Arts & Culture
John McNeil
Spring 2022
What We're Reading

What We’re Reading: Fueling Mexico: Energy and Environment, 1850-1950

A review of Fueling Mexico: Energy and Environment, 1850-1950 by German Vergara

Review by Prof. John McNeill, Edmund. A. Walsh School of Foreign Service & Department of History, Georgetown

To an environmental historian like Professor McNeill, Vergara’s book hits a sweet spot; an in-depth history of energy in Mexico. 

 “[Vergara] explains the transition from the early 19th century, when Mexico depended on animal and human muscle, and on wood as fuel for heating and the occasional steam engine, to a fossil-fueled society utterly reliant on oil,” Dr. McNeill said.  

Photo by Stacey Gabrielle Koenitz Rozells via UnSplash

As other energy sources became more expensive, oil appeared as the solution to Mexico’s energy constraints. “But, like wood and coal, oil created a raft of environmental problems that Mexico struggles with to this day,” McNeill noted.  Indeed, Vergara discusses deforestation, air pollution from coal combustion, air, water, and soil pollution from oil combustion and spills. 

Understanding the history of energy in Mexico is critical to tackling its consequences. “The fossil fuel-based energy system created around the world since 1850, Mexico included, is the single most important determinant of environmental outcomes,” reviewed McNeill. “The next energy transition, away from fossil fuels, is an urgent priority, indeed I would say the most urgent and the most important priority of policy and politics, so it is helpful to develop a sense of how energy transitions proceed and what obstacles they face.”

Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.

Kenneth Boulding, economist

This is part of the Common Home series, What We’re Reading where we welcome reviews of emerging works in the environmental publishing world.

energy transition
environmental history
fossil fuels
German Vergara
John McNeil