The ‘Robot’ in the Coal Mine: Emerging Regimes of Extractivism in the Robotic Age

Authors: Lily House-Peters*, California State University, Long Beach, Katherine G Sammler, California State University Maritime, Casey R Lynch, University of Arizona
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Human-Environment Geography
Keywords: extractivism, robots, political ecology, digital geography, nature, governance, algorithmic ecologies
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Balcony B, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


A robotic revolution is underway in the mining and mineral extraction industry. Marketing campaigns for a new generation of mining robots highlight the increasing agility, dexterity, and applicability of robots in dangerous and difficult extraction environments, from deep underground to the sea-floor to capabilities designed for extra-planetary exploration and development, designed to “do the heavy lifting on Earth, Moon, asteroids, and Mars” (Offworld Inc). The speculative power assigned to these emerging technologies has companies across both the mining and Silicon Valley tech industries promising a new mining future that is safer for human workers and significantly more efficient for extractive industries. As one company states, “the robot is the new ‘canary’ in the coal mine”. Yet, extractivist logics already pervade and deeply shape political economy, social relations, state (de)regulation, and environmental resource regimes across the planet. The new extraction frontiers enabled via the surge of robotic technology development, experimentation and deployment in the mining industry has thus far received little critical attention from geographers. In this paper, we draw on political ecology, digital geography, and queer theory to examine emergent robotic technologies and their associated logics in the mining and natural resource extraction industry. We attend to the co-constitution of mineral resource extraction, robots, and wider political, economic, and institutional arrangements that govern the soil, sub-soil, deep sea, and extra-planetary environments. Through these lenses we explore politics of access, responsibility, and social-ecological displacement, questions of labor and landscape transformation, and the role of multi-species solidarity and affirmative resistance.

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