State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Student Explores Energy Resources in Chile

By Jessica Sotomayor

Grant1-397x600 crop2Grant Gutierrez’ passion for energy resources has led him to further explore the relationship between its application, development and consumption. He is hoping that his studies in anthropology and sustainable development will help him reshape the way people think about energy and the resources available. As one of the Undergraduate Sustainable Development Global Fellows, Grant lived in Chile over the summer and conducted ethnographic research on energy development in the country.

What drew you to the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development?

I have always had an innate curiosity and appreciation for the natural world, the space in which humans encounter not only beauty and history and the grand narrative of the universe, but themselves. Upon arriving at Columbia, I felt it necessary that my generation prepare itself to understand the critical relationship between humans and the natural environment and how we can help make reparations for the damage we’ve caused. The program at Columbia is appealing in that it attempts to tackle this relationship through multiple disciplinary approaches. It asks real-world questions and encourages students to seek out realistic, real-world solutions.

What areas of sustainable development are you most interested in, and why?

To this day, it is still difficult for me to define exactly what “sustainable development” means – I think it is a struggle that the thinkers, leaders and scientists at the forefront of the climate debate face consistently. I think “sustainability” signifies a radical rupture from our previous modes of consumption and application of resources and pushes us to question critically the idea of growth for growth’s sake, technology as the ultimate answer to human needs. What I dedicate myself to is the study of energy, its application and development, and how the discourse of sustainability shapes our consumption of energy. It is of the utmost importance that we move away from extractive industries, where a few large corporations own the majority of production, and transition to smaller-scale, diversified, local sources of energy production, such as wind and solar.

What skills do you hope to acquire through the program?

To gain a language to discuss energy and its current applications and development; to understand the legal structuring of energy development and regulation in this country; to think at multiple scales and levels, be it local, regional, national, global, etc.; to understand the interconnectivity and the scope of the challenge facing us and how even the smallest of changes – like energy efficiency – can put us on the right path.

How do you intend to utilize these skills, and your degree, once you graduate?

I plan on pursuing a JD/PhD program in environmental law and anthropology. I hope to utilize anthropology to situate a critique of sustainable development and work with local populations to imagine development in ways that complement their own local culture. Further, I hope to be a part of the education solution in higher education through my research in cultural anthropology and bring academics out of the ivory tower – I think environmental anthropology is a discipline ripe for weaving together activism and academics. Before going back to school, I’d like to work for a solar technology corporation or non-profit like SunPower or GRID Alternatives.

What is your favorite class in the program so far, and why?

That has to be a toss-up between Alternative Energy Resources – which was an engineering class that explored the mechanics of varying alternative energy resources – and Energy Law, which was a class at the law school examining U.S. energy policy and regulation of energy infrastructure. Alternative Energy Resources was by far the most difficult class I have taken at Columbia – it was way more technical than any of my previous classes, and really challenged me. Energy Law was taught by Professor Michael Gerrard, who is an expert on the subject. His presentation and subtle critique while still imparting “objective information” were entertaining and engaging – but he is a believer in the powers of the market, where I hope for a more radical solution to the legal problems regarding anthropogenic climate change.

Beyond the classroom, what, if any, extracurricular sustainability-related activities have you engaged in?

On campus, I am pioneering a student group to think critically about the university’s use of space and the development of said space to incorporate ideas of sustainability. Our project now is focused on creating a rooftop community garden, which we have called the Urban Living Lab. While we are meeting resistance from the university, this is expected – we hope to make more significant progress this coming school year. Not specifically “extracurricular,” but this summer (2014) I spent three months living in Chile to conduct ethnographic research regarding energy development in the country, specifically focused on large hydroelectric power and the mega-dam project called HidroAysen.

Columbia’s Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development is an interdisciplinary program that addresses sustainable development through an understanding in the interaction between natural and social systems, offered through the Earth Institute in partnership with Columbia College and the School of General Studies. Participating departments and schools of the Sustainable Development major and special concentration include the Department of Earth and Environmental Biology; the Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering; the School of International and Public Affairs and the Mailman School of Public Health.

To learn more about the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development, visit our website or contact Program Manager Jessica Sotomayor at

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