School is back. Syllabi have been distributed and class schedules finalized, so the average Vassar student is sure to be scouring Amazon for used textbooks. What this online search replaces, however, is the pleasant trip to the Juliet or its locally owned, independent neighbor The Three Arts. Our campus is quick to protest fossil fuels and capitalism, but often fails to do so with its wallets.
I must admit that I am equally guilty of ordering low-priced items from Amazon Prime. For me, it frequently is a question of affordability—Amazon alleviates costs that burden my mother’s already strained paycheck. With Amazon constantly raising the bar for efficiency by automation, everyone faces the temptation of convenience. Excessive shopping on Amazon is a form of addiction plaguing the modern consumer, and its impact certainly doesn’t stop at textbook needs. Of course, this is the point; Amazon is designed to appeal to us with many click-worthy options at once.
Big tech companies like Amazon, Google and Microsoft appear, on the surface, to be acting in the best interest of their consumers in other ways as well. They claim to champion renewable energy, use AI to advance sustainability efforts and reduce the impact of climate change. Amazon even has a Climate Pledge, which states the company’s commitment to a low-carbon future by planning to reach 80 percent renewable energy by 2024 and 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 (The Amazon Blog, “Powering HQ2 with 100% renewable energy,” 01.28.2020).
What tech companies don’t advertise as much is their relationship with leading oil and gas companies. Drilling oil generates complex data, such as drilling location, design and cost, that can be processed exponentially quicker by AI than humans. Amazon recently seized this opportunity and partnered with OAG Analytics, a data science start-up specializing in AI, to optimize the profits of the oil and gas industry (Amazon Web Services Blog, “How OAG Analytics Leverages AI and Machine Learning to Optimize the Profitability of Oil and Gas Wells,” 08.12.2019). By joining forces with big oil, Amazon maximizes its own benefits while releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Tech companies provide excuses for backing big oil that highlight their inconsistencies. When accused of donating to climate-change-denying think tanks, a Google spokesperson responded that they were “hardly alone” in contributing to organizations they do not politically align with (Oil Price, “Why Big Tech Is Backing Big Oil,” 01.06.2020). This is not an adequate excuse at all. It illustrates that these companies are unable to prioritize their professed commitments to customers, such as the Climate Pledge. Big tech particularly presents themselves as future-oriented companies, but would rather maximize their profits
even if it means exacerbating the onset of worsening natural disasters. Testaments to this fact are its poor treatment of workers and enormous carbon footprint.
We cannot ignore the consequences of the marriage of big tech to big oil, nor can we adopt the same “It’s not just me” mindset. The difficult part is reimagining our consumer philosophy and producing competitive alternatives. It’s holding big companies accountable, starting with something as small as our individual consumer choices, if we have the privilege to do so—or even a trip to the small bookstore down the road— and ending with awareness of the massive environmental impact of our providers. At Vassar, many of us do have the privilege to make these choices, but still choose to feed into the climate crisis even if we can do otherwise. It’s not enough, anymore, for us to just live in the reality that is given to us.