Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Coal that Would Save the Trees

Germán Vergara

Fossil energy protected forests while allowing for increased economic activity. In today’s parlance, coal and oil were good for the environment. This conviction (counterintuitive from the perspective of our time) appears frequently in Mexico’s historical record. It was one of the key drivers of Mexico’s transition to fossil fuels as the basis of its economy and society.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the renowned Spanish mining engineer Fausto de Elhuyar, founder and director of New Spain’s College of Mines (Colegio de Minería) and longtime royal mine supervisor, adamantly opposed adopting steam engines in Mexico to drain silver mines. His objections were clear. Centuries of silver mining had stripped large swaths of forest cover from New Spain’s territory (modern Mexico). Steam engines—powered by fuelwood—would only worsen the problem. He proposed instead using improved horse-or-watered-powered winches as cheaper option that required no fuel. (It didn’t hurt that Elhuyar himself had recently developed an improved winch.) Aware that the Spanish government might decide to introduce steam engines into its colony despite his opposition, Elhuyar called for locating coal deposits as soon as possible. Coal would power steam engines, foregoing the need to use vast amounts of fuelwood and thus saving many Mexican forests from the ax.

During the brief reign of Maximilian of Habsburg (1864-1867), the renowned Mexican savant Leopoldo Río de la Loza advised his majesty that “the most direct measure to impede […] total destruction [of the country’s forests] would be to adopt coal, both for steam engines and ironworks furnaces, and in any other operation in which coal can be used…”.[1] Almost 70 years later, in 1932, then President Pascual Ortiz Rubio visited Tláhuac, an area north of Mexico City that promised to become a source of natural gas (another fossil fuel) for the city. One newspaper touted that natural gas would “free” local forests from their “enemy,” fuel consumption. Mexico City residents, it claimed, should adopt natural gas for cooking if they wanted to avoid turning their valley into a desert. If they did not, the newspaper prophesized, “their children’s wails would reach their tombs, reproaching them for having destroyed a good that could have been made fertile, beautiful, and productive.” [2]

The desire to conserve forests and the many benefits attributed to them by nineteenth and twentieth-century Mexicans —forests were widely viewed as climatic engines that regulated rainfall critical for food production and purified “miasmas” or polluted air— was just one of several reasons that convinced Mexican elites to pursue exploiting fossil fuels on a large scale. But it neatly captures something essential about the modern energy transition to fossil energy: its unintended environmental consequences. Coal, oil, and natural gas may have indeed saved some forests from being turned into fuel, but they did so at the expense of destabilizing the global climate and turning far larger areas of forest into giant kindles. Yesterday’s “solution” has become today’s problem.


[1] Leopoldo Río de la Loza, Escritos de Leopoldo Río de la Loza, (México: Imprenta de Ignacio Escalante, 1911), 332. Río de la Loza believed a “patriotic call” on individuals to follow forest regulations would fall on deaf ears and constant political turmoil prevented their enforcement.

[2] “Noticias sobre los pozos de gas de Tláhuac” (1932), caja 3722, exp. 90119, Archivo Histórico de Pemex.

Fueling Mexico By Germán Vergara
Fueling Mexico By Germán Vergara

About The Author

Germán Vergara

Germán Vergara is Assistant Professor of History at the Georgia Institute of Technology....

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!