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Mikael Wolfe

Mikael Wolfe

Assistant Professor of History
History
B.A., Columbia University, East Asian Studies (1995)
M.A, The University of Chicago, International History (major field East Asia, minor field Middle East) (1999)
Ph.D., The University of Chicago, Latin American History (2009)

I am an environmental historian of modern Mexico and Latin America focusing on the history of water control, agrarian reform, hydraulic technology, drought and climate change. In several published articles and in my book manuscript “Watering the Revolution: The Technopolitical Success and Socioecological Failure of Agrarian Reform in La Laguna, Mexico,” I examine the role of technical actors or “técnicos’ – in particular hydraulic engineers and agronomists – as mediators between the Mexican state, society and nature from the late 19th to 20th centuries. Based on extensive archival research on the emblematic cotton rich north-central arid Laguna region, I argue that técnicos confronted an irresolvable contradiction between their realization of the urgent need for conservation of scarce water resources and the insatiable popular demand for them as they implemented Latin America’s most ambitious agrarian reform decreed by populist president Lázaro Cárdenas in the region in 1936. Rather than the mostly passive implementers of grand socio-environmental state engineering schemes depicted in much interdisciplinary literature, I show that they were active participants able to exert considerable influence on both local water users and national politicians as they “modernized” the region’s conflict-ridden but ecologically benign flood irrigation system from the 1930s to the 1970s. More broadly, I demonstrate how the paradox of technopolitical success (the impressive construction of large dams, canals and groundwater pumping installations) and the socioecological failure (rapid depletion and contamination of both surface and subsurface waters) of agrarian reform in the paradigmatic Laguna was inscribed in the revolutionary 1917 Constitution, which mandated both agricultural development and the conservation of natural resources nationwide without specifying how, thereby making técnicos work at cross-purposes with major conflicts-of-interest. Unfortunately, despite more advanced knowledge of natural processes that was subsequently incorporated in new legislation more strictly regulating profligate water use, the contradiction persists to this day, if now in the globally discursive guise of “ecologically sustainable development.”My second book project, tentatively entitled “The Climate of Revolution: The case of Mexico,” analyzes the role of climate change, and in particular drought, on the coming, process and consequences of the Mexican Revolution. The book aims to integrate historical climatology with social history by contextualizing climate – or long-term meteorological phenomena that constitute an observable pattern socially and culturally perceived as such by people residing in a bounded geographical region with common ecological features – as one among numerous complex factors explaining how and why people make revolutions when and where they do.I teach a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses in Mexican, Latin American, and comparative and global history on topics such as environmental change, technology, development, international relations, revolution and film.