GSA Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA - 2018

Paper No. 200-11
Presentation Time: 4:20 PM


LESTER, Gustave Allen, History of Science, Harvard University, 199 Beacon St., Apt B, Somerville, MA 02143

Historians of geology and capitalism are peculiarly well positioned for insightful and productive dialogue. However, the labor of earth scientists is absent from most economic history and history of capitalism. One explanation is that historians of earth science have themselves neglected the history of economic geology. This dual absence is striking. On the one hand, historians of economy and capitalism have long been concerned with elucidating the unequal distribution and development of global economic resources, including mineral resources. On the other hand, these historical processes are contingent on the evolution of the knowledge and technology to locate and extract natural resources—a central concern of earth scientists since the eighteenth-century origins of geology itself. I argue that greater dialogue will help us understand both how imperial and industrial contexts have motivated and constrained the professional development of geology, as well as the specific ways geologists have facilitated imperial and capitalist projects. To illuminate and explore this historiographical point, I draw on the economic history of an evolving global copper industry and the writings of midwestern geologists to juxtapose the growth of copper smelting in the eastern United States—a response to shifts in international trade policy and global raw material supply—against geologists’ active collaboration with state and federal governments and private extractive industries to promote the settlement and mining of upper Michigan (the Keweenaw Peninsula). Doing so highlights some of the specific ways geologists have contributed to the social construction of natural resource abundance for the growth of commodity frontiers and, by focusing on the professional opportunities afforded by such patronage, reveals how the political economy of U.S. territorial expansion simultaneously stimulated and constrained geological research traditions.