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Mikael D. Wolfe

Mikael D. Wolfe

Assistant Professor of History
Field: 
History of Science
Latin America
Transnational, International, and Global History
Ph.D., The University of Chicago, 2009
M.A., The University of Chicago, 2000
B.A., Columbia University, 1995

I am a historian of modern Latin America whose work centers on the intersection of social, political, environmental, and technological change. In particular, I explore questions of water control, agrarian reform, and the effects of climate and weather on the process of social revolution. I employ interdisciplinary historical methods in my scholarship and teaching that seek to transcend the imaginary boundary between the human and nonhuman environments.

My first book, Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico (Duke, 2017; winner, 2018 Elinor K. Melville Prize for Latin American Environmental History; short-listed, 2018 María Elena Martínez Prize for Mexican History), investigates how people managed their water—via dams, canals, and groundwater pumps—in a great crucible of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, the arid north-central Laguna region. In so doing, it demonstrates how Mexican federal engineers were not merely passive implementers of large-scale state development schemes such as agrarian reform. Instead, to implement the latter, they actively mediated knowledge between state and society, identifying what they thought was technologically possible and predicting its environmental consequences. The book also explains how engineers encountered an intrinsic tension between farmers’ insatiable demand for water and the urgency to conserve it. By closely examining how the Mexican state watered one of the world’s most extensive agrarian reforms, the book tackles an urgent question in the literature on postrevolutionary Mexican state formation, Latin American environmental history and history of technology, and global development studies: how and why do governments persistently deploy invasive technologies for development even when they know those technologies are ecologically unsustainable?

To answer this global question, my book integrates environmental and technological history along with social, economic, political, and legal analyses based on extensive research in archival sources, journals, newspapers, and government publications in Mexico and the United States. Using this “envirotechnical” analytical framework, the book uncovers the varied motivations behind the Mexican government’s decision to use invasive and damaging technologies despite knowing they were unsustainable. My book thereby transforms our understanding of human-nature interactions, water policy, and agricultural development in Latin America. As such, it has been reviewed by 28 US and international journals of history, technology studies, agricultural and environmental sciences, and water management.

My research on agrarian reform and water management in north central Mexico led me to investigate how weather shapes the process of social revolution across Mexico’s and Cuba’s varied climates and environments. In my new book project, Rebellious Climates: How Extreme Weather Shaped the Mexican and Cuban Revolutions, I combine environmental history and historical climatology to argue that extreme weather events such as drought, frost, and hurricanes were not merely infrequent external shocks to these two agrarian nations, quickly entering and exiting the main anthropocentric stage of their theaters of revolution. Instead, these events were long enmeshed in both nations’ politics, economics, society, and culture, and thereby shaped the origins and progression of their revolutions in ways largely overlooked by historians.

In the Mexican case, for example, habitually inaccurate and misleading press coverage of regional weather events politicized severe but localized drought and frost from 1907-1911. This “politico-environmental” coverage influenced Porfirio Díaz’s relief policy of lowering duties on imported US grain, which exacerbated socioeconomic hardship in many rural areas, including ones that rebelled during the revolution. This coverage also affected counterinsurgency campaigns by creating the perception among urban elites that revoltosos (rural bandits) fought in forbidding climates that required specially acclimated federal troops. Similarly, in Cuba, the extremely variable climate of the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains simultaneously protected Fidel Castro’s guerrillas from Batista’s army and became a second ‘enemy’ due to the environmental hardship the barbudos (a machista moniker for the guerrillas meaning bearded ones) endured. After 1959, the severe effects of the 1961-2 drought and Hurricane Flora in October 1963 escalated into a war of words between Cuba and the United States that was intertwined with the larger geopolitical conflict over Cuba’s Soviet-style development and US-sponsored counterrevolution.

This is a pioneering effort to analyze how the real as well as perceived effects of weather events influenced a variety of historical actors’ motivations to join, resist, or stay out of revolutionary movements in Latin America. It also explores how revolutionaries, once in power, used their experience weathering environmental hardships during their armed struggles to craft narratives legitimizing their rule as well as postrevolutionary environmental policy. In so doing, the book expands our historical understanding of how weather becomes geopoliticized, and even literally and figuratively weaponized, during times of conflict.

My third book project analyzes how nature was genderized in Latin American history, literature and material culture during the twentieth century. The book, tentatively titled Gendering Nature and Technology in Modern Latin America, uses a historical and ethnographic approach to explore how Latin American elite and popular classes socioculturally perceived and represented nature and technology as either male or female. It then examines how this gendering shaped Latin American development and national identity formation.

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Selected Publications & Projects

Mikael D. Wolfe
In Watering the Revolution Mikael D. Wolfe transforms our understanding of Mexican agrarian reform through an environmental and technological history...

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Courses I am teaching in 2019-2020 (click here for Explore Courses Information)

Explorations in Latin American History and Historiography (Fall)

Human Society and Environmental Change [co-taught with Zephyr Frank and Rosamond Naylor] (Fall)

The Historical Ecology of Latin America (Winter)

Film and History of Latin American (Counter)Revolutions (Winter)

 

Courses previously taught:

Water in World History

The Ethical Challenges of Climate Change

Mexico since 1876: History of a 'Failed State'?

U.S. Intervention and Regime Change in Twentieth Century Latin America

Environment, Technology, and Revolution in World History

Comparative Historical Development of Latin America and East Asia