Energy in COVID-19 Research Brief: 07/17/2020

The Energy in COVID-19 bi-weekly research briefs collect the latest news read by our working group members. 

The artifacts gathered for this first edition of our research brief raise a number of important questions about how the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping the technopolitics of energy infrastructure in the US. The consequences of long-established structural vulnerability are playing out in real time in the form of disparities in COVID-19 infection rates, related traumas, and deaths. Prioritizing the role of infrastructure in producing structural vulnerabilities helps accommodate the complex spatio-temporality this disaster where “failures of diverse, nested systems, [are] producing injurious outcomes that cannot be straightforwardly confined in time or space, nor adequately addressed with standard operating procedures and established modes of thought” (Fortun et al. forthcoming).  On top of the immediate threats of infection, efforts to reduce COVID-19’s spread through restrictions on movement delimit the already restricted options of vulnerable populations on how to access and afford protections from an increasingly hazardous and unpredictable climate. People who live in poorly insulated, inefficient housing are unable to keep their home residences at a safe temperature, and many of the coping strategies that deal with relocation are now simply inaccessible or too risky for certain populations. Loss of employment also disproportionately affects many residents of BIPOC and LMI communities that have already been struggling to live paycheck to paycheck. Many are still awaiting to receive any financial support as unemployment offices were completely unprepared for the deluge of claims that followed the economic shutdown. Minor and temporary solutions, such as the brief moratorium on evictions and disconnections, are only delaying and shifting the economic burdens of this disaster around and we have yet to see whether a truly equitable, more long-term solution will be developed.

These rampant intersectional difficulties are at least partially rooted in the history of technopolitical developments in energy infrastructure in the US. In the discourse of social theory, technopolitics is a concept developed to explain how infrastructures, rather than being value neutral, are always designed and implemented in ways that betray political rationalities. Brian Larkin describes this systematizing property of infrastructures as “objects that create the grounds upon which other objects operate” (2013, 329). Importantly, anthropological and STS-inflected treatments of infrastructure include not only physical, technological objects but also soft technologies such as new methods of accounting, business models, economic policies, or other techniques of power (Hughes 1993). Together these interlocking material and technical infrastructures make up the proverbial “playing field” of daily life while also determining its “un/evenness.” What the above data and discussion of the energy sector shows is that the field is appreciably askew along class and racial lines.

Black feminist scholars have long called for the abandonment of additive approaches to understanding oppression for an appreciation of how systems of oppression interlock into a matrix of domination (Collins 1990). Technopolitical critiques can be put to this task by delineating how the coordination of technologies and infrastructures into sociotechnical systems gives systemic racism, classism, and gender oppression a physical underpinning and materiality. What is important here is developing a rich understanding of the dynamics of these interlocking systems, or that is, how the discursive, phenomenological, psychological, and material dimensions of oppression respond to and feedback into biological, geological, climactic systems, maintaining a structural integrity over this shifting ground that consistently and measurably impacts the well-being of certain populations instead of others. This domination matrix also leaves these same communities more exposed to the fallout when these already oppressive sociotechnical systems collapse.

While society’s infrastructures provide the material underpinnings of relations of power, they also materialize the discursive gaps and risks that leave them vulnerable to disaster (Fortun 2012). That is, as black feminist scholar Francyne Huckaby argues, relations of power are also always already relations of vulnerability (2011). Our research brief identifies how legacies of segregation, environmental racism, and economic discrimination compound to the effect that many BIPOC and LMI neighborhoods are devoid of the critical infrastructures that make everyday life comfortable and safe. The analytic purchase of focusing on this underside of power is an added ability to appreciate how biopolitical regimes fail and, when they do, how to understand the disproportionate distribution of the risks of this system collapse. Medical anthropologists developed and operationalized the concept of structural vulnerability to enrich clinician’s understandings of how positionality within overlapping networks of power relations impact health outcomes (Bourgois et al. 2017). Similar work today is being undertaken to develop the concept of energy vulnerability, which can be understood as a particular manifestation of structural vulnerability that describes manifold factors that restrict access to energy services and their related mental and physical health protections and benefits. Together these analyses can help identify and describe how structural vulnerabilities, rooted in socio-natural, political-economic, cultural, and infrastructural factors, constrain people’s options in ways that prime them for devastation during disasters like COVID-19.

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