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GCSC Seminar: Competing Accountabilities amongst Scientists and engineers in the Mining, oil, and gas industries

By Sydney Murray, Sustainability Office

“Oftentimes we think about the mining, oil, and gas industries in black and white terms,” says Dr. Jessica M. Smith, professor in the Engineering, Design, and Society department at the Colorado School of Mines. “Especially when it comes to questions of sustainability.” However, when we broadly critique these industries, both for their climate and environmental impacts, Smith says that we miss an opportunity to better understand their inner workings. Scientists and engineers working in these industries are often reduced to their corporate accountabilities, Smith explains, rather than considered as nuanced individuals who may struggle to reconcile their corporate responsibilities with social and ethical ones.

Photo provided by the Colorado School of Mines.

On Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 4 p.m., Smith will give a GCSC Seminar called “Sustainability and the Corporate Self: An Ethnography of Engineers and Scientists Working in the Mining and Oil and Gas Industries.” In this seminar, Smith will discuss her 2021 book titled Extracting Accountability: Engineers and Corporate Social Responsibility, in which she discusses her ethnographic research on the tensions between personal and professional identities of mining scientists and engineers. “Being an engineer oftentimes means having a particular credential and professional community,” Smith explains. “However, engineers are also individuals with their own ethical viewpoints that don’t always align with those professional accountabilities.”

Many of these scientists and engineers have strong environmental commitments and were introduced to geological engineering through their love of nature and desire to protect it, Smith explains. “Then, as undergraduates, they showed up to the career fairs and realized that most geological engineers went to work for mining, oil, and gas companies” she adds. Smith’s ethnographic account of such experiences challenges the common misconception that mining, coal, and gas industry workers don’t care about the environment. “I think we do ourselves a disservice if we just write off corporations and the people who work for them” she states. “They have such a huge footprint on society, and with their positionality and resources there may be an opportunity to figure out how we can promote sustainability within the industries.”

Smith’s father and grandfather worked in the coal and uranium mining industries, respectively. After pursuing an academic career in anthropology, Smith became interested in engineering as a site for research. “I was predisposed to think about these industries from the inside, so I could present a more complicated picture of them than what is commonly depicted,” she explains.

Smith hopes attendees of her seminar will understand that the harms we see from mining, oil, and gas aren’t coming from industry insiders purposefully trying to be irresponsible. “What’s happening instead is that they have these competing accountabilities, and they try to reconcile them through their everyday work,” she says. Smith believes there needs to be more dialogue about how mining, oil, and gas corporations can address sustainability and ethical issues from the inside.

Join us on Tuesday, February 28 in room 295 of the Frederick Albert Sutton building (or on Zoom) from 4-5 p.m. to learn more.