Education and Extraction

February 22, 2021

Stacey Balkan

Image by Hatice EROL from Pixabay.

Social distancing protocols have proven quite a blessing for digital communications companies like Zoom. Their platforms have largely replaced our most precious social spheres, from our living rooms to our classrooms. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has so dramatically transformed the role of online education that all students are now learning in some form of digital environment. For K-12 students this is generally synchronous, but not always; and for higher education, the data varies tremendously. I, for one, am teaching in three different modes: synchronous, live and Zoom simultaneously; synchronous, Zoom only; and asynchronous, remote only via Canvas’s learning management system. 

This shift in learning modalities has tremendous bearing on student success and faculty working conditions, as well as the health of the profession…and the planet. Powered in large part by invisible networks of fossil capital, Zoom and like models may help to assuage the isolation of quarantine life (while offering seemingly viable alternatives for business and education), but they come at a steep material cost.

As the pandemic rages on, we must confront two (inter-related) problems: 1) the digital platforms that many are touting as a silver bullet in the face of imminent climate collapse are fueled in large part (62% in the U.S.) by coal and “natural” gas; and 2) this brave new digital world is not only ensuring the closure of Liberal Arts departments across the nation on an unprecedented scale—possibly even worse than the 2017 Janus decision to gut academic unions given recent actions like those taken by the Board of Regents in Kansas—but is also creating yet another barrier for students from marginalized communities who lack the material resources necessary to fully participate in online education. If public education in the United States was once understood as a driver of social mobility, in its digital form it is increasingly a driver of inequality, particularly for communities of color.

Obviously, returning to the convivial space of the classroom is not an option. We must, however, acknowledge the pitfalls of remote education in terms of equity, student access, and the grave threat that it poses to our livelihoods. We must also work to mitigate its role in the maintenance of a form of political economy that is wholly incommensurable with the sustained habitability of Earth: extractive capitalism. 

We must, however, acknowledge the pitfalls of remote education in terms of equity, student access, and the grave threat that it poses to our livelihoods. We must also work to mitigate its role in the maintenance of a form of political economy that is wholly incommensurable with the sustained habitability of Earth: extractive capitalism.

Admittedly, this is a tall order; and it ought to be noted that the shift to digital interaction is not a zero-sum game, at least in terms of its climate-altering potential: incremental change may be strategically vital to initiating infrastructural transformations on a global scale. As well, there is no discounting the positive impacts that, for example, remote academic conferences have had and may continue to have on the academy’s carbon footprint. Also notable is the dramatic reduction of automobile emissions—formerly responsible for 28 per cent of carbon emitted annually in the U.S.  Data suggests that emissions from coal-powered digitization accounts for substantially less than gas-powered personal vehicles.[1]  

Nonetheless, electricity does in fact come from somewhere, and so do those Amazon packages, despite the company’s commitment to reaching carbon neutrality by 2040. The lion’s share of electricity in the U.S. is derived from coal and “natural” gas—the latter also a fossil fuel, and one produced from carbon-based resources like petroleum. The remainder is generated through alternative sources like wind and solar power, both of which are also often “fossil-dependent.”[2] Consider the mineral constituents of photovoltaic solar panels, or the reactive alkali metals mined for the production of lithium-cell batteries, which store (and thus help to disseminate) electricity from solar and wind sources.[3] That such metals are extracted from the lands of historically dispossessed Native communities further highlights the inherent paradox of such energy “transitions.” 

Of course, in acknowledging the links between extraction and dispossession across the U.S., we must also understand that the logic of extractive capitalism—which commodifies human and nonhuman life in the interest of something like “economic progress” or “energy independence”—applies not only to places like the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South Dakota or Arizona’s Oak Flat (where Apache leaders are fighting against copper mining). Such logics are also responsible for similar forms of inequality in more urban climes. In cities from Chicago to Miami, digital education offers a new extractivist frontier for supposedly green ventures (including tech companies like Zoom) while reinforcing racially coded divides within local classrooms; and, because of the pandemic, the digital plague that has substantially contributed to vast inequities throughout higher education has now trickled down to K-12.   

As the nation reels in the urgent protests of already marginalized communities, we must acknowledge that Zoomtopia is in many ways built for the digital elite—those with consistent access to the tools necessary to thrive in the online classroom. This is surely the case where I live and teach.  

Florida Atlantic University is a minority-majority serving institution situated in southern Palm Beach County. While many understand this geographic site as a playground for the rich—home to former president and Mar-a-Lago resident Donald J. Trump—Palm Beach County is also home to working-class cities like Riviera Beach, where the median income is well below the national average. Many of our students also travel from places like Miami’s Liberty City (in Miami-Dade County), which is an economically distressed neighborhood where many are forced to share digital resources and thus cannot rely on consistent access.   

This scenario is neither unique, nor new: online education has long inhered with this very problem.  It is now, however, galvanizing unprecedented public attention. Thus, it is even more imperative to recognize that the abysmal retention rates of remote instruction are more often a direct consequence of material forces than, as the armies of newly installed lay teachers (i.e., parents) might argue, lack of interest or attention span.  Sure, the well-healed elementary schooler may slack off and play video games, but three decades of research into the alarming retention rates for community college students (like those who I taught for 12 years in North New Jersey) paint a very different picture.  Surely the data for K-12 reflects those same material conditions; the kid playing Fortnite seems the exception to the rule. 

Current numbers suggest that students supplementing brick-and-mortar classes with minimal online courses can be academically successful—that the oft-cited drop-out rates (in some cases, reaching 80%) apply only to fully-online/asynchronous curricula. Ironically, many chose to enroll in such courses prior to the pandemic out of financial exigency—often to accommodate work schedules. 

With increased demand, the portrait of the successful online learner now looks very different. This is certainly the case at regional state institutions like mine where the situation frankly seems untenable.  To be fair, this may be because students and faculty now suffer doubly as a consequence of similarly catastrophic trends across the academy. Indeed, online education also poses new challenges for an already-beleaguered system of higher education that has endured increasing austerity measures as successive neoliberal administrations—Bush, Clinton, Obama, Trump—look to privatize education in response to the anti-intellectualism and hyper-individualism that plagues U.S. culture. As we know, this increased exponentially during the Trump administration: from the appointment of Betsy DeVos, someone with no background in education who championed private charter schools and heavily subsidized standardized testing, to executive orders aimed at dismantling “diversity” education—in short, programs within Ethnic Studies and Critical Race Theory geared toward redressing the curricular invisibility (and historical erasure) of Black and Native communities. 

Yes, the assassination of public education and the correlative assaults on the Arts and Humanities started well before COVID-19. So too, the zealotry around digital education: long before it served the capitalist fantasy of a green utopia in which we could continue the rabid consumerism of the past, online learning served the similarly grotesque myth of faux democratization through digital modalities like the MOOC. The “massively open online classroom” mimicked a kind of History Channel documentary format and quickly gained popularity across the academy.  The MOOC was a way to provide free online education without having to compensate faculty—what a win for the administration!  That these courses were not degree-bearing surely wouldn’t serve the community college student and thus ought to sully the image of the MOOC format as an engine of social mobility; but who cares, they were designed for other ends—namely to bolster the knowledge of the occasional dabbler in such finer things as higher education. The problem, of course, is that given the concomitant aims of federal administrations to strip Liberal Arts programs of funding, not to mention the withholding of federal student loans to attendant majors, the love affair with the MOOC would essentially be another nail in the coffin. Without indulging the elitist discourse of “quit-lit,” which my colleagues have critically and masterfully denounced, the profession is in fact under assault.[4] 

The mass digitization of the academy raises many other concerning issues, from new threats to academic freedom to the question of intellectual property within MOOC and now Zoom culture, which many of us are scrambling to include in our Collective Bargaining Agreements. In the interest of brevity, however, I’ll conclude with a solution, or perhaps a plea: given that Zoom and like formats are fueled in large part by extractive capitalism and fossil fuels in the face of imminent planetary collapse, the potential for Zoom to follow a MOOC model whereby faculty in higher education are rendered expendable, the reality that many small Liberal Arts colleges are now closing in addition to the abovementioned strategies by state-wide administrations to suspend tenure, the material exigencies that students (often POC) face in terms of resources and access, and the abysmal retention rates of this modality for those very same communities, should we really be promoting its continuation post-vaccination?   

Alternatively, might we engage in a more productive (read intersectional) discourse regarding resource allocation and equity within public education?  And should we not also be promoting a just energy transition—one in which Indigenous dispossession and the ongoing exploitation and marginalization of the poor in blighted neighborhoods are no longer options?  Can we not pursue a transition in which “divestment” implies a shift in political economy such that these historically sanctioned forms of violence are no longer mandated by those in power?  

In short, we must work toward an educational model that neither reproduces dependency on fossil capital, nor the inequitable social infrastructures upon which it depends. To wit, Zoom culture should not be considered a “new normal,” but an unfortunate blip as we move toward divestment and social equity. Because even if the pandemic has served as an inducement to stay off the road, it has also emboldened a dangerous technophilia whose logics serve the interests of fossil capital and not, as its champions routinely boast, our students or our communities.  

Stacey Balkan is Assistant Professor of Environmental Humanities at Florida Atlantic University and editor of the forthcoming essay collection Oil Fictions: World Literature and our Contemporary Petrosphere (Penn State Press, 2021).

Notes

[1] Also notable is the proliferation of vehicles like bicycles, which have spurred increased interest in the creation of hard infrastructures like the vast expansion of bike lanes in cities such as New York. Although this too poses problems—not the least of which is the question of mobility injustice such as we see in the racialized distribution of current bike (and bike-share) infrastructures. Hence the need for an intersectional approach to divestment that recognizes historic forms of dispossession and a correlative (and massive) investment in hard infrastructures to accommodate a more robust system of transportation that doesn’t merely cater to (often affluent) urban centers.  For further reading on mobility injustice and the relationships between alternative energy infrastructures and gentrification, see John G. Stehlin’s Cyclescapes of the Unequal City: Bicycle Infrastructure and Uneven Development (University of Minnesota Press, 2019) and Mimi Sheller’s Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes (Verso, 2018).

[2] I take the term from Brett Bloom’s Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self (Breakdown Break Down, 2015) in which the petrocritic critiques alternative energy economies that rely not only on fossil fuels, but the infrastructures attendant to extractive capitalism more broadly.

[3] PV panels often contain such mined materials as aluminum, cadmium, copper, gallium, indium, iron, lead, nickel, silica, silver, tellurium, tin, and zinc.  Lithium is a reactive alkali metal mined in nations like Bolivia, site of what some have called a “lithium coup”: https://newrepublic.com/article/159848/socialist-win-bolivia-new-era-lithium-extraction. Similarly volatile landscapes are to be glimpsed in the context of cobalt: https://ensia.com/features/cobalt-sustainability-batteries/ This is also true of copper: https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2020/12/11/resolution-copper-may-fast-track-trumps-final-days/5981085002/  See also Nick Estes’s critique of Biden’s green energy plans owing to the continued exploitation of Native lands in Arizona: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/28/joe-biden-keystone-pipeline-climate-crisis?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other&fbclid=IwAR0koIjn-5vlqG8LKkjTrtGmVyipjoGja6JTIMQ3xiethXJ1f0C19XrBv60

[4] Benjamin Ginsberg, Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins and author of The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and why it Matters, offers an alternative:  the “MOOA”—a Massively Open Online Administration owing to the unsustainable salaries of many top academic administrators.


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