Reflections Upon Sovereignty, Economy, and the Global History of Natural Resources

By Natasha Pesaran (Columbia)

On 18 and 19 December 2017, Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge hosted a conference on “Sovereignty, Economy, and the Global Histories of Natural Resources.” Organized by Tehila Sasson of Emory University, winner of the 2017 International Research Awards in Global History, the conference brought together scholars from diverse fields to discuss the global history of natural resources from multiple vantage points. Rather than focusing on a single natural resource or geographic region, the conference aimed to take a holistic approach and the papers as a whole transcended the global north and south divide and drew upon a number of different methods, archives, and theoretical frameworks.

A central aim of the conference was to explore the ways in which a concern with natural resources might offer new ways of writing histories of empire and decolonization. This theme was taken up directly in Angelo Matteo Caglioti’s paper, which demonstrated how a focus on natural resources could lead to re-interpretation of the history of Italian colonialism. In particular, Caglioti argued that imperial competition between Britain and Italy over water resources, specifically the Lake Tana dam project, shed explanatory light on Italy’s decision to invade Ethiopia in 1935. Similarly weaving together diplomatic, environmental, and imperial history in his study of the Marcus Island incident in 1902, Paul Kreitman explored the competing US and Japanese attempts to assert sovereignty over the island and its ecology of albatrosses and guano. Finally, Megan Black shed light on the relationship between natural resources and imperialism in her study of the US Department of the Interior and its pursuit of an ever wider frontier overseas after the close of the American frontier. Her paper persuasively argued that minerals were not only an object of US expansionism but also offered a means of expansion, enabling America’s settler colonial bureaucracies to assert influence and claim expertise.

Turning to the role of natural resources in histories of the end of empire, Charlotte Lydia Riley explored Britain’s postwar efforts to control, harness, and develop agricultural raw materials through a study of two major colonial development schemes: the East African Groundnut Scheme and the Gambian Poultry Scheme. Moving from agricultural raw materials to the fertilizers necessary to produce them, Simon Jackson tracked the development of what he terms a “phosphate archipelago” in North Africa, beginning with French efforts in the interwar period and looking forward to postwar phosphate politics. Jackson examined the role of international institutions like the EEC and the World Phosphate Institute, as well as the legacies of the imperial relationship with France, on Morocco’s post-independence emergence as a swing producer of phosphorus products. Benjamin Siegel similarly explored a set of postcolonial transformations in the production of another commodity – opium. His paper traced the restructuring of the Indian opium regime from an illicit trade to one of regulated production and mapped the processes by which Indian opium became increasingly central to American pain management.

A number of papers addressed the nature of postcolonial sovereignty, often taking up this theme through a focus on international organizations, networks, and institutions. Cindy Ewing’s study of the Colombo Powers provided a political and diplomatic history of regional cooperation and its ramifications during the Cold War, while exploring how notions of solidarity and Asian unity were constructed. Mats Ingulstad considered how the UN came to be envisioned as the institution that would mange and govern mineral resources for the common good after World War Two through a study of debates over deep sea mining and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Taking the international conference as a site of inquiry, Chris Dietrich examined disagreements over the meaning of sovereignty over oil among a class of decolonized “oil elites”, placing these intellectual debates in the context of Libyan resource nationalism, the changing politics of the Cold War, and the global oil economy in the 1970s. A concern with regimes of knowledge production and expertise sharing was also taken up in Daniela Russ’s paper, which examined the calculative practices that enabled states and multinational institutions to treat energy as a system in the twentieth century.

The status of natural resources in international law and the various definitions of sovereignty and legal histories that emerge when natural resources are placed at the forefront of historical narratives was a second important theme pursued at the conference. This was taken up in particular by Johanna Sackel who examined the impact of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the expansion of exclusive economic zones on conceptions and claims to sovereignty over fish in Germany and Mauritania. Evaleila Pesaran’s paper focused on the legal dispute between Iran and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (today, BP) that resulted from Iran’s cancellation of its oil concession in 1932. In particular, she used the oil dispute to shed light on the ways in which Iran’s sovereignty was constrained and to explore the ways in which oil provided both a motive and opportunity for the establishment of unequal authority relationships in the global international order.

The conference took a broad approach in its definition of natural resources and the question of what constitutes a natural resource was discussed by participants across the two days. Alongside panels focused on carbon, minerals, and water, papers were also presented which took more unusual kinds of resources, such as microbes and scientific knowledge, as their focus: Albert Wu examined the anti-BCG vaccination movements that emerged in the wake of the Lübeck disaster in the 1920s and 30s, and Eric Paglia considered the transformation of Ny-Ålesund from an Arctic coal mining settlement to scientific international research base in the late-1980s. In thinking through a definition of natural resources, Roland Wenzlhuemer suggested that perhaps a common defining criteria was their spatially fixed nature, while Paul Kreitman asked participants to consider the politics of classifying something as a natural resource and suggested that to talk about a natural resource is to rip it out of its context and to fetishize it. Bathsheba Demuth pointed out that the question of for whom nature is a resource, and the presumed answer – for humans – was often taken for granted. Indeed, many of the papers took approaches that focused on diplomatic competition over resources or on legal governance, institutions, and ideas about natural resources rather than the natural resources themselves. Demuth’s paper stood out in its attempt to give analytical weight to the non-human and the material. In her study of the Nome Gold Rush 1898-1905 she showed the way in which geology and the original state of non-human elements in the subterranean world mattered for how profits and labor came to be organized along the lines of a corporate vision of capitalism.

In her remarks in the roundtable discussion Vanessa Ogle similarly drew attention to the materiality of objects we study and the concepts linked to them, pointing to the ways in which, like other terminologies, the use of the term natural resources has its own history and has been framed in different ways across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In particular, she highlighted the ways in which a focus on natural resources would be useful in rendering visible the legal characteristics that accompany different capitalist regimes. Echoing Ogle’s comments on the connection between natural resources and the history of capitalism, Paul Wade called for a fuller consideration of the economy in analyses of natural resources and asked how sovereign control over natural resources matters to regional and global market processes. In addition, Brad Simpson suggested that in thinking about sovereign control over natural resources, scholars should also consider commodity flows and particularly the role of corporations, which are crucial to the organization of these flows. Finally, in his keynote speech, “Sovereign Nature”, Jedediah Purdy brought history into conversation with the present, offering some reflections on the politics of the anthropocene and the possibilities for the future of sovereignty and resources.

The conference provided an excellent starting point for consideration of these questions and enabled participants to reflect on the methods and the analytical tools required to write a global history of natural resources. Astrid M. Eckert’s comments were particularly useful in this regard and she put forward a number of possible approaches to enable historians to better capture the interdependent world of natural resources. These included using the global commons as a potential analytical tool; the concept of telcoupling as a way of studying the displacement effects of resources; and the study of social metabolism, an approach often used by environmental historians in order to shed light on the material flows of resources connecting economy and society with natural systems. As Eckert rightly pointed out, one size will not fit all, and historians must continue to refine the tools needed to connect multiple places and fields of history. However, as the papers presented at the conference made clear, the global history of natural resources offers a rich topic of study and there is much exciting work already underway.

Sovereignty, Economy, and the Global History of Natural Resources was sponsored by the Institute for European Global Studies at the University of Basel, the Department of History and the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europe in a Global Context” at Heidelberg University, and the Laureate Research Program in International History at the University of Sydney. Additional support was received from Past & Present and the Centre for History and Economics at the University of Cambridge.

Past & Present was pleased to support this event and supports others like it. Applications are welcomed from scholars of at all career stages working on all time periods.

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