Do something now : sustainable technology humanitarianism on the US-Mexico border




Carter, Catherine Markham

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This research responds to two questions: how can we understand the introduction of alternative sustainable technologies in a rural US-Mexico border community and what points of reflection inform future efforts in sustainability, technology, and humanitarianism? How has the border proximity shaped these efforts? Using ethnographic methods in combination with technological research tools like Actor Network Theory (ANT), I studied a bi-national community of experimenters, community workers, and two of their technological innovations—papercrete and biochar—to uncover the social constructions and meanings that influence sustainable technology humanitarianism in this divided land. By living among and volunteering with the group for 10 months, as well as conducting 23 life-history interviews, I gathered empirical data to convey my research participants' unique, yet in many ways universal, set of local social constructions that shape building projects. The findings explicate: the power of place, how participants construct ideas about the needs of others, participants’ assumptions about what constitutes action and their humanitarian purpose, on the invisible actors and forces in participants' lives, and on the process of uniting and dividing across borders. Two chapters also give voice to technologies and other invisible or muted actors in the research participant network. The research turns these patterns of social construction—or findings—into strategic points of reflection for audiences interested in humanitarianism, sustainability, technology, and the US-Mexico border. The dissertation also offers methodological and content contributions for sustainable design, sustainable or uneven development, and US-Mexico border studies. The ethnographic narration provides an empirical and nuanced account of how border dwellers cope with the conditions of the border and its asymmetry, and how this shapes the efforts to improve the built environment. For science and technology studies, the research is grounding in that it offers rich qualifications in the form of consequential localized social constructions and documents how the rural is as much a part of socio-technical change as the urban. The research is novel in US-Mexico borderlands research where little work has focused on the built environment and sustainability, particularly at a grassroots and building technology scale, highlighting the possibilities for future cross-border people-to-people initiatives. This research further develops methods to both study and understand the built environment, technologically and socially.



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