I have too many research questions
I’ve had a lot of fun reading different papers the last two weeks to start shaping my general interest in the concept of the “critical mineral” into a thesis, but I am starting to approach an impasse. The questions I’m interested in and their answers increasingly don’t feel like they’ll fit in one 10,000 word document. For the sake of sending an email to my advisor later and getting some sense of direction, here are some of the directions I could potentially take this research.
“Critical minerals”: The First 5,000 Years
(David Graeber and I were not close, but what few interactions we had during Occupy Wall Street were genuinely formative and his approach to academia has been a touchstone for my own kicking-and-screaming stumble into it. Hopefully this framing will be understood as homage and not sloppy methodological ripoff.)
Returning to the question I mentioned in the writeup of Graulau’s work—how are ‘critical minerals’ fundamentally different from the way governments thought about or framed minerals before?—I’m starting to suspect they’re not that different, really. Minerals are and kind of always have been weird commodities within the larger state-market dynamic compared to materials more obviously associated with survival like agriculture or shelter or water.
Most historical examples of mining at scale are assumed to be imperialist projects because 1) how would you otherwise convince anyone to do it, mining at scale is shitty work and why would you fuck up some land you could grow food on and 2) a lot of early mining at scale produced coins, which more or less have value because a sovereign says so. Over time geologic assessment of territory became an important part of defining a nation’s sovereignty—this is where we start to see surveying and state/military geologists become a thing. Technological developments expand the parameters of what states need, which expand the parameters of mineral needs, which expands the list of minerals to be hoarded beyond coinage.
There’s of course a lot of other stuff that happens between Charlemagne declaring that everyone needs to use the silver denier and the United States Army-Navy Munitions Board making a list of strategic and critical materials, but both in essence are sovereigns making declarations about important rocks and those declarations have significant effects on power, people, and ecologies.
Figuring out and articulating the “other stuff” would be the project here, and from there maybe getting to more utopian questions (because it would not be an homage to Graeber without utopian questions!!). I don’t think it’s possible to make a general theory or political economy of mining, but looking at how rocks have shaped and been shaped by changes to political economy is maybe interesting.
This topic is also driven by a more fundamental interest in the ways people interface with rocks—people are weird about rocks, and they generally get left out of the “more-than-human” interspecies dynamics discourse but the relationships people have to rocks are no less intense than any other thing in nature.
This one is more likely a dissertation than a thesis, I think? Figuring out which chunk of it can become a thesis I can write in a few months is maybe the move here.
A labor history approach to the actual patient-zero moment of “critical minerals” rhetoric becoming a thing and being implemented
The TLDR version of critical minerals history that you’ll generally find in academic literature goes like this: World War I and its aftermath made the complexity and fragility of industrial supply chains more legible. This got countries like the U.S. and the U.K. to prioritize procurement and stockpiling. There’s a bunch of weird rhetoric written in this era about “have and have-not” nations and the whims of geology and basically how rich countries should “help” cash-poor but mineral-rich countries with best utilizing their resources. World War II is a period of extremely aggressive American government funding of essentially the expansion of the private mining industry into other countries. (Again, very The State-centric framing. You’d hardly know there were commodity markets or mining executives.)
My first historiography tiff with this framing is that the interwar period (and the Second World War) was a time of tremendous labor unrest in so-called “have” nations, particularly among mine workers. The United States was home to multiple Mine Wars and events at mines deemed “massacres”! (For those who mostly know the incidents relative to coal mining: it wasnot just coal mines!) Granted: in most of these wars the miners lost. But (my other tiff) this was also a period where radical politics around nationalism and expropriation were actually being enacted in other parts of the world. You’re telling me that the same federal government sending the U.S. Army to quell worker rebellions was only looking at mineral security from some high-level trade perspective and the Red Scare wasn’t factored in?
(This also seems like an important detail to the frequent tension of critical mineral policy between an increased international trade approach and shoring up domestic production. Sure, the US government preferred importing certain minerals from South America because they just had more; but mines in South America also weren’t organized the way that US mines were by that point.)
As a research topic: this would entail cataloging mining labor conflicts in the United States and in regions where the U.S. had critical mineral interests, and looking for archival records on how those events informed minerals policy at home and abroad. The Catavi Massacre in Bolivia is a pretty obvious key event to look at here but I’ve found some materials on incidents in other parts of South America and in Africa. I like this framing because 1) it’s nice to emphasize incidents of workers fighting back in history rather than making the whole story about how imperialists did an imperialism and 2) in the nascent high-level political economy of minerals described in the previous research topic idea, mining as a radicalizing force that produces organized workers is a persistent thorn in the side of both capital and the state. Like even if mining at scale necessarily requires imperialism and/or coercive violence, such conditions effectively produce rebellion and organization.
U.S. critical minerals policy setting the stage for postwar technological developments
This is both more contained and more difficult a topic to research, but it bridges interests in the gaps of computer history and the gaps of mineral stuff. I have spent a few years trying to figure out where the high purity quartz used to make DuPont’s first semiconductor grade silicon ignots (used by Fairchild and I think TI) came from, and Brazil (which was the primary source for electronic/radio grade quartz) is still maybe the top possibility. Proving this is hard in the absence of corporate archive access but even if the silicon wafers can’t be sourced, loads of other specialized minerals in the postwar era relevant to electronics manufacture suddenly had a lot of robust sourcing options—mica, nickel, tantalum, tungsten. The idea here is to get a better sense of the sources for the niche minerals developed during World War II and try to follow the trajectories of those companies? DuPont’s archives apparently aren’t an option but there’s some Computer History Museum records that might have leads and some stuff at the Hagley I need to schedule time to look at.
This is more about expanding the geography of computer history and situating that history within mining political economy, so it’s less theory-heavy but again, as a highly niche pocket of business history it’s probably the hardest to prove.