. 3). This is a study of mediation rather than representation: "literature is not merely a passive register" of extractivism; it both constrains and enables what is considered possible (p. 14). Hence in the final chapter on speculative and utopian fiction, we see literature not only sustaining extractivist ideology, but also gesturing toward alternatives. The interaction of form and social practice thus becomes the basis for a sobering yet ultimately hopeful conclusion: while the transition away from fossil fuels remains dependent on mineral extraction (of cobalt for batteries, for example), the historical archive of literature offers a resource for imagining sustainable uses of the earth that will avoid the depredations of extractivism.