Vergara's New Book 'Fueling Mexico' Aims to Answer a Childhood Question
Posted July 27, 2021
Growing up in the mountains outside of Mexico City, Germán Vergara woke up every morning in fresh, clear air. But the city below him was always blanketed in smog, and he dreaded driving down into it for school. One year the pollution was so bad, he remembered, his school opened late for weeks in a city-wide attempt to let the wind clear the air before students and families ventured into it.
"It was just a fact of life," said Vergara, now an assistant professor in the School of History and Sociology. "And for me, it was always astonishing that people kind of got used to the air pollution and saw it almost as normal and inevitable."
Still, he wondered why it had become so severe. So, when Vergara began his Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley, he started reading about energy history. He studied the historians who traced how societies came to rely on fossil fuels and the sprawling implications of that dependency.
"I realized that nobody had done it for any country in Latin America," he said, "and I thought, okay, this is a worthy story."
Six years later, his new book, Fueling Mexico, tells the story of energy history in Latin America for the first time. Published on June 24, it explores the people, policies, and decisions that catapulted Mexico from wood to coal to the oil dependency they face today.
Why fossil fuels?
Fueling Mexico focuses on a critical juncture in Mexican history from 1850 to 1950.
During the colonial period, Mexico was one of the biggest global producers of silver, but the country eventually faced an energy bottleneck. Mining and processing silver took vast amounts of heat, which required burning large supplies of wood. The forests of central Mexico, where most of the population lived and worked, were severely depleted by the early 1800s, and the widespread use of wood-burning steam engines after 1850 in mining, industry, and railroads only worsened deforestation. Aware that Europe and the United States were relying on coal, Mexico tried to do the same after 1880. They weren't able to find much in their country, said Vergara, "but when they discovered vast deposits of oil in the 20th century, that changed the whole story."
Surprisingly, for decades Mexican elites saw fossil fuels as a “green” choice for industrialization, because they believed fossil energy would allow Mexico to fuel industrial growth without deforestation.
"From the perspective of the 21st century, that's really counterintuitive," Vergara continued. "But a big part of environmental history is exploring the unintentional results of human choices, and my book is really about the unintended consequences of adopting fossil fuels."
Consequences like a persistent smog over Mexico City, and a little boy going to school late because the air was too unsafe to breathe.
Documenting Mexico’s History
Fueling Mexico is an original contribution to our understanding of the country and the literature around it.
"For historians and other scholars, it will add to, and perhaps shape, their understanding of Mexican history," said Vergara. "And that's my goal."
Now, the next time someone wonders what's causing all the smog in Mexico City, they won't have to speculate for long. They can pick up Vergara’s new book and find out.
“Fueling Mexico” was published by Cambridge on June 24, 2021. Visit Germán Vergara’s profile to learn more about the book as well as his second project about biodiversity crisis in the region.
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