In many ways, minerals are about money and power. Fortunes are being made through resource extraction, while mining companies pull their weight and conservationists try to stop them. It’s a familiar scenario everywhere.
But sometimes this story contains surprising elements. Megan Black, an associate professor at MIT, has found a rich vein of this during her career. Black is an environmental historian who studies the politics of resource extraction, breaking new ground in detailing the U.S. government’s involvement in mining.
Take the “Point Four” program, in which U.S. Department of the Interior officials fanned out around the world in the 1950s to work with other countries on resource extraction issues. At first glance, this may seem like a curious task for a department preferring to be known for national land management, conservation and national parks.
But as Black shows in his award-winning 2018 book, “The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power,” published by Harvard University Press, the program was actually consistent with the outlook of a department that, after its founding in 1849 , had expanded its activities. mining on the American borders. In the 1950s, this meant strengthening American interests around the world.
“The Home Office has a very global reach,” says Black. “It’s a different story than one might expect for a department whose name indicates a narrow portfolio. The department has been present in many places and helped project American power in many different ways.
Or consider the satellite revolution and mining, two things not usually considered in tandem. Originally, satellites were considered in terms of national security or as a tool for weather anticipation. But the Landsat program, once run jointly by NASA and the U.S. Department of the Interior, allowed other countries and private companies to purchase images that were particularly useful for mineral exploration in the 1970s. Before long, as Black detailed in a 2019 article, Chevron discovered oil in Sudan and was pumping millions of barrels there — another case within the Interior Department’s reach.
“Minerals issues have always been a linchpin of (Interior) departments’ power and remain a very powerful centerpiece of their actions,” Black said.
Today, Black is gathering more historical material, this time for a slightly different type of book project, about a mining conflict in Colorado that influenced the way people view the local effects of global industries. For his research and teaching, Black obtained a position at MIT earlier this year.
Prospecting in the archives
Black grew up in Kearney, Nebraska, and acknowledges that his environment probably had some influence on his eventual education.
“The history of the Black Hills, gold mining and settler colonialism is very important to the part of the state I come from,” Black says.
As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Black majored in English and film studies, with a minor in history. She then enrolled in the American Studies program at George Washington University and increasingly focused on environmental history, earning her master’s degree in 2011 and her doctorate in 2016.
As a graduate student, Black began spending a lot of time at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, a major repository of records.
“I love that feeling of sifting through so much information and trying to piece together how things have changed over time,” Black says. “Historians have a great (ability) to listen to sources, take them seriously and place them in their context. »
One day, while Black was exploring the archives, she came across the text of a 1952 speech by Deputy Secretary of the Interior Vernon Northrop, describing a broad view of the department’s historic role. This cemented Black’s interest in the Interior Department’s vast mining interests.
“He observed that whether in the underdeveloped (American) West of the 1850s or the underdeveloped world of the 1950s, the Department of the Interior had the skills required to open new frontiers “, explains Black. “Northrop was emphasizing the historical trajectory of the department and the continuity of its purpose over a broad period of time.”
Pursuing this idea – without taking Northrop’s claims for granted – helped Black shape his thesis, which became “The Global Interior.” The book has won many notable awards: the George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society of Environmental History, the Stuart L. Bernath Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the W. Turrentine-Jackson Prize from Western History Association. , and the prize of the British Association of American Studies.
In the meantime, after receiving her doctorate, Black was a lecturer at Harvard University for two years, then joined the faculty of the London School of Economics in 2017. She became an associate professor at MIT in 2020 and has continued his research on his next book.
The true meaning of “Think globally, act locally”
This book project focuses on a 1970s political confrontation in the town of Crested Butte, Colorado, where the AMAX company wanted to mine molybendum, an element used in steel products. In the United States, the General Mining Act of 1872 made public lands available for resource acquisition and extraction, and AMAX planned to mine several thousand acres of mountain properties.
However, residents of Crested Butte, a town shifting its economy toward tourism, led a vigorous campaign to stop the development, with help from the group Friends of the Earth. Ultimately, local environmental advocates won and AMAX (now Freeport McMoRan) abandoned the project. Black analyzes these events, including the socio-economic factors at play.
“I want to understand the communities that have tried to say ‘no’ to mining,” says Black. In Crested Butte, she notes, “most white, educated elites were unimpressed by the idea of a multinational mining company pursuing an $8 billion investment there and tying up several thousand acres of land.” public lands. » And these wealthy residents had the means and the clout to win their local battle. However, Black adds, “other communities were not in the same position to say ‘no’ to mining.” Crested Butte had a rather singular ability to achieve this.
Indeed, Black points out, the company has simply moved or intensified its operations elsewhere, from British Columbia to Australia and New Zealand, and elsewhere in Colorado. When one city avoids mining development, it can become another city’s problem.
As it turns out, the Crested Butte conflict may have helped popularize the slogan “Think globally, act locally.” Which, in this case, may mean trying to reduce mining’s global footprint, so that local environmental action doesn’t just shift elsewhere.
“There are different ways to approach building a world that will accommodate an energy transition in a way that lessens the burden on communities,” says Black. This is also a point she raises in class with students.
“Teaching at MIT was a dream,” Black says. As his intellectual journey continues, events such as the Crested Butte conflict seem increasingly relevant to his students’ current concerns, particularly regarding climate change in general.
“This isn’t your older brother’s climate disaster,” Black says. “It is necessary to ensure that people understand the very existential reality of these changes. But it can be paralyzing to think about the scale of the problem, so looking at how people have coped with (environmental) problems opens up a set of possibilities.