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The Isthmus of Tehuantepec spans three states in the south of Mexico, including one of the poorest, Oaxaca. This narrow stretch of land separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Pacific Ocean is swept by strong and nearly constant winds, making it highly attractive as a site for wind power infrastructure. State policies, with the resulting interaction between government officials, contracted foreign developers, and the local, highly diverse indigenous population creates a very complex mix of sociotechnical, environmental, cultural, political, and economic narratives. It is the ideal spot for HSD candidate and Fulbright scholar Carlo Altamirano to conduct his field research in his native Mexico.
Altamirano’s dissertation, broadly speaking, concerns the social dimensions of energy transitions. How do governments and companies assess the viability of new energy projects and handle controversies? What is the nature of those controversies in terms of democracy, accountability, and transparency? What is the social value of wind as an energy resource? His research shines light – and casts shadows – on nuanced issues associated with clean energy. While freedom from fossil fuel dependency is certainly a valuable goal, it comes with difficult questions involving social justice and indigenous rights. These dynamics are converging in areas like Tehuantepec, and “are shaping Mexico’s energy visions and future,” Altamirano says.
Finding answers to those difficult questions is where Altamirano wants to focus his career. “Policy analysis has great power and potential,” he says, referring to influence that “strengthens channels of communication between the public and policy makers.” Altamirano, whose father was once a Mexican legislator, insists that engaging directly with politics from within does not appeal to him, but perhaps it is worth mentioning that Oaxaca is also his father’s homeland and that Carlo is the co-president of Local to Global Justice, a grassroots organization that links the academy, and community members by promoting diversity, freedom of speech, and social justice.
In November of 2015, Altamirano was invited by Unesco to participate in the World Science Forum in Budapest, hosted by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He served as a TA in CSPO’s Science Diplomacy & Leadership program in D.C. in summer 2015 – a role he’ll be reprising in 2016. Recently, he co-authored a piece with SFIS’s Cynthia Selin and other researchers, based on a large scale public engagement enterprise called “Futurescapes City Tours” that has been published in the Public Understanding of Science journal.
It is noteworthy that Altamirano, an international student, shares the general opinion of his peers that SFIS is a special place to get an education. “I think it’s remarkable that a group of people were brave enough to create a school named the School for the Future of Innovation in Society,” he remarks, smiling. “SFIS is creating a new discipline. It’s creating a movement with a unique perspective.” That perspective, he thinks, extends to the university as a whole. “ASU is the right place to have this degree because it’s truly worked hard to break interdisciplinary barriers.” That doesn’t mean there aren’t pitfalls to be aware of, though. “The size of ASU… people don’t know what’s going on, and there are a lot of opportunities that are underutilized.” He continued, “We tend to fall into isolation, but I’ve learned – the hard way – that it’s really good to have a community of peers helping to create new ideas.”