Matter matters: towards a more "substantial" global history.
Of course, it is preposterous, and perhaps a bit wrought-out, to start an essay with a paraphrase of Karl Marx' Communist Manifesto. Revolutionary pamphlets rarely work out as planned, and academia has been wrestling with more than one overambitious call to arms over recent decades. However, the scholarly endeavor that these remarks intend to sketch is already evolving in a number of ongoing research projects, both theoretical and empirical in nature. In a way, the new materialism is already there, as it is not really about a field that is waiting to be explored. It is about a new way of looking at the things that we thought we knew. (1)
Historians have long taken note of the material base of human civilization. We have classics such as Daniel Yergin's The Prize and Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power. (2) We also have a growing number of popular histories that focus on a specific commodity, at times with the emphatic proclamation that they "changed the world." (3) And we certainly do not need to alert environmental historians to the field, as we have quite a number of studies that discuss the environmental toll of resource extraction. (4) Yet, it seems that environmental historians can provide more than insights about ecological costs.
Environmental history is ultimately about changing our view of history. We do not just want a new room in the house of history-we want to rethink the house from the cellar to the rooftop. It seems all the more opportune to stress this mission as the field's revolutionary fervor has been languishing a bit in recent years. Topics have become narrower as the number of scholars increased, and so have geographic and chronological scopes. Specialization is probably an inevitable by-product of academic growth, and certainly an important one, as the gaping holes in our historical knowledge are still legion. However, environmental historians know well that growth usually comes at a price. The merger of global history and environmental history may hold potential for both sides here, as globalization is a good way to encourage the kind of big thinking that once was a key attraction of environmental history.
Matter matters: the rallying cry evokes a key concern of environmental history, namely the agency of non-human entities. Plants, animals and rocks are not merely backdrops against which the drama of human history is playing out. They are actors too, or actants, for those who have read the French sociologist Bruno Latour-players on the scene of history that have their own distinct rationales. From an environmental history perspective, modern history is also the history of ever growing quantities of stuff that circle the globe. By the end of the twentieth century, humans were moving some 42 billion tons of rock and soil per year, often over thousands of miles. (5) For environmental historians, these huge masses are a conceptual provocation of the first order.
If we look at modern history in physical terms, there is no way to deny that the material carries more weight nowadays than the human. If we divide 42 billion tons by the current world population of 7 billion, that makes 6 tons of matter annually for each of us. Should we really assume that this load leaves no imprint on our societies, economies, and mindsets? After all, masses are obstinate entities. We know from physics that masses have momentum: once set in motion, an object pursues its path until an outside force intervenes. If that is so, billions of tons surely have a kind of momentum that challenges human supremacy.
One might object that this is merely a metaphor, as people could stop shuffling oil, wheat, and all the other commodities around the globe at any time. But can they? We know very well that modern societies will be in deep trouble unless we get to move our stuff around as we are accustomed. Wartime starvation, the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, and the recent scare over rare earth metals-whenever the constant flow of resources sputters, modern societies respond with concern, if not outright panic.
During the modern era, the flow of resources has become second nature for people in the West. Resource problems were supposed to be temporary problems at best-short-term exceptions to the general rule that resources were readily available. In modern times, resources were cheap and labor was expensive-for most of human history, it was the other way round. The transatlantic slave trade, where millions of humans died prematurely in the quest for precious commodities such as sugar, provides one of the more sobering cases in point.
So what happens when we look at resource history in this way: as a story of huge amounts of stuff that get into motion? For one thing, we see that the world was flat long before Thomas Friedman. (6) Commodities connected people in different parts of the world that never met in person. In fact, the material essence of the commodity was the only thing that connected these people. By themselves, resources do not know hierarchies: they only know producers, consumers, and people who bring them from the former to the latter. Commodity chain analysis has made significant strides towards a clarification of who profited along these supply lines and for what reason, and yet the unequal distribution of benefits is not the full drama at play here. There is also the fateful entanglement of everyone along the chain: if something goes wrong somewhere along the way, the flow of resources stops, with repercussions for all parties involved.
With that, environmental history encourages a different reading of modern resource history. Conventional narratives of global trade focus on the people and corporations who built vast supply networks. However, the new materialism is more interested in the obstacles that they encountered and how they were overcome: what were the forces that influenced the speed and volume of global resource flows? What could curtail the stream of material or even block it in full? And when did the flow gain a momentum that challenged human supremacy?
After all, the flow of material was merely a trickle throughout most of human history, and premodern societies had plenty of experiences in dealing with scarcities. When grain was getting scarce, home gardens, berries and mushrooms, or hunting skills assured survival. When a conflagration hit a city, the residents allowed forest use beyond sustainability rates for some time. Knowing about the risk of starvation, storing and preserving food for months ahead was a matter of common sense. In short, whenever a stream of resources dried up, premodern societies had other options in play--not because they were more intelligent than modern people but because reserves were what stood between them and disaster.
Resource history thus highlights the fundamental difference between modern consumerist civilizations and their predecessors. In fact, few issues provide a better demonstration of the enduring merits of speaking about modernity than resource history: modern societies took a fundamentally new approach to the appropriation of material resources. Modernity rephrased the key challenge: rather than preparing for scarcity, humans focused on preventing it from occurring in the first place. Modern societies came to rely on a steady flow of resources: commodities were supposed to be cheap and readily available in every desired quantity. We can see the extent to which modern societies hedged their bet on a continuous flow in that premodern reserves were either sharply reduced or dismantled entirely. What had previously been a crucial safety mechanism was now seen as dispensable and wasteful.
Yet even in modern times, the free flow of resources was never simply a given. Supply networks were fragile, and all sorts of things could go wrong: corporations could go bankrupt, ships could sink, politicians could impose taxes or import bans, and consumers could change their tastes. From a new materialist perspective, resource history is a constant repair job-a perennial fight against obstacles to the flow. John Soluri's remark on banana plantations in Honduras has implications far beyond the topic: "Viewed from the ground level, export banana production appeared more like a series of improvisations (both creative and destructive in nature) than a well-scripted global power play." (7)
Modern societies did not really have a more secure resource base. They merely favored a different way to cope with crises, namely delegating the business of extraction and allocation to a specific group of people. Whereas dealing with resource scarcity was a challenge that involved everyone in premodern times, it was now a task for specialists: farmers, miners, foresters. Thanks to dramatic advances in output per capita, all these groups were shrinking throughout the twentieth century, and they increasingly operated in isolation from the rest of society. For most of the time, resource people could pretty much do as they pleased as long as they provided modern consumers with the cheap, hassle-free stuff that they desired.
Looking at the flow of resources forces us to rethink the concepts that we usually take for granted in our research. In a way, resources were global before humans were, as the famous expeditions to the Land of Punt in ancient Egypt or trade along the Silk Road serve to attest. To be sure, the age of nationalism left its imprint on the flow of material, as global trade coevolved with a national branding of resources: there was Texas oil, Egyptian cotton, and Swedish iron ore. However, these nationalizations were always contested, and they mostly faded away in the decades after World War Two-decades which define our thinking about resources to the present day. Characteristically, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company changed its name to British Petroleum in 1954. Anonymity was not simply there-it was manufactured. Resources without a face and a past were possible only in a society that took the flow of resources for granted.
Nationalism was a relative thing when it came to resources, and so was the power of the nation-state. Generally speaking, the state was at its most powerful as a player of resource history when it was in deep trouble during the Second Thirty Years' War, the crisis years of Europe between 1914 and 1945, when limitations on the global exchange of goods spurred the development of ersatz products, recycling and autarky regimes, and restrictions on consumption. In order to assure the flow of resources, states turned a blind eye to conditions that they would never have tolerated otherwise. Many mining regions became notorious for their lack of order and state control, making them tantamount to colonial areas right in the heart of the West.
Perhaps most crucially, the flow of resources puts the power of key people and corporations into questions. Resource history is full of powerful people who built monopolies and huge fortunes. But maybe their power was not so absolute after all: maybe they were merely captives of a flow of stuff that could collapse at any time. If we see resource managers as people who had to maintain a flow, and a specific course of the flow, at any cost, we see them not so much as drivers but as people who are caught in a stream beyond their control: they either come to work with the momentum of resources, or they drown.
Modern societies need the flow of stuff, far more so than they need the people who manage it. In other words, corporations and people are dispensable entities, subject to replacement if need be. Even more, resource companies lack some of the assets that have come to assure the permanence of great corporations. Their claims to resource deposits are often contested, organic assets can be diminished by a freak insect or fungus in the blink of an eye, and reputation is primarily a matter of performance. Recent events like the Deepwater Horizon disaster, where one of the world's largest companies was brought to its knees by a malfunctioning valve, reveal the elusiveness of stable structures in the resource business. All that makes for a distinct mindset: dealing with resources is not just about money and power but also about angst-the fear of getting overwhelmed by the flow.
Thus, a new materialist perspective opens a new window upon the inherent brutality that so obviously characterizes resource extraction. Brutality was probably more than a character trait of unwholesome individuals: it was a structural requirement of a system in which the flow of resources had to be maintained at any price. Oil from Saudi-Arabia, rubber from King Leopold's Congo, and sugar from the Caribbean are just the best-known cases. It is truly amazing how resource issues are lurking behind seemingly unrelated conflicts. Just consider the case of Sudan: in 1997, the U.S. government imposed economic sanctions in response to the country's support for terrorists and its abysmal human rights record, but it sought to exempt gum arabic, a key ingredient for soft drinks that accounted for about half of Sudan's exports to the United States. The Washington Post spoke of "soda pop diplomacy." (8)
The more "substantial" history that the new materialism is aiming for is not a history devoid of emotions. Quite the contrary, we gain a deeper understanding of key agents once we recognize how they were struggling with a faceless giant that has momentum but neither morals nor memory. It is striking how material challenges produced similar experiences in different parts of the globe. Resources have left a powerful imprint on our collective imagination, and one that we rarely acknowledge-just look at how gold rush experiences unite California, Alaska, Australia, and South Africa's Highveld.
There are deeper issues at stake in a new materialist history that this essay can only touch upon. One of the most exciting questions is whether bringing resources in as actors challenges our ideas about causality. One might argue that resource history ends up with something approaching a post-causal history, where humans and materials are caught in a complex web of mutual entanglements, defying attempts to sort out causes and effects. Reciprocal mobilization is the defining feature of resource history in the twentieth century, and perhaps the most frightening aspect is its ever-increasing speed. Throughout the modern era, the flow of resources grew so much in scale and velocity that it looks uncomfortably reminiscent of a devastating vortex, drawing in humans without hope and escape.
Of course, one may discuss whether such an endeavor is still environmental history. Many of the issues in this essay lap over into other fields, including political history, cultural history, economic history, and the history of science and technology. Maybe that is ultimately an advantage? Doing resource history makes one realize how fragmented the historian's universe has become over recent decades, and that we are paying a price for a plethora of sub-disciplines. As long as the interest in resources remains spread among different communities, with each having its favored approaches, we are uncomfortably reminiscent of the famous parable about the blind men and the elephant.
After his manifesto and the failed revolution of 1848, Marx spent the rest of his life grumbling about mistakes and dilettantism. The new materialists would be well advised to pursue a different path: a new resource history will thrive from books, both case studies and broad syntheses, that demonstrate the potential of the new perspective. Successful revolutions always grow from the ground up, and we shall see the new materialism not so much as a canonical theory but as a way to look at the world of resources. We need to take the material essence of our human existence more seriously, and see it as far more contested and conflict-ridden than we had thought. Decades of cheap, easy resources have nurtured a state of amnesia, and we can see it as a beneficial side effect of recent resource troubles that this mindset is now looking more questionable than ever. Future historians will surely be wondering about a society that perceived itself as immaterial and yet made its citizen the involuntary owners of bloodstained coltan, courtesy of the cell phones that a broad majority is using on a daily basis. Resource history is disturbing, and new materialist resource history is even more disturbing. But then, that is what good history, and certainly global history, should be all about.
Frank Uekotter, University of Birmingham
(1) At the risk of stating the obvious, this article does not seek to provide an exhaustive discussion of the new materialism and its relevance for historical research. It follows one thread in looking at commodities and the flow of resources while leaving other dimensions of materiality (climate, disease, landscape, etc.) for others to explore.
(2) Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power (New York, 1991); Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York, 1985).
(3) Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (New York, 1997); Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (New York, 2002).
(4) See, for instance, Donald Worster, Dust Bowl. The Southern Plains in the 1930s (Oxford and New York, 1979); Duane A. Smith, Mining America. The Industry and the Environment, 18001980 (Lawrence, 1987); Timothy J. LeCain, Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines that Wired America and Scarred the Planet (New Brunswick, NJ, 2009).
(5) John R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun. An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (London, 2000), 30.
(6) Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat. A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York, 2005).
(7) John Soluri, Banana Cultures. Agriculture, Consumption, and Environmental Change in Honduras and the United States (Austin, 2005), 217.
(8) Washington Post, November 8, 1997, p. A24.
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|Title Annotation:||Special Section: Global Environmental History|
|Publication:||World History Bulletin|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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