Labban on Bioaccumulation and the Planetary Mine

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Mazan Labban has a great piece in the Annals just out last month on “Deterritorializing Extraction,” which raises some important points about changing spaces of geo- and bio-capital as well as human-environment relations more broadly. In it, Labban theorizes the spatio-temporal dimensions of two recent transformations in the extractive industries: the rise of waste-mining and the increasingly central role of microorganisms in the extraction of mineral ores.

Labban’s study of biomining & bioleaching makes plain that biological and geological registers can no longer be thought independently–if they ever could. As he writes, “biomining conjugates the microbial metabolism with the planetary mine” (569), enfolding bio- and geo- processes together and within modes of social production:

In those arrangements the metabolic and reproductive functions of microorganisms…are affixed with the labor of miners technicians, microbiologists, chemists, and engineers, together with a vast network of dead labor: machines, equipment, installations, and systems in arrangements through which value is simultaneously created and reproduced, transferred and preserved, and extracted from waste and transformed into other forms of waste (562).

These enfoldings of life, matter, value and waste are part of an ongoing displacement of life and matter witnessed in other sectors of the bioeconomy, emerging environmental movements like biomimicry, and industries such as agriculture. Processes once localized in a “hole in the ground” or particular ecosystems are produced and valorized elsewhere through the involvement of techno-science. In Labban’s presented case, the synthesis of bio- and waste-mining requires rethinking extraction as “a biologically based process emancipated from geological space-time” (569). Laboratories and human-microbe interactions are no longer merely of tertiary relevance to extractive industries; they are now an intimate part of metallurgical extraction themselves. This is a nice demonstration of how political ecologies never only take shape in situ, but are increasingly produced in vivo and in vitro.

Contrary to many earlier geographical readings of Deleuze, Labban’s case makes clear there is no reason to view such “deterritorializations” with approbation. Resulting affiliations between humans, matter and microorganisms emerge as part of the real subsumption of biological and chemical processes by capital. These new arrangements deterritorialize only to reterritorialize, producing what Labban calls the “planetary mine.” The making of this planetary conditions and its attendant drive to reclaim waste through the manipulation of microbial life is, as Labban writes, part of a delirious desire to “produce the conditions of a wasteless capitalist mode of production.” This is a would-be mode of production with no outside and no end: a mobius strip of matter, life and value. But as Labban importantly notes, even if capital succeeds in closing the loop and eliminating waste altogether, it still cannot “eliminate the wasting that punctuates the cycle of materials transformations and the circulation of value–the wasting [of the living substance of human material] that is the valorization process” (573).

My only qualms with Labban’s piece come with what is left off the page. His account of the ‘planetary mine’ risks affirming a world in which processes of subsumption–and the technoscientific procedures that enable them–are largely and often successful. Thus it threatens to reify the predominant narrative that technoscientific ‘progress’ operates linearly to create conditions that enfold more elements and processes of life–human and nonhuman–within the circulations of capital. Accounts written by STS scholars of time spent in laboratories with scientists and their lively subjects reveal other trajectories, however–ones that destabilize the capitalist narrative of successful progress so foundational to its advance. Paying attention to these ongoing counter narratives will be essential for continuing to open up retheorizations of the spaces and matters of resistance.

Labban, Mazan. 2014. Deterritorializing Extraction: Bioaccumulation and the Planetary Mine. Annals, 104(3): 560-576.