Atmospheric Pressure: An Ethnography of Wind, Turbines, and Zapotec Life in Southern Mexico
As one of the windiest places in the world, it is no surprise that companies have flocked to Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a narrow neck of land connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Primarily foreign corporations have installed more than1500 wind turbines in less than ten years' time. While wind energy appears an ethereal, amorphous, and limitless resource, the wind can only become electricity through turbines that require vast tracts of land. The question of land ownership — a historical flashpoint in the region — has amplified tensions between residents, straining the already frayed web of social relations that have long bound this indigenous Zapotec community to one another.
Many of the indigenous Zapotec residents are thrilled these once bothersome winds are becoming productive — as profits, job security, and perhaps their shot at progress. Landowners are among the most ardent supporters of wind energy development, tending their livestock in the morning, leveraging their land in exchange for more favorable lease agreements with executives in the afternoon. Opponents of the industry liken their boosters to an earlier colonial power, asking, "What are we going to eat if you turn everything into gold?" – depicting wind energy as merely the latest in a long history of dispossessions. For them, the wind has always been productive, an actor in their everyday lives: it awakens the fruits of the sea, sustaining fishermen and feeding their families; it causes illness and destroys property, and it conjures residents to recall the joys of living in this place. What Istmeños are aware of are the stark geopolitical realities that have brought wind turbines to their doorstep.
In a moment when Mexico's oil reserves are dwindling and the state searches for alternative revenues, the case of wind energy development on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec complicates the utopian narrative that industry and government advocates recount regarding the so-called win-win possibilities for green energy development across the global South. What happens when the wind is transformed from its unruly natural state into a natural resource? Far from an isolated case, this dissertation draws upon broader theories of power, both electrical and economic, to show how individuals, institutions, and experts are laying claim to nature's force. Neither the fable of green techno-optimism nor a return to some mythical nature adequately explains the messiness of the everyday realities I observed. Based on more than 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork, I trace the generative possibilities of the wind, reconfiguring social relations through technological change. Ultimately, however, it is the imponderability of the natural world, its scale and power, and the very real consequences that efforts to mitigate global climate change are having in one particular place that I hope to convey in this work.
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