Symbols of Sustainability and the Unequal Development of Wind Power

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is another article by a member of the UNM Environmental and Economic Justice Working Group. Laura Garrison is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology. Her article continues the series of La Jicarita articles on the politics of sustainability.]


That “sustainability” has become the new stamp of wholesale approval on ethical soundness for just about anything, anywhere, seems virtually uncontested. If it’s “certified sustainable” then we can rest assured it’s environmentally, socially, and fiscally good everywhere, always, and for all, Amen.

I want to call attention to this problematic assumption, of which I have been guilty of making on numerous counts. Some time during my first semester of graduate school research I came across a photo reproduced by an environmental protection group in Scotland. The photo featured a wind turbine, engulfed in flames, surrounded by a ring of victoriously cheering children and adults. It left a powerful mark on my memory as I began seriously wondering for the first time whether some secret, dark side of sustainable development might exist behind the curtain of its promise to “protect the planet for future generations”.

The photo represented a profound contradiction—the possibility of which I had never before considered. The towering, gleaming, dynamic structure of today’s technologically-advanced wind turbine, with its capability of generating electricity without harming the environment, had become the ultimate symbolic icon, to my mind, of sustainable development’s promise of worldwide improvement of the human condition. But here, in this photo, people of all types had unified to oppose this same icon, literally sending it up in flames and collectively rejoicing at their efforts to destroy it.

How could that turbine symbolize, to those people in the photo, something so clearly counterpositional to what it had come to symbolize, at least to me? What was it about this sustainable technology movement of progress that I did not understand?

Last month, Dr. David Correia initiated a La Jicarita essay series dealing with the question of “what does sustainability mean in theory and practice?” He introduced the series by problematizing Walmart’s rebranded self as a proponent of “sustainable agriculture” and highlighting the unethical and otherwise contradictory practices that go on behind the “sustainability” label. This branding of sustainability is part-and-parcel of a larger trend in “ethical branding”, which, in its various forms, can broadly be described as a self-conscious attempt by consumer capitalism to counter public opinion of its negative impacts on people and the environment.

Strategic marketing campaigns by major multinational corporations, like Walmart, have created a popular culture out of ethical branding. Within this popular culture, actual business practices—the conceptual basis driving the market for ethically branded commodities—are semiotically indexed through various labels: “sustainable”, “local”, “fair trade”, “organic”, “corporate social responsibility”. Most critically, it seems as though the icons of such labels (whether visually or discursively represented) have gradually come to subsume all meanings tied to the word “ethical”, under what I would argue is an ideology of Sustainability.

Ideology, as it is used in social theory, may describe a political mechanism of control in which a coherent system of cultural beliefs is created and deployed by those in power, typically for the purpose of masking a reality of contradiction and oppression. An example of this, offered in Correia’s article last month, is Walmart’s enormous profit made off products marketed as “local” and “sustainable”— labels which mask the brutally exploitative conditions from which such products were actually sourced.

What I am concerned with here is how this concept has been manipulated by corporate marketing campaigns into a new ideology of power, which operates to continue the exploitative practices of corporate profit-seeking behind the various disguising labels of “sustainability”. It has been in recognizing the hidden, oppressive side of products and projects labeled as such that I have gradually come to conceptualize the possibility of something like a wind turbine that symbolizes something other than peaceful, universal, broad-based sustainable development.

Recently, the largest wind turbine development project in Latin America, with the potential to become the largest in the world, has been initiated in the Isthmus region of Oaxaca, Mexico. This region has been targeted for such a grand-scale project for several reasons, not least of them being the fact that it is one of the windiest places on the planet. Multinational corporations based in the U.S., France, Spain, and others have claimed stakes in developing the region with over 2,000 turbines to be erected over 424 square miles of what is predominantly collectively-owned indigenous territory. While a development project of this scale has the capability of providing electricity to nearly 5 million homes, not to mention the potential creation of local jobs, negotiations between corporations and the state have thus far agreed to funnel the vast majority of generated electricity into the manufacturing of Heineken and Coca-Cola bottles, and the powering of Walmart stores, with the labor required for development being imported by the corporate developers from outside Oaxaca.

The Zapotec and Huave owners of the ancestral land being developed in this region, which was previously used for the communal production of corn and small-scale cattle farming, have reported being “tricked” into exploitative lease agreements by “coyotes” hired by corporate developers. Claiming to have been promised agricultural aid in addition to adequate compensation, many landowners in the Isthmus region have yet to receive either. To highlight by comparison, landowners who have entered lease agreements for wind development in the U.S. receive an average return of $4,000 per hectare per year; reports from residents in the Isthmus have indicated returns as low as $15 per hectare per year, no job opportunities, and no agricultural assistance in return for their loss of productive land.

Reports celebrating the progress made by the Isthmus’ new corporate developers—such as Walmart—for becoming ethical, sustainable world business leaders have been numerous. That these development projects are made possible by displacing human populations, or otherwise deceptively coercing indigenous landowners into horrendously exploitative lease agreements leaving them powerless in the eyes of the law, is a fact that has been altogether left out of such reports, serving to underscore the ideological maneuvers of corporate ethical branding. Unable to experience the benefits of “sustainable development” on their own lands, the displaced and exploited peoples in the Isthmus region have begun to mobilize in opposition to corporate wind development projects. As in the photo from Scotland, this situation parallels the increasing worldwide popular resistance forming around sites of sustainable development. We must ask what this means, in terms of the popular conceptual meanings now associated with sustainability in consumer society, and as they contrast with the practical meanings that have emerged on the ground.

To answer, I suggest we look deeper into the contradictions contained in the symbolic example of the wind turbine. On the one hand, this icon evokes, for many, sentiments of hope—that through the advance of modern technology we are now on our way towards a sustainable future that is less and less dependent upon socially and environmentally degrading practices. On the other hand, it has increasingly come to symbolize the dehumanizing and oppressive practices that corporate powers implement for short-term profit, regardless of the social costs.

If the former meaning indicates any real possibility, as I believe it does, then its failure—implicit in the existence of the latter—is to be located in its prioritization of technological advancement over human needs. That sustainable development technology symbolizes, to many, just another means of exploitation and oppression, indicates a problem, not with the actual technology but with the ways and means by which it is implemented.

“Sustainability”, as Dr. Correia suggests, needs to be critically analyzed equally as a theory and a practice. We must seek an understanding for why a theory like sustainability, heralded by so many as an ethical alternative to the degrading practices of corporate giants, has, in practice, generated the same types of oppositional sentiments that led to its popular marketing in the first place. Approaching this discontinuity as a possible symptom of ideological domination by corporate powers, based on the cases emerging from the development of wind power, I suggest, may provide a useful point of departure.


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