Between 2009 and 2013 Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer conducted fieldwork in Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec to examine the political, social, and ecological dimensions of moving from fossil fuels to wind power. Their work manifested itself as a new ethnographic form: the duograph-a combination of two single-authored books that draw on shared fieldsites, archives, and encounters that can be productively read together, yet can also stand alone in their analytic ambitions.
In her volume, Ecologics, Howe narrates how an antidote to the Anthropocene became both failure and success. Tracking the development of what would have been Latin America's largest wind park, Howe documents indigenous people's resistance to the project and the political and corporate climate that derailed its renewable energy potential. Using feminist and more-than-human theories, Howe demonstrates how the dynamics of energy and environment cannot be captured without understanding how human aspirations for energy articulate with nonhuman beings, technomaterial objects, and the geophysical forces that are at the heart of wind and power.
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About the Author
Cymene Howe is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Rice University and author of Intimate Activism: The Struggle for Sexual Rights in Postrevolutionary Nicaragua, also published by Duke University Press. Ecologics is one half of the duograph Wind and Power in the Anthropocene; Energopolitics, by Dominic Boyer, is the other half.
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The Afternoon's Finger
In some places, the dust never seems to settle. Wind finds its way everywhere in Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec, harassing the blue-black feathers of a wailing grackle, raising small stones from the road, insinuating itself against the blades of turbines to make electricity. Isthmus wind, like wind everywhere, is a negotiation between gases that are compelled across space and time by combinations of heat and cold differentials floating over land and sea, pressured shifts in directionality and potency. This is the physicality of the wind, its material life and its ontological being. Wind becomes contoured by objects in its path — mountains and hills, cliffs and stands of forest, buildings and creatures. It also willfully exercises its force upon these things: carving, cracking, pressuring, and leaving its ventifactual imprints. It draws our attention to points of contact and intraconnective incorporations; it absorbs contexts and conditions, and we often know it best through touching (in) it. Wind may be a relief from the heat, a force to struggle against, or a welcome bluster that blows smoke from our eyes.
The force of the wind has long been domesticated by human actors — through the milling of grain, flying of kites, blowing of ships across the seas. But industrial-scale electricity generation and the sprawl of wind parks are unprecedented, both in the isthmus and in the world. Wind is now being taken differently — not as it has been for millennia, but as a renewable "resource," or as "clean energy." As wind is increasingly cast as a valuable commodity, and as its powers are rapidly industrialized, so too does it undergo a reformulation of what it is. Newer evaluations and valuations of wind may not entirely eclipse the ways that wind has been known in the past, but there are, nonetheless, undeniable shifts in how wind is seen to work and for whom. "Wind power" is now designated as a force with the potential to redraft the energetic relationship between humanity and the environment; it has been made to assume a responsibility for global climatological care. Thus, while the wind may have always mattered, it has now come to matter in different ways.
For the ancient Greeks, Aeolis was the god of wind; across the isthmus, it is energía eólica — wind energy — that has come to occupy lands and sky. By definition, aeolian imprints are those effects of wind upon geological and meteorological phenomena. But the winds that create ventifactual contours also shape people and places. In this chapter, I want to explore this aeolian multiplicity, showing how wind and its powers are formed by land, by desire, by technological management, and finally, by the care wind is afforded by some — indeed many — humans. This is a turbulent space. Wind is changed: from element to condition and from an experience into a resource that generates power and its effects. In the wake of wind, aeolian subjects are formed, and wind itself comes to be produced differently through energy aspirations. Aeolian life gets entangled with cosmologies and subjectivities, but it is equally implicated in ethical questions regarding sustainable development. Such refigurations between material, human, and nonhuman worlds require a crafting of political possibilities that move beyond material determinisms and social structural theories that have underwritten the industrializing logics of the past three centuries. Wind's very ontology calls for a "deterrestrializing" of thought.
In the town of La Ventosa, wind is a force that cannot be ignored. It comes in gusts and gales. It blows over eighteen-wheel semitruck trailers, and it causes some varieties of trees to only ever leaf and branch in one direction. It plasters clothing against skin, and it will have you momentarily lose your footing; its occasional calm is usually abbreviated. And it is for this reason, in part, that the town of La Ventosa is now completely surrounded by wind parks, in every direction and at the terminus of every street in this little hamlet.
For Don José, wind power has been a boon. Passing through the carport gate that separates his house from the street, he remarks on the quality of the wind at that moment. Knowing that we are not from the isthmus, he is no doubt certain that windward comments are a good way to begin a conversation. He offers that it is not bad today, just average, as he sets about arranging folding chairs on the concrete slab outside his front windows. Somewhere behind the wall is a young woman, maybe his daughter or daughter-in-law, who is preparing plastic cups full of atole, a sugary drink made with corn flour. Don José's home is relatively untroubled by the dust raised by the wind, a dust that saturates seemingly every place in La Ventosa. He lives on a recently paved street. The deed of pavimentación was carried out by the local government in collaboration with a wind energy company that has a park just on the border of town.
Don José, a landowner who has leased parcels of his property to the wind power company, appears to be doing quite well. He has a large gate around his two-story home, fresh with paint. He attributes his relative prosperity to his contract with the company and to the monthly income generated from renting the land on which turbines and roads have been placed. Don José epitomizes the developmentalist dreams of wind power in the isthmus; his swelling wealth is imagined to flow in a trickle-down fashion to other, less fortunate residents — shopkeepers, laborers, and others without windy land. Don José openly shares his story, situating it within a longer history of the town where he has always lived. He is notably philosophical and methodical with his words, and his utterances are more ecological than most. After the atole has been drunk and we have been through our questions about the rise of renewable energy in La Ventosa, Don José turns us again to the wind. He wants us to know that the wind itself has made him strong. Like everyone in the isthmus, he explains, living with "el norte" — the powerful northern wind that whips across the isthmus from November to February — has an impact upon a person. "El norte picks up rocks, pebbles, and sand, and it hits you in the face. It gets everywhere. And you have to stand up against it and keep working and keep going in spite of it," he explains. "It makes you tough and unafraid." Don José is clear about the fact that the turbines on his land and the power of the wind have made him richer. But he also recognizes how the wind has formed him as an aeolian subject, a man who is abraded, contoured, and affectively shaped by wind.
Air and Breath and Everything Alive
The north wind whips through,
in the streets papers and leaves are chased with resentment.
dogs curl into balls.
There is something in the afternoon's finger,
a catfish spine,
a rusty nail.
Someone unthinkingly smoked cigarettes in heaven,
left it overcast, listless.
Here, at ground level, no one could take their shadow for a walk,
sheltered in their houses, people are surprised to discover their misery.
Someone didn't show,
their host was insulted.
Today the world agreed to open her thighs,
suddenly the village comprehends that it is sometimes necessary to close their doors.
Who can tell me why I meditate on this afternoon?
Why is it birthed in me to knife the heart of whoever uncovered the mouth of the now whipping wind,
to jam corncobs in the nose of the ghost that pants outside?
The trees roar with laughter,
they split their sides,
they celebrate that you haven't arrived at your appointment.
Now bring me the birds that you find in the trees,
so I can tell them if the devil's eyelashes are curled.
Víctor Terán, "The North Wind Whips"
Víctor Terán is a poet and a teacher. I suspect he would put poet first when describing himself, but he is nevertheless a man who is interested in sharing his words and perspective on the world through both mediums: poetry and pedagogy. Víctor was not someone we heard about through the world of wind parks, but a man whose work had already been familiar to us because of his renown as a literary figure and a proponent of binnizá cultural and linguistic preservation. The place where we are able to meet with Víctor evokes neither of these qualities. Instead it is a bland, somewhat fussy restaurant in Juchitán called the Café Internacional. The café, so accurately named, has the somewhat dubious reputation of attracting Spaniards involved in the wind power industry as well as prosperous patrons from around the region. It is almost always a jangle of activity, with soccer games on televisions, waitstaff in prim uniforms, and a security guard patrolling the sidewalk. The Café Internacional is also one of the few places in a very hot town that can brag about air conditioning. This seems like an ironically apt climate for our talk with Víctor, which would ultimately speak of air, breath, and everything alive.
"You know, the wind has many meanings," Víctor begins. In Zapotec the word is bi. And bi is what signifies the air and the breath. It is the soul of a person. And it animates everything. Linguistically, Víctor explains, the concept of "bi" is used to name all living beings. And it is for this reason that nearly all of the binnizá words used to designate an animal or a plant begin with the prefix "bi-." Including binnizá (the people) itself. Bini represents a seed, its reproductive essence. And so it is possible to say that "bini" is the soul or the seed of a person, their inherent substance. Bi is an enlivening principle. It names the pig that makes the sound bibi, and it designates the worm, the maggot that crawls from dead flesh: bicuti is the creature that is both a product of spoiling meat and one that furthers decomposition of the flesh. "In this way," Víctor explains, "one can see that the Zapotec language is very metaphoric." But more importantly, he wants to emphasize, the concept of "bi" is inseparable from language itself; "bi" is etymologically inherent to expression in the same way that it is fundamental to life. "Without air, there is no life, and for this reason we use this prefix, bi-, for everything. It is very interesting, and it is very important," he continues, "because 'bi' is the soul, the air, the breath, and the wind as well. It is a bundle of meanings." Bi is more than a prefix; it is a repertoire of sensation and being.
Víctor depicts it plainly. "Without the air, we would not exist. Without the wind, we would not exist." The first animates, and the second is animated. Cosmologically, there is a trinity of winds among binnizá people: two from the north and the other from the south. The first, Biyooxho', the old north wind, el viento viejo, should not be mistaken for a feeble wind. It is, in fact, the opposite: the wind that made the world through its astounding force, its primal intensity. Biyooxho' is the northern wind with an ancient genealogy. At the beginning of time, Víctor explains, Biyooxho' "pushed the world into existence." A less storied wind, but one that all istmeños know equally well is Biguiaa: the northern wind that is quotidian and less dramatic but still insistent when it blows. And finally, there is the southern wind, Binisá, the wind of the sea and the water, a revitalizing and gentle wind that soothes the heat of the day. It gathers across the Laguna del Mar Muerto, just on the edge of the Gulf of Tehuantepec. Bi, air/life/breath/wind, is here married to nisá (the breeze) and in this union becomes moist. Binisá is often described as a feminine wind, a more tender sensation. Each of the northerly winds is inversely described as masculino. The gusting northern wind, Biyooxho', is also at times called "the devil's wind." Its heat and intensity make it seem as though it has come straight from Lucifer's lips. The winds of the isthmus accrue many powers of becoming and enacting, and it is wind and air that link body and cosmos, humans and deities. "It is true," Víctor concludes, nodding, "there are many kinds of wind."
Wind is captured in a conversation and in cosmologies about how the wind makes people and what people make of the wind. Partly an oscillation of gases and partly an insistent reciprocal exchange between air and beings, the wind's relationality is essential. This kind of relationality, Karen Barad reminds us, produces entities as phenomena. It is in these inseparabilities and intra-acting agencies that things and forces are configured as subjects or objects or relata. It is the wind's relationality that performs the work of creating aeolian subjects, who live in, from, and through the wind in its various formations and effects. With attention to the ways that humans and our coinhabitants are drawn into wind and given life through its quieted form — air — we can pose the question, as Luce Irigaray has, as to whether "we can live anywhere else but in air?" Like the air out of which it is made, wind thrives on interplay and incorporation, into and against, bodies. Captured by the meters of energy production but still residing in the domains of myth, legend, and experience, wind is wound into aeolian matters and their subjectivities.
Whereas Víctor described the wind in terms of its sensations and its animating significance, the technical capture of wind has far more cartographic and quantitative explanations. In the early nineteenth century, a team of surveyors in the isthmus found "an almost incessant wind [that] either blew down or inclined obliquely the landmarks." It was a wind that caused their instruments to "oscillate violently" and disturbed their observations. And with this wind came a certain haunting. With the exception of a few moments before the rising of the sun and a few after its setting, the surveyors' chronicle continued, "a dense flickering vapour hid from view the objects which served as guides, whilst the refractions, especially the lateral ones, produced the most strange illusions."
Far less enchanted than the nineteenth-century depictions, the 2003 report crafted by the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) sought to graph the quantitative details of how wind pushes its way through the isthmus. Barometric pressure differentials between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean are the essential source of wind in the isthmus. South of the Chivela Pass, passing through a fissure in the Sierra Madre, air from the Bay of Campeche flows from the north to the Gulf of Tehuantepec in the south. This is where wind blows its fiercest. Winter winds regularly acquire speeds up to fifty-five miles per hour, sometimes reaching tropical storm or hurricane force. Whereas Víctor associated the powerful northern wind with the origins of the world, the NREL report diagnoses this northerly flow in terms of pressure gradients. The Interamerican Development Bank (IDB), whose loans have been instrumental to the construction of many wind parks across the isthmus, finds the richness of isthmus wind using more terrestrial aesthetics, noting that the region is "a natural tunnel" for wind. Because of this, the bank can boast that the isthmus is "one of the best wind resources in the world," clearly "an ideal place for wind energy projects on a grand scale."
The North American company TrueWind Solutions and NREL utilized a computerized mapping system and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software to track the wind of the isthmus. In conjunction with other entities — such as USAID (the United States Agency for International Development), the Mexican Secretary of Energy (SENER), the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), and the Oaxacan State Government Secretary of Industrial and Commercial Development (SEDIC) among others — a vibrantly colored map showing the wind resources of the isthmus was brought to life. Meteorological stations that tested wind quality were located on the Pacific Coast (in the port city of Salina Cruz) and inland (at Ixtepec). Station data was then assessed by wind power developers — such as the Spanish company Gamesa and the US-based wind energy company Clipper. The Federal Electricity Commission also weighed in on the information. With all expertise summarized, the report explicitly notes the proprietary nature of the data it exhibits. "Due to confidentiality agreements," it states, "we are not able to show the actual wind resource at the sites or provide the exact locations of the sites." The derivation of the data and the precise qualities of wind in a given place and time have become questions of property, both present and future. Wind is re-formed — through numerical exposition and proprietary knowledge; it has become a commodity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ecologics"
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Table of ContentsJoint Preface to Wind and Power in the Anthropocene / Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer ix Acknowledgments xix Introduction 1 1. Wind 23 2. Wind Power, Anticipated 43 3. Trucks 73 4. Wind Power, Interrupted 103 5. Species 137 6. Wind Power, in Suspension 170 Joint Conclusion to Wind and Power in the Anthropocene / Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer 191 Notes 197 References 223 Index 243
What People are Saying About This
“All of the apocalyptic rhetoric about the ‘end of the world’ dangerously obscures the fact that ecological politics will and must continue. In this rich study Cymene Howe shows exactly why anthropology is central to the study of the Anthropocene—what else are we embarking on, in this age of global warming, other than a fraught and uneven reimagining of the very notion of the human? Is it finally possible for humans and their fellow coexistent life-forms to envision a ‘we’ at all the different scales an ecological politics requires?”
“Witty, surprising, and exuding the talent of storytelling, this book about wind and power makes the reader feel the force and complexity of both. It also details a lesson for these permanently changing times: there is no good Anthropocene. The alternative materiality of energy (wind instead of fossil fuel, for example) will not reverse climate change, for nothing is renewable in itself. Instead, wind as renewable energy is a political possibility as people become with wind and occupy place as well as the relation that corporate might uses to make wind a commodity.”