Geographies of Extraction: How Global Trade Has Impacted Urban Inequality

“Right now, the dominant geographies are geographies of extraction; they’re geographies of power,” says Saskia Sassen in an interview with Ibai Rigby of urbanNext.

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“Right now, the dominant geographies are geographies of extraction; they’re geographies of power,” says Saskia Sassen in an interview with Ibai Rigby of urbanNext at the “Decoding Asian Urbanism” conference at Harvard University. Sassen, a professor of sociology at Columbia University and a member of its Committee on Global Thought, sees the development of new global geographies whose boundaries are dictated not by physical borders, but rather by financial markets.

For Sassen, a contemporary period marked by global trade and migration has enforced a new hegemonic order of dominance between nations, controlled by demand for natural resources and materials. “We have shifted from a global imperialism mode to a global extractive mode,” says Sassen in her interview. While colonizing empires of centuries past — such as the British and the French — enacted the occupation and cultural conversion of their new settlements, today’s leading nations are singularly focused on the retrieval of a particular commodity, or a region’s “natural wealth,” as Sassen puts it. “When you’re done extracting, you leave,” she remarks.

Luanda exports roughly 1.8 million barrels of oil a day. While the city is considered one of the most expensive in the world, it is troubled by rampant inequality.

Citing extraction operations in Luanda, Angola, and Rio de Janeiro for oil and water, Sassen argues these global geographies of extraction have devastating impacts in cities as they formally develop to accommodate these production processes. “Now Luanda, a city where you could barely find a hotel three years ago, is being built up as a global city with a very specific function, which is all of the corporates, the lawyers, the financiers, everything that you need in order to extract that natural wealth, then natural wealth will leave the country and go to various markets,” she remarks.

While the city is accumulating wealth due to its oil extractions and experiencing a huge boom in real estate development, the luxury market remains accessible to only a small few, while 53 percent of the city’s population remains in poverty. According to the New Yorker, a bottle of Coke in Luanda can cost $10, while half of Angolians live off less than $2 per day.

Manhattan’s “Billionaire’s Row,’ which features starchitect-designed super-tall luxury skyscrapers at the southern end of Central Park; image via SkyscraperCity

“We shouldn’t confuse the visual order of a city with a global city function,” says Sassen, arguing this increasing socioeconomic inequality is not only a symptom of developing countries with natural wealth. “The global city function is as brutal there in Luanda to reach Angola’s wealth as it is in London, New York, etc. To reach wealth, it goes well beyond that country.” New York City’s own affordability crisis in the housing market is heavily impacted by an imbalanced real estate market controlled by demand from foreign-owned shell companies.

“Historically speaking, no formal system of power has lasted forever, nor will this,” remarks Sassen, predicting the inevitability of this market function’s decline. The extraction of finite resources inherently comes with finite limit: “Once you’re done extracting, nothing left.”

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