Member of the Week: Matt Vitz

Matt Vitz

Associate Professor of Latin American History

UC San Diego

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?

I am currently working on several projects. First, I am devising a second book project that will examine the historical relationship between indigenous knowledges and elite and scientific imaginaries about indigenous peoples from the age of development to the age of environmental critique. The focus will be on southern Mexico from the 1940s to the 1980s, when social and natural scientists debated the place of indigeneity within the paradigm of national development. During the 1970s, an influential group of anthropologists, agronomists and tropical ecologists condemned both the ecocide of tropical landscapes and the ethnocide of indigenous peoples devastated by decades of mega projects and assimilationist state policy. In dialogue with international scientific trends and environmental debates, they increasingly turned to indigenous life ways—a package of knowledges and practices—to address a growing crisis regarding the direction of the nation.

I see four main purposes of this research: 1) Give a deeper historical understanding of how and why expert knowledges about indigenous peoples’ environmental practices have shifted over time—from wasteful and backwards to a more ambivalent stance in which harmony and sustainability jostle with older ideas; 2) Examine the political conjunctures at the local, national, and international levels in which certain indigenous peoples have come to embrace an “environmentalism of the poor”—borrowing Joan Martínez Alier’s term; 3) Using southern Mexico as a case study, seek to shed new light on wider global discussions happening at the end of the century in which both ecological destruction and existential survival pivoted on native peoples’ relationship to the land; and 4) Historicize the trend in the social sciences and among environmental advocates celebrating “traditional environmental knowledge” and “political ontology” in order to avoid dangerous essentialist evocations. Although this project is veering away from urban studies, I came to it through my research on the rise of a technocratic urban environmentalism in Mexico City after 1940 and my study of elite views of wasteful campesino land practices on the periphery of the city.

I have two other projects that lie squarely in the field of urban studies. One is a contribution to Cambridge University Press’s Global Urban History Element series that will use my own research on urban Mexico as well as other scholarly literature to identify the ways a global-historical method and framework can enrich our understanding of urban environments in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although my book, A City on a Lake, followed planners and engineers across national boundaries, it remains, like most urban environmental histories, firmly anchored in its place of study: Mexico City and its immediate environs. Since its publication, I have been drawn to innovations in political ecology, postcolonial urbanism, and global historical methods that can expand the spatial lens of urban environmental historians and reveal new ways of interpreting power, materiality, and expertise in the process of urbanization. My other current project is an article that looks at the growth of Acapulco as one of the first resort tourist cities and the lessons Mexican and international tourism promoters learned about the popular destination as they faced leftwing threats, overdevelopment of the tourist zone, and the underdevelopment of wide swaths of Mexico’s resort-ripe coastlines. 

 What you are currently teaching? How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I teach Latin American history and environmental history, including a two-course sequence on the history of Mexico and a History of the Anthropocene that focuses on the period of the Great Acceleration. I also teach smaller seminars on global environmental history, the politics of development and third wordlism in the Americas, and global environmental history. I have always found that teaching drives my research: not only do I enjoy sharing my work with students, but I also have found lecture and other class preparation to be an incubator of new research ideas. For example, teaching about the history of environmentalisms in my Anthropocene course helped me devise my second book project described above. 

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I’m very excited about a few books coming out soon: Diana Montaño’s Electrifying Mexico: Technology and the Transformation of a Modern City; Germán Vergara’s Fueling Mexico: Energy and Environment, 1850-1950; and Andra Chastain’s Chile Underground: The Santiago Metro and the Struggle for a Rational City immediately come to mind. All three will be key new contributions to the urban history of Latin America.  

What advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?

I would say, well done, you’ve selected a field of study that will be at the forefront of imagining a new world. It has become cliche to say that we now live on an urban planet, with over half of the world’s population inhabiting cities. Yet it is such an important fact because it will be in our cities where we determine whether our planet will ultimately be inhabitable, and, if so, inhabitable for whom. There are so many environmental innovations happening within cities today—from movements advocating the “right to the city,” communal gardening, and environmental movements of urban regeneration, to plans to realize the “smart city.” We need people trained in the critical perspectives of urban studies to interrogate these innovations and help direct and organize people to achieve urban environmental justice, equality, and livability.

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