In her recent book, Extracting Accountability, Jessica Smith focuses on the experiences of petroleum and mining engineers to answer an important question: How do these professionals, who represent and operationalize capitalism’s extractive logic on a daily basis, reconcile their conflicting loyalties to their managers, shareholders, communities, and their ideals? This interview focuses on some of the most important points in the book, such as the pitfalls of stakeholderism. It also presents Smith’s perspective on the intertwining of biography and ethnography, the politics of engineering education and anthropologists’ relevance in it, as well as green energy transition and the conundrum of creating green jobs.
One part that I enjoyed a lot in your book was how you treat biography as part of ethnography, rather than as separate from or prior to it. How has your own life influenced your work?
I grew up in a blue-collar mining family in a blue-collar mining town. There was a lot of attachment to work ethic: Work was very important for how my family imagined itself. I grew up listening to my father and my grandfather talk about the mining industry and their role within it as mechanics, as the providers of energy and vitality to the economy. I later went to work as a temporary laborer myself, driving haul trucks and loading coal trains. What struck me about my own experience, in light of this longer family history, was how much people make these workplaces home, despite the fact that they might seem alienating to outsiders. Workers learn to live in these places, make relationships, and invest their sense of self in them. I think there is a similarity between the mine workers in my first book and the petroleum and mining engineers in this book, in that they learn to inhabit and make meaning in workplaces that outsiders imagine as not being the most welcoming or ethical. For the engineers appearing in my book, there is labor put into managing their own sense of themselves as “good” people who are working in these industries that come under so much public criticism.
As an anthropologist working on corporations and corporate professionals, how does your work stand up to the criticisms of speaking the corporation’s language? Is it possible to be empathically critical of these people?
I think in our everyday talk we make generalizations about engineers as corporate automatons, as the empty vessels of corporations who have no sense of ethics. In my work, I make the ethnographic choice to really understand what these engineers are thinking and hold space for them. At the same time, the last thing any ethnographer wants to do is uncritically reproduce the perspective of their interlocutors. I worked hard to empathetically understand these engineers’ perspectives while situating them within broader historical and political-economic trajectories. I was very careful to represent people as they saw themselves and highlight some parts of their professional lives that get lost in our stereotypical understandings, without letting them off the hook for how their work facilitates industries.
For example, a lot of my interlocutors were very attached to an idea of “win-win” in unconventional oil and gas development, or what critics call “fracking.” To the engineers I came to know, if they can design well pads in a way that would create economic good for local communities while minimizing the environmental footprint, that is a win-win. However, the seductive ideal of win-win excludes the perspectives of people who do not want to see any industrial expansion at all. I was very careful to not put forward the win-win uncritically, but to also include the perspective of those who oppose the existence of such projects.
In your book, we see that there are many engineers who feel accountable to multiple stakeholders, including the local communities. What are some problems you see with stakeholderism in the mining industry?
First, I think company leadership is uneven on the commitment to stakeholder engagement. So, most frequently, the stakeholder engagement depends on where you are working and whether the management is interested in meaningful engagement. Second, in certain cases the stakeholder categories are used to mute contentions. For example, a mining company incorporated an environmental conservation NGO as a “stakeholder” into its project plans, but this NGO did not want to be included as a stakeholder at all––they were harsh critics of the development project and they vehemently opposed it. In some cases, companies do seek to mute tensions by enrolling critics as stakeholders.
One of the most important things I tell my students is that the process of identifying and including stakeholders is an inherently political choice: Stakeholders do not just exist in the world, they are created and clustered as groups, and in most cases the companies who have the power to set the agenda lead this categorization.
How do you teach engineers to be more considerate of the social and cultural explanations for what is taking place in the world?
I have been at Mines for 10 years now, and I exist as an anthropologist in a space where students are taught to be positivistic, to believe in objectivity. So, I move with an awareness of this context: I always start my classes with asking my students to think about how engineering and applied science are also fundamentally political… that they have histories and blind spots, that questions are asked selectively… Otherwise, they just consider engineering as objective and anthropology as subjective, as something to be devalued for that reason. However, there is a pitfall in this positivistic engineering zeitgeist: As philosopher Carl Mitcham points out, engineers seek to create “public good” while evading a discussion of what that public good actually is or could be––how do different actors define what is a good life? Without such discussion, engineering remains with a philosophical inadequacy.
Would teaching engineers how to define a good life, in a way that takes into account different perspectives, render anthropologists irrelevant?
This reminds me of Diana Forsythe––she was an anthropologist who worked in artificial intelligence labs, studying engineers and scientists who used ethnographic methods in their work. She shows that they appropriated ethnographic methods to generate “data” without our analytic frameworks to interpret that “data” and its creation. I worry about the same thing happening in engineering education and practice. There is this acknowledgement in these spaces that they need anthropologists to help them manage social acceptance issues or to do better human-centered design. These efforts are usually hollow if they generate data without theory. Most of the engineers I work with, especially the most self-reflexive ones, realize that they need intellectual humility to do collaborative work. They are aware that they are not experts in thinking about their research as sociotechnical and that they can learn from people who are.
This does not explicitly come up in your book but in the background of fossil fuel production, there lies the talk of clean energy transition. How do you see this playing out for mining professionals?
Discussion of the green energy transition should ensure that people involved in fossil fuel industries will keep having jobs. But while important, I think this approach to exchanging one paycheck for another is limited because it misses the broader meaning of work for people like coal miners. They deem their work valuable because they are providing energy for the whole country, they are literally keeping the lights on. To them, this job is not exchangeable with another that has a very different cultural significance. And this is a big shortcoming on the part of the policymakers––they think we can just exchange one kind of blue-collar labor for another, as if these laborers have not shaped their whole life and sense of self around this particular labor and what it signifies. For instance, academics would resist strongly if someone were to say to us that it does not really matter what we do and we can become accountants or HR managers as long as we make the same amount. To us, professorship and these other white-collar jobs are completely different occupations. Then why do we treat blue-collar occupations so reductively?
At the same time as we acknowledge how fossil fuel workers have powered our lives – sometimes at great cost to them – I strongly think we need to move beyond what I call the “ethic of material provisioning,” in which the mining and petroleum industries are presented as “good” because they provide the material basis for our everyday lives. While this may be true, it precludes larger, vital ethical questions: rather than just producing more and more stuff to meet ever-increasing demands, ought we not rethink consumption? Ought we not restructure our cities and infrastructures to require less energy in the first place, rather than spending so much of our efforts increasing energy production?
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