History from the beginning | MIT News

In many ways, minerals are a matter of money and power. Fortunes are made by extracting resources, and mining companies throw their weight around while environmentalists try to stop them. This is a familiar scenario everywhere.

But sometimes there are surprising elements in this story. MIT Associate Professor Megan Black has found plenty of them in her career. Black is an environmental historian who studies the politics of resource extraction and breaks new ground in detailing the US government’s involvement in mining.

Take the Four Points program, in which U.S. Department of the Interior officials went around the world in the 1950s to work with other countries on resource extraction. On the face of it, this might seem like an odd task for a department that wants to be known for local land management, conservation and national parks.

But as Black demonstrates in his award-winning 2018 in the book “The World’s Interior: Mineral Walls and American Power,” published by Harvard University Press, the program actually followed the department’s agenda after 1849. establishment was expanded, the perspective. mining on America’s frontiers. By the 1950s, this meant strengthening American interests around the world.

“The Department of the Interior had a very global reach,” says Black. “It’s a different story than you might expect for a department whose name declares a narrow portfolio.” The department has been in many places and in many ways helped project American power.

Or consider the satellite revolution and mining, two things that are not usually considered together. At first, satellites were considered for national security purposes or as a tool for weather forecasting. But the Landsat program, once run jointly by NASA and the U.S. Department of the Interior, allowed other states and private corporations to acquire imagery that was especially useful for mineral exploration in the 1970s. Not long after, as Black writes in 2019. article, Chevron found oil in Sudan and pumped millions of barrels there, another case within reach of the Interior Department.

“Mineral issues have always been a fulcrum [Interior] the power of the department and remains a very powerful center of their operations,” says Black.

Today, Black is collecting more historical material, this time for a slightly different book project about a Colorado mining dispute that has affected how people think about the local effects of global industries. Black was honored by MIT earlier this year for his research and teaching.

Browsing the archives

Black grew up in Kearney, Nebraska, and admits that her environment likely influenced her potential studies.

“The history of the Black Hills, gold mining and settler colonialism is very big in the part of the state I’m from,” Black says.

As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Black majored in English and film studies and minored in history. She then enrolled in the American Studies program at George Washington University and increasingly focused on environmental history, graduating in 2011. obtained a master’s degree, and in 2016 – a doctorate degree.

As a graduate student, Black began spending a lot of time at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, the main record repository.

“I love the feeling of sifting through so much information and trying to figure out how things have changed over time,” says Black. “Historians have a wide range [capacity] for listening to the sources, taking them seriously and putting them into context.

One day, while Black was looking through the archives, she came across a 1952 The text of a speech by Assistant Secretary of the Interior Vernon Northrop, in which he laid out a broad picture of the department’s historical role. This strengthened Black’s interest in the expansive mineral interests of the Department of the Interior.

“He noticed if it was underdeveloped [U.S.] In the West, since the 1850s or 1950s, the Department of the Interior of the underdeveloped world had the skills to open up new frontiers,” says Black. “Northrop has made a case for the department’s historical trajectory and for the continuity of its purpose over a wide period of time.

Implementing this idea, while not taking Northrop’s claims for granted, helped Black shape her thesis, which became The Global Interior. The book won a remarkable collection of awards: the George Perkins Marsh Award from the American Environmental History Society, the Stuart L. Bernath Award from the American Society of Foreign Relations Historians, the W. Turrentine-Jackson Award from the Western History Association. and the British American Studies Association Award.

Meanwhile, after receiving her doctorate, Black worked as a lecturer at Harvard University for two years, and in 2017 joined the faculty of the London School of Economics. in 2020 she became an assistant professor at MIT and continued to research her next book.

The true meaning of the saying “think globally, act locally”.

This book project focuses on the political confrontation in the 1970s in Crested Butte, Colorado, where the company AMAX wanted to mine molybdenum, an element used in steel products. in 1872 The General Mining Act in the US allows for the acquisition and extraction of public land, and AMAX planned an operation on several thousand acres of mountain property.

But residents of Crested Butte, a town that is shifting its economy toward tourism, mounted a vigorous campaign to stop the development, aided by the group Friends of the Earth. In the end, local environmentalists won out and AMAX (now Freeport McMoRan) abandoned the project. Black analyzes these events, including social and economic factors.

“I’m interested in understanding the communities that have tried to say no to mining,” Black explains. In Crested Butte, she notes, “Most white and educated elites were not impressed with the idea that an international mining company would invest $8 billion there and tie up several thousand acres of public land. And those wealthy residents had the means and power to win the local battle. But Black adds, “Other communities couldn’t say no to mining.” Crested Butte had a rather unique ability to do this.

Indeed, Black points out, the company has simply relocated or intensified operations elsewhere, from British Columbia to Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere in Colorado. If one city opts out of mining development, it may become another city’s problem.

As it happens, the Crested Butte conflict may have helped popularize the slogan “Think Global, Act Local.” And that, in this case, could mean trying to reduce the global footprint of mining so that local environmental action doesn’t just relocate.

“There are different ways we can build a world that will adapt to the energy transition in a way that will reduce the burden on communities,” says Black. She also brings this up in class with her students.

“Teaching at MIT was a dream,” says Black. As she continues her intellectual journey, things like the Crested Butte conflict seem increasingly relevant to the concerns of today’s students, particularly climate change in general.

“This is not your older sibling’s climate disaster,” says Black. “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 examining how people coped with it [environmental] questions open up many possibilities’.

Godfrey Kemp

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