What Fuels Energy Transitions: A Conversation with Germán Vergara

A statue of a person made of coal

Energy transitions are complex, non-linear processes. Important lessons gleaned from the history of energy transitions can inform our understanding of what future transitions might look like. In this interview with Dr. Germán Vergara, we explore the history of Mexico’s transition from renewable to non-renewable forms of energy. We also examine the commonalities in drivers and patterns of energy transitions that persist over space and time. Dr. Vergara and I discuss his forthcoming book (Fueling Mexico: Energy, Environment, and the Transition to a Fossil-Fueled Society, 1850-1950), the Green Revolution, the history of energy transitions in Mexico and beyond, and the politics of global climate action. Arming the listener with these crucial lessons from the past, Dr. Vergara leaves us with an inspiring call to action. 

This interview was recorded with the support of Claire King, Mike Piotrowski, and the University of Notre Dame’s Environmental Change Initiative.  

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Gurney: I’d like to begin by learning more about your upcoming book about fossil fuel transitions in Mexico. 

headshot of Germán Vergara
Germán Vergara is an assistant professor at Georgia Tech, specializing in Latin American and environmental history.

Germán Vergara: What the book tries to do is essentially explain how, when, and why Mexico transitioned to fossil fuels. In the early nineteenth century, Mexico was an agrarian society where fossil fuels were virtually unknown. People knew about coal and they knew already that people in Britain, in the U.S., or in Germany were using coal, but nobody used it. Oil was not a thing yet, not even in the U.S., and natural gas was essentially unknown. I start there and describe it as a society that is essentially living in what scholars, including myself, call a solar energy regime, where energy was appropriated by human society in the form of muscle power and things such as wood or food. I take a long perspective and try to understand how a hundred years later all of that had been transformed and how by the 1950s Mexico was a fossil fuel society whose economy and society depended (for more than 80 percent of its energy) on fossil fuels, and where muscle power had become mostly irrelevant for most stages of production. Even agriculture, which has been the area where fossil fuels have been slowest to penetrate, was already starting to adopt them because Mexico, as you may know, is a place where the Green Revolution began with the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation.

RG: Could you tell us more about the Green Revolution for our listeners to understand that better?

GV: The Green Revolution began essentially as a project funded by both the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government, and the idea was to create these hybrid seeds that would produce far more yields than traditional strains. Research in the 1940s was focused on wheat and maize. And by the 1950s those strains had been developed. In order for those strains to actually yield sometimes three or four times more than traditional strains, you have to adopt this whole package that usually involved irrigation that required electricity to pump the water, because most of Mexico has very stark differences between a rainy season and a dry season. So that was the first element of the package. 

The other one was that those strains really didn’t yield as much as promised without constant and recurrent applications of synthetic fertilizer. In order to produce that synthetic fertilizer, you need fossil fuels because it’s a very energy intensive process. And then there were other elements, for instance, mechanization in the form of tractors, which obviously also depended on fossil fuels. 

In Mexico, that radical transformation took place mostly in the north where irrigation was the norm and where you had these huge agribusinesses that had the capital to buy very expensive items such as tractors and invest a lot of money in irrigation systems. And so for a short period of time, Mexico was able to become self-sufficient in those two key grains (in wheat and maize). By the 1970s, Mexico had to start importing part of their consumption of wheat and maize again, but it had already kind of locked in its agricultural system into this heavy use of fossil fuels. 

black and white photo of people filling their tank with gasoline in Mexico City around 1930.
Filling the tank in Mexico City, circa 1930. Image courtesy of Vergara.

RG: You speak in your articles and in your book about how deforestation led to the use of coal and, to me, that really signals that common proverb that necessity is a mother of invention, or in this case, transition. So given that, what lessons can we learn? Is that saying that we’ll have to run out of fossil fuel before we transition? 

GV: That’s a question of drivers. One of the interesting things that I found is that actually there are a lot of similarities between the Mexican case and other cases. Almost everywhere the transition involved moving away from what we now would describe as renewable sources of energy (muscle power, water, wood, and so forth) to first coal—pretty much everywhere—and then oil and natural gas.

Another similarity between the Mexican case and other cases is that you see the processes unfolding at a regional rather than a national level. In Germany, it was mostly the rural region; in Great Britain, it was the Midlands and in London; in the U.S, it was the mid-Atlantic states and parts of the northeast; and in Mexico, it was mostly the area around Mexico City and then an area around Monterrey that first transitioned.

The other thing that happens pretty much everywhere is that it’s not a linear process. Everywhere sometimes the process accelerated, sometimes it slowed down. At a regional level or a local level, sometimes the process might go in reverse and people would stop using fossil fuels for some time and revert to wood and some to water power. 

And the other interesting thing is that there seems to be a general pattern: it was not individual consumers leading the process, it was mostly industrial interest and the state that was pushing the process pretty much everywhere. 

Transition happened mostly at the local level, and then it became a national phenomenon.

Now there are some differences between the transitions everywhere. In some cases, at the beginning, the problem of deforestation was not having enough wood to power your industries and so forth or transportation systems. But that driver wasn’t operating everywhere. For instance, it wasn’t really one of the many drivers in many parts of the U.S. because the U.S. had an abundance of forests, and so their railroads and industry could rely on forests for a much longer time than pretty much everywhere else. But there are some areas especially places like most of Britain and parts of Mexico where deforestation was a key driver. 

Mexico has a very stark divide between a dry and rainy season, so those factories that had adopted water power and water wheels to mechanize their production had to shut down for half a year because there was not enough water. That combination of very specific environmental conditions, in addition to this long history of mining that had literally devoured vast swaths of forests in Mexico, made fossil fuels a very attractive proposition. 

You see the slow adoption of coal, especially in large industries that depended on a lot of energy, like iron production and then later on steel production and also railroads. They started using coal. But the problem in Mexico is that it’s not Britain and it’s not the U.S. where coal is abundant. So the coal phase in Mexico was a very short one, and then a very fast transition to oil. All of this to say that we see similar drivers operating in different places, including wood scarcity in places like Mexico and Britain.

RG: What has been the role of social movements in catalyzing these energy transitions?

GV: In the 19th century and in the early 20th century, you don’t really see a lot of social movements pushing for the adoption of fossil fuels actually. What you see most of the time is people resisting the adoption of fossil fuels either because the combustion causes this very unpleasant smell or people rejecting the use of coal or natural gas because it tainted food in households. 

A group of protesters marching at a Gasolinazo protest in Mexico in 2017
“Gasolinazo” protesters voiced their outrage against rising oil prices and demanded government reform in Mexico. Photo by Protoplasma K, 2017.

If you want to think about the connection between transitions and social movements, I think what we know is, and I’m using the work of Timothy Mitchell in his book Carbon Democracy, the connection between movements that push for the development of a welfare state or a social safety net and people who came to control to some extent the distribution of those fossil fuels. 

In the case of Mexico you don’t really see that because coal was never king as it was in the U.S. or in a place like Britain. So you never see the formation of this working class that revolves around the extraction and the distribution of coal, and they never end up having this political power and political leverage that they do in other places. This is one of the reasons why the difference in timing and and the relevance of those stages do matter politically.

What really matters is to achieve political power, and social movements are crucial.

At least in the case of Mexico, it was mostly a process driven by state and industrial interests, and then most of the people were just dragged onto this transition—most of them reluctantly. In Mexico, what you see is this recurring notion that the transition to fossil fuels will enable the state to become stronger so that it can repel foreign threats. There was this anxiety over what the U.S. might do, including seizing more Mexican territory. The idea was that if Mexico adopted fossil fuels as it saw other countries doing it, Mexico would become a stronger nation and the state would be able to defend itself better. In other words, geopolitical reasons formed a very strong incentive to adopt fossil fuels. And in the 19th century, things like coal, and then later on oil, had this aura—or rather, they were associated with modern civilization. So if you wanted to be modern in the 19th century and early 20th century you had to industrialize on the basis of coal and later on oil.

RG: I’m curious about how your work relates to today’s contemporary challenges with transitioning. For example, places like California are making a lot of gains in this area, but we’re seeing some pushback from the current federal administration. What is your take in general?

GV: I don’t know what’s going to happen in part because in the past the energy transition was supported by the state, and here we see, in some cases, the state actually opposing the transition to renewable sources of energy. It’s hard to tell how impactful that will be. On the other hand, cities and local communities are pushing for this transition. It kind of replicates what we see in the past: that transition happened mostly at the local level and then it became a national phenomenon. In that sense if we take the past as a prologue, we can be hopeful that they will eventually succeed. But in the past those local communities didn’t have the opposition of the state and didn’t have the opposition of most industrial and corporate interests.

Led by a woman who is speaking through microphone, a group of protesters against Dakota Access Pipeline are standing, holding banners and signs.
Protest against the construction of the last leg of the Dakota Access Pipeline in front of the White House. Photo by Stephen Melkisethian, 2017.

I want to remain hopeful, but it is pretty daunting to see how these vested interests are and have been fighting for decades a transition to renewables. That is something that didn’t happen in the past. As a historian, I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but what’s happening today is disheartening and something for which we don’t have clear past examples. Now one of the things that one can say with certainty is that what really matters then is to achieve political power, and social movements are crucial. If you’re not able to use the awesome power of the state to foster those transitions, it will be really hard—really really hard—it might be impossible. Individual changes in lifestyle will not do the trick, and in a way, they’re a distraction from the large-scale, structural changes that we urgently need.

Featured image: Louis Pratt’s statue named ‘King Coal,’ which is made of coal, resin, fiber glass and steel. Photo by Ashley, 2015.

Dr. Germán Vergara was born and raised in Mexico City. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Berkeley in 2015 and held a postdoctoral fellowship in environmental history at Brown University from 2015 to 2017. He’s currently an assistant professor of history at Georgia Tech. Germán’s research has focused on the environmental and energy history of Mexico and has been published by Environmental History and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. His upcoming book, titled Fueling Mexico: Energy and Environment, 1850-1950, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2021. Contact.

Dr. Rachel Gurney is Assistant Director of the Center for Culture, History, and Environment (CHE) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Gurney is an environmental sociologist with a background in journalism and environmental science. She specializes in interdisciplinary research bridging social and natural sciences. Her primary research focuses on climate change skepticism and denial, (urban) climate change adaptation, the environmental movement and anti-environmental countermovement, and food insecurity. Contact.