Injustice in the Breeze

Energy companies promise to “go green.” Yet they use the same forms of extractive capitalism that have destroyed the planet’s climate.

Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in the state of Oaxaca, is situated between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. It is the narrowest landmass between the two and constitutes a plateau within the Sierra Madres—a gap, really, where competing barometric pressures have produced a wind tunnel. Such istmeño winds regularly approach tropical-storm strength, frequently toppling semitrailer trucks. Local wind speeds easily rival even the famed Santa Ana winds of southern California. As such, the isthmus is an ideal location for the latest fad in so-called “green” development initiatives: corporate-backed industrial wind farms. In fields dotted with rows of towering cement turbines, gleaming blades adorn the mined limestone like precious sunflowers.

Among several producers of wind power in the region is the Mareña Renovables corporation, and, as with other corporate energy ventures, companies like Mareña achieve their allegedly green ends by employing the very same forms of extractive capitalism responsible for the environmental destruction of the past several centuries. Additionally, and following the lead of the fossil-fuel industry—specifically, the nationalization of Mexico’s petroleum reserves in 1938—the nation’s nascent wind industry also relies on dispossessing Mexico’s largely rural Indigenous populations. In the interest of industrial wind farms, arable lands are enclosed and coastal land that sustains local fisherfolk is cordoned off. And yet, all of this is done under the auspices of ensuring a green transition.

Further illustrating such hypocrisies, the Mareña corporation—even while displacing a local fishing community and closing off their means of subsistence—revels in arresting locals for consuming the eggs of endangered sea turtlesI guess the majestic sea turtle is a more valued neighbor than the laboring poor.

As demonstrated by companies like Mareña, “renewable energy”—as Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe argue in Wind and Power in the Anthropocene—can “be installed in ways that do little to challenge the extractive logics that have undergirded the mining and fossil fuel industries.” Beyond the obvious contradictions presented by cement-based wind turbines or photovoltaic solar panels, many of today’s green-development initiatives also reproduce historically inequitable social infrastructures.1

Indeed, many such initiatives rely on the same systems of political economy that thrive on the privatization of the planetary commons and the dispossession of the global poor. Not to mention, many putatively progressive alternatives to our global petroculture actually require fossilized carbon energy (in the form of coal- or natural-gas-powered electricity): everything from the relatively silent thrum of a Tesla winding its way through the local Whole Foods parking lot to the radical social-media movements committed to environmental progress.2

This predicament isn’t surprising: to riff off Fredric Jameson, it may be harder to imagine the end of fossil capitalism than the end of the world. Despite seeming to be an alternative to global petroculture, the wind-powered electricity projects springing up from Texas to Mexico to China remain tethered to the very same development ethos that frames the fossil-fuel industries. In this way, then, they are not true alternatives.

Consequently, Boyer and Howe argue that “we need not just new energy sources to unmake the Anthropocene, we need to put those new energy sources in the service of creating politics and ecologics that do not repeat the expenditures, inequalities, and exclusions of the past.” This, the authors concede, may be “utopian in the sense that it will have to make a world that has not yet existed [and] revolutionary in the sense that it will not be accomplished by technology, or markets, or violence, or anthropocentrism, or any of the other behaviors and attitudes that brought us here in the first place.” But these, according to Howe and Boyer, are “the futures worth having.” And they are right.


Who Will Save the Planet?

By Ivan Ascher et al.

Wind and Power in the Anthropocene is a duograph: a set of two single-authored books that draw on common fieldwork. This structure (as the authors explain) offers a more dialogic model for academic research than the traditional monograph. Wind and Power joins a growing corpus of work in the energy humanities centered on energy transition. According to Boyer (Energopolitics) and Howe (Ecologics), transition depends not merely on imagining alternative fuel sources, but also on examining deeply entrenched systems of belief that inform our decisions about energy. Such ideas constitute what Didier Debaise has called the “cosmology of the moderns.”3

This “cosmology” refers to both the taxonomic conditions governing the creation of ontological categories like “species” or “nature” or “environment” and to the accompanying systems of political economy that marshal such concepts into policy.

For example, Howe notes the prevailing misunderstanding (in the global North, at least) of species: that there is a “bright line between deft endogamies and exogamies.” She writes, “a species [in the Darwinian sense] is a group of organisms, able to breed with one another over time … in turn retaining an incisive separation from others with whom they do not reproduce.”  Such a definition implies that individual subjects are bounded in such a way as to only unite in reproduction. This theory of ontology, or being, is directly contradicted by what we know of the transcorporeal nature of the physical universe, in which no living entity exists in isolation from its respective ecology.4

The so-called “cosmology of the moderns” can be traced (in part) to Carl Linnaeus’s 1735 Systema Naturae, to the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, to the ontological dualism of René Descartes, and to the foundational claims to human mastery laid down in Genesis. Referred to commonly as “Cartesian dualism,” the mistaken divide articulated in Howe’s argument regarding species is what allows for development programs that understand “nature” as separable from the myriad human and nonhuman species that occupy its providence. And this “bright line” is also what allows both humans and nonhumans to become fodder for the extraction of so-called “natural resources” the world over.5

Thus, both authors demonstrate how ontology, energy, and power are interwoven into what we call “modernity”: a period, argue Boyer and Imre Szeman, that is “soaked in fossil fuels.”6

Aeolian politics as a theory of political economy expands the reductive notion of wind as a discrete energy source.

Boyer’s useful neologism “energopolitics” joins Achille Mbembe’s “necropolitics” and Elizabeth Povinelli’s “geontopolitics” in expanding the limited paradigm of “biopolitics.” Many have concluded that the latter—Michel Foucault’s formulation of the power to govern life, or bios—is problematically anthropocentric (among other things). Mbembe’s 2003 article “Necropolitics” offered the first popular debunking of Foucauldian biopolitics. The Cameroonian sociologist points out that modern governance actually controls not life but death—killing fields like the row of guillotines on the Champs-Élysées during the French Revolution represent the democratization of mass killing, or the “conflation of reason and terror.”7

Povinelli’s coinage is perhaps closer to Boyer’s, and both are clearly indebted to Mbembe. Povinelli, in articulating a theory of governance in intimate relation to the “carbon imaginary,” also attempts to expand the ontological category of bios while connecting it to the history of modern liberalism.8

“Energopolitics” similarly describes the vexed relationship between human and nonhuman actors in the carbon imaginary, making specific claims to the overlapping genealogies of modern energy regimes and liberal (fossil) capitalism.9

Boyer creates this term, and focuses our attention on it, because, he explains, “renewable energy matters, but it matters more how it is brought into being and what forms of consultation and cooperation are used.”

Wind and Power in the Anthropocene documents the myriad forms of “consultation and cooperation” that constitute Mexico’s windscape, which the two anthropologists discuss in terms of the nation’s aeolian politics. The term “aeolian”named for the mythical Aeolus and referring to wind—is used by the two to mark “wind’s manifold effects and ways of mattering.” Understood as such, aeolian politics as a theory of political economy expands the reductive notion of wind as a discrete energy source, separable from the myriad forms of matter that it animates—whether the errant leaf, the flowing stream, or the industrial turbine.

Howe and Boyer look back on the past with fresh eyes. Characterized in the preface as “a more dialogic, collaborative matrix of encounter with anthropological writing,” Wind and Power in the Anthropocene explores the longue durée of Mexican independence. In so doing, the book makes clear that the recent incursion of new green energy companies is, in many ways, simply old wine in new bottles—because, today, the wind’s extraction also depends upon the enclosure of Indigenous land.

As such, wind is simply perpetuating a conventional energopolitics that was previously employed with petrol. Hence the response to industrial wind farms from the local Zapotec community: “We refuse to be exploited in the istmo! We, the indigenous people of Tehuantepec will not have our lands robbed! We are Mexican, and you are foreigners, and foreigners have been stealing from us for over five hundred years.”

Howe and Boyer’s project has many virtues. For one, it articulates the perils of corporate wind economies. For another, it positions Indigenous communities (like the Zapotec) not as outmoded objects for anthropological inquiry, but (á la Gayatri Spivak) as “active [producers] of culture.”10

Most importantly, perhaps, is how Wind and Power in the Anthropocene documents alternatives to corporate wind ventures like Mareña. The book highlights, for example, community-based initiatives that also seek to harness the awesome power of istmeño wind—projects that promote communal welfare and environmental justice.

The community-based Yansa Ixtepec wind farm, Howe and Boyer reveal, “follows the charge of Scheerian thinking”—that is, a localized form of grid power such as that imagined by solar champions like Herman Scheer—“seeking to harness renewable energy sources to transform and improve the social and political conditions of humanity, to bring justice and empowerment to long-marginalized indigenous communities in the postcolonial world.” But despite the project’s virtues, Yansa is consistently stifled by the municipal and federal government, whose economic interests lie with multinationals like Mareña or with public-private ventures like the La Ventosa wind farm (governed largely by private landholders, who have long determined the course of Mexico’s postindependence economy and its national sense of self).

Politics, not science (and surely not communal welfare), determines what energy we use.

Of course, the protests of the Zapotec community offer a consistent rejoinder to the myopic views of Mexican modernity espoused by the nation’s legislators and the private interests that they serve. For example, former Oaxacan state governor Gabino Cué contends that wind power promises a “loss-less flow between the attraction of foreign investment, the planetary struggle against climate change, the preservation of natural biodiversity, and the improvement of communal welfare.”

But, despite Cué’s assertion, Howe and Boyer make clear that Mexico’s wind industry is actually responsible for tremendous, unrecoverable losses to “natural diversity” and “communal welfare,” losses repeatedly sanctioned by the neoliberal mantra of privatization. Rather than a “loss-less” paragon to emulate, then, the story of wind energy in Mexico proves a concise praxis for thinking through unjust transition and its extraordinary costs.

Before continuing to explore the energopolitics of wind, we might pause to consider the very notion of transition, just or otherwise. Using the term “energy transition,” instead of the previously used “energy crisis,” foregrounds the promise of new energy regimes. But the term also obscures any focus on the reality, per Christopher Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, that “technological trajectories” are determined not by availability, but by “political conditions” and potential profit. Bonneuil and Fressoz also remind us that wind remained a prominent energy source in 19th-century Britain, but “the steam engine … despite being more expensive, constituted a flexible, modular and individual source of energy that matched very well the ideology of English textile capitalism of the 1830s.”11

Hence Boyer’s interest in energopolitics over and against mere energy: politics, not science (and surely not communal welfare), determines what energy we use.

Energopolitics explores, among other things, the intersections between the production of fossil capital and the centrality of such anthropocentric concepts as biopower to development projects generally, and to Mexico’s wind infrastructure specifically. “The project of wind power development” in the isthmus, Boyer contends, “is consistently articulated in biopolitical terms:  as means of guaranteeing or improving the health and welfare of human environments, economies, communities, and individuals.” That such guarantees are proven to be nothing but false promises does little to sully federal investment in such projects. Nor does it tarnish public perception regarding wind as a panacea in the face of increasing atmospheric carbon and the disproportionate impacts of climate change on communities like the Zapotec.

Sadly, though, Mexican wind power is just one example of the ways in which liberal green development models, across the globe, sanction social and environmental injustice.

Such examples also serve as a chilling reminder about the central hypocrisies of the environmentalism promoted in the global North. As I type this essay in my heavily air-conditioned office in South Florida, local residents here are protesting plastic straws and mourning sea turtles, but seem to care little for the human communities long subjected to the industrial effluvia pumped through the Everglades. Recalling Mareña’s commitment to sea turtle eggs over and against local fishermen, this example also makes clear that such forms of greenwashing prevail, whether in Mexico or South Florida.

Moreover, companies like Mareña, which build and promote allegedly green projects in one place, are, in fact, “producing thermoelectric power plants in other places.” Here, again, we see that the narrative of transition is bogus—a smoke screen for the persistence of extractive capitalism. Thus, Howe’s Ecologics begins with a critique not of energy but of the distorted logic that pervades “alternative” energy programs, like those documented on the isthmus.


“A Gun to Our Heads”

By Nathaniel Popkin

Notably, Howe also employs the speculative mode to attempt to imagine other possibilities. Not unlike Rachel Carson’s “fable for tomorrow,” which opens the 1962 Silent Spring, Ecologics invites the reader to speculate on possible futures, just or unjust.

Such speculation is evident in the book itself. Howe explains Ecologics as “an attempt to live within [the paradox of unjust transition] by illustrating how wind fails when it is made to repeat the extractive logics [of fossil capitalism] … or, conversely, how it can succeed by giving its energetic potential not only as a source of power but as a source for imagining politics and ecologics anew.” Howe continues: “Such refigurations between material, human, and nonhuman worlds require a crafting of political possibilities that move beyond material determinisms and social structure theories that have underwritten the industrializing logics of the past three centuries.”12

This, again, is why transition must be accompanied by a radical break in the energologics that undergird fossil-fuel economies. This, too, is why Indigenous studies scholars like Kyle Powys Whyte implore us to rethink categories such as environment to understand them not as isolated elements but in terms of relationships. For Powys Whyte and others, such as Donna Haraway, environment ought to be understood as a space cultivated in what Haraway has dubbed “co-responsibility.”13

Just as Howe explains that wind is an element that “is so much more than Anthropos,” scholars like Powys Whyte remind us that any mode of transition must hinge on “consent and accountability”—something expressly eschewed in the development ethos critiqued in the duograph.14 As we see demonstrated by initiatives like Yansa, or articulated in the protests of the Standing Rock Sioux community and Indigenous communities the world over, there are viable alternatives to such an ethos. But such alternatives indeed require an imaginative departure from energologic.

If we are to engage in just transition—and to be held accountable to the human and nonhuman communities whose lives are consistently sacrificed for the material comfort of the elite consumer—we are clearly talking about more than fuel. We must think not merely politically but energopolitically if we seek a politics predicated on common right, and an understanding of energy forms not as commodities but life forces. Only then might we actualize just transition. And if this seems at all utopian, so be it: this is, in fact, the future worth having.


This article was commissioned by Gretchen Bakkeicon

  1. In Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self (Breakdown Break Down, 2015), Brett Bloom discusses the presence of neodymium—a rare earth mineral—in the magnets of power windmills. He remarks that “making solar panels and wind turbines is a narrative that looks and feels really good and gives us the sense that we are doing something constructive to get ourselves away from reliance on oil. However, these items are resource intensive.” He later notes: “The windmill takes lives and it takes beauty; it takes habitat and nurturing away.” It should be noted, however, and contra the doleful tone of similar critiques—namely, Michael Moore’s 2019 film Planet of the Humans, or Bill McKibben’s notion of an “end of nature”—that there are great strides being made in the context of alternative energy futures, not all of which depend on extractivist logic. Kate Aronoff offers a productive critique of Moore’s film.
  2. For a useful gloss on the term “petroculture” (and a bibliography of works attendant to the study of petroculture and petromodernity), see Karina Baptista, “Petrocultures,” Global South Studies: A Collective Publication with the Global South (2017).
  3. I am referring to Debaise’s argument, which is an extension of Alfred North Whitehead’s, in Nature as Event: The Lure of the Possible (Duke University Press, 2017).
  4. For further discussion of “transcorporeality,” see Stacy Alaimo’s Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Indiana University Press, 2010). See William Connelly’s Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming (Duke University Press, 2017) for a discussion of “symbiogenesis”—the coterminous evolution of otherwise discrete “species.”
  5. Examples of the voluminous work on the categories of the “human” and “nonhuman” (or “inhuman”) include Alexander G. Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Duke University Press, 2014). See also Sylvia Wynter’s “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 3 (2003).
  6. See Szeman and Boyer’s introduction to Energy Humanities: An Anthology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017).
  7. See Achille Mbembe’s “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, vol.15, no. 1 (2003).
  8. See Povinelli’s Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism (Duke University Press, 2016).
  9. For a broader discussion of the history of fossil capitalism, see Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (Verso, 2016).
  10. In Spivak’s 2001 monograph Death of a Discipline (Columbia University Press, 2003), the comparatist argues for a more robust understanding of the oft-primitivized subaltern other within comparative literary study. Spivak’s is a familiar argument that anticipates debates in the field of anglophone world literature.
  11. Fressoz and Bonneiul further remark: “At the end of the nineteenth century, 6 million windmills, operating the same number of wells, played the historically fundamental role in opening up the plains of the American Midwest to agriculture and husbandry. These windmills were not pre-industrial but rotors built according to the principles of fluid dynamics, capable of following the wind and produced on a mass scale. In the American farmland, decentralized electricity production (using windmills and battery storage) remained dominant until the great programmes of rural electrification of the New Deal and post-war years.” The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us (Verso, 2016), p. 110.
  12. See also Kathryn Yusoff’s discussion of “white geology” and the material legacies of this sort of “logic” in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).
  13. I refer to Haraway’s recent monograph Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016).
  14. See the Cultures of Energy podcast, episode 166, in which Boyer and Howe interview Powys Whyte.
Featured image: Valley of Wind (2018). Photograph by Shownen / Unsplash