This consists of two basic sectors, primary and secondary, and covers the whole range of human activities in connection with extracting, exploiting, developing, and processing natural resources in order to meet vital needs – and even more where there is a surplus. This range includes things as diverse as the gathering activity of primitive peoples, putting a satellite into orbit, growing potatoes, or producing bleach.
The difference between simple gathering and placing a satellite into orbit is the sophistication of the process employed. The simplest process is gathering and making use of what is immediately available; then comes toolmaking (stone and metal) to improve manual skills; and finally, making the machine that handles the tool.
The use of a stone as a hammer is no doubt as ancient as humans themselves, and even animals do that. However, man is the only animal to have made his tools more effective, and to have mastered fire. And fire is the source of the spectacular leap forward in the production of tools – first with the discovery of metals, and then with the production of steel, which heralded the machine.
The exploitation that concerns us today, of course, is of the industrial type.
There is a very good schematic example of an industrial process in an Areva advertisement. I have reproduced it here with a few modifications, without the slightest authorization.
In numerical order, you have the mine for the ore extraction, the uranium enrichment, the nuclear fuel fabrication, the design and building of reactors and power plants, the transmission and distribution of electricity, and end consumption.
Thus expressed, this is very simple and the process is described in a single line. In reality, we’re talking about one of the most complex processes that exists in our industrial world.
We’ll just note that a point common to all processes is the starting point. Any process that uses a tool starts in the mine. Whether it is stone for making flints, iron ore for making tools, or uranium, there is always a mine upstream in the process.
Everything downstream of the exploitation component is the result of an industrial process, e.g. hydrogen or electricity, and therefore cannot replace a natural resource upstream of exploitation.
The Areva advertisement shows a linear process where each component leads to another. Reality, of course, is much more complex. Each component is the result of another industrial process that, in order to work, requires electricity which is the result of the whole linear process. To complete the picture, then, you would need to trace back the industrial processes for each component, tie in each process with the production of electricity, and chart the interactions among the different processes. This would be like tracing a “spider’s web” of lines in all directions around each component to constitute a sort of woven fabric, an industrial fabric. What we need to keep in mind is that the sophistication of a process is proportional to the sophistication of the industrial fabric. You can’t have a sophisticated process without a complex exploitation network. Sophistication is also a function of time: it requires time to weave a thicker industrial fabric. The consequence of this is that if, for some reason, certain components of the fabric disappear, the industrial fabric crumbles, decreasing the sophistication of each process. This means that, seen from our perspective here, all it would take to impair the maintenance of a nuclear power plant is the shutdown of a rubber joint factory, because the industrial fabric, made up of thousands of interconnected components, would wear thin at that point.
The "Exploitation" system is a self-perpetuating one. It serves to make machines that increase the accessibility of natural resources, which in turn increase the capacity for exploiting the resources. As long as there are natural resources, the system can grow. Our entire current economy is based on this growth principle. Either a decline in finite resources or unbridled exploitation of renewable natural resources will in fact bring about a decline in exploitation.
What actually creates growth is not labour and capital, as economic theories would have us believe, but the existing natural resources to be exploited and transformed.