An overview of the thesis research (subject to revisions, probably)
Currently it doesn’t have a title but more or less it’s a prehistory of the “critical mineral” in the United States.
This is how I explained it in the earliest proposal I wrote for this project, citations and all:
Since the early 20th century, the “strategic” and/or “critical” mineral” has been a powerful conceptual tool of modern American statecraft. Access to strategic/critical minerals—a deliberately ambiguous term even in its earliest inception—tends to be framed as an existential threat to the state: in their absence, America’s military defenses will collapse, along with the technologically advanced lifestyle Americans expect. This existential necessity justifies fast-tracking development of extractive infrastructures both domestically and internationally, typically via public-private partnerships. Since the late 1930s, the federal government has worked across the departments of Defense and Interior to survey and develop mine sites domestically and worldwide in service of maintaining a steady supply of strategic minerals to American industry (Black 2018). The Department of Defense also maintains a national stockpile of critical minerals (Chappell et. al 2013).
While the history of strategic/critical mineral policy and acquisition has received some critical analysis in terms of its colonial legacies (Black 2018, Klinger 2017, Priest 1999), much of the literature on strategic minerals maintains puzzling assumptions. The first assumption is one of competence: even avowed critics of the state seem to believe that the USA’s machinations to exploit strategic minerals have been straightforward inter-agency collaborations. This assumption should reasonably puzzle anyone who’s interacted with any government agency (or, frankly, anyone who’s ever had a job). No fewer than five different task forces and divisions worked on strategic mineral procurement in the lead to and during World War II, sometimes at odds with each other (Eckes 1980), importing minerals from 53 different countries between 1941 and 1945 (Bateman 1946).
The second assumption is of easy victories. While mentions of “labor unrest” or “conflict regions” occasionally come up in strategic minerals histories, for the most part people actually directly affected by mining are minor characters. This absence is puzzling both from a historical perspective—there are documented incidents of labor unrest in mining sites around the world during World War II—and in comparison to contemporary campaigns and organizing around strategic minerals extraction worldwide (Riofrancos 2019).
The research questions from that proposal were:
- What are the gaps between how national strategic minerals initiatives are narrativized and how these initiatives actually play out on the ground?
- How does the persistent narrative of the state as a competent, successful actor in its pursuit of strategic minerals (as opposed to a process rife with bureaucratic infighting, technical misunderstanding, and grift) further reify and reinforce statecraft narratives?
- How, if at all, does the imprimatur of a nationalist strategic imperative for extraction change the dynamics of resistance to extraction?
Other questions that I’ve since been thinking about:
- How does the history of commodities trading overlap with and relate to the history of critical minerals as a political framing/tool of the state?
- How did the specific mining projects, trade relationships, and supply chains established by the United States’ first foray into securing strategic/critical minerals influence and shape technological developments? (This question follows a very specific thread of computer history I’ve been low-key obsessed with for a few years, which is trying to figure out the sourcing of high purity quartz for the first silicon chips. I don’t think it’s necessarily a great research question for a thesis but I’m uh, very keen on getting answers on this.)
There’s very much a “Critical Minerals: The First 5,000 Years” approach that I could take to this research (which, it is probably quite obvious,very much draws on David Graeber’s approach) but for the purposes of actually getting the master’s degree part of my PhD done I’m focusing my attentions primarily on 1920-1950-ish, because this is when the modern conception of “critical minerals” as a thing really starts to enter policy discourse. Basically, World War I being the first industrialized war changed the resource demands of the war itself, at the same time that resource demands for civilian goods were changing a lot.
Some of this history can be constructed from archival newspapers and other publications. For the practical implementation of a minerals acquisition strategy, I plan basically to follow the money. Decisions about which minerals qualified as strategic/critical and how they should be allocated were military decisions, but the actual acquisition of rocks–the writing of contracts and disbursing of government dollars–was the purview of the Metals Reserve Company, a subdivision of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation created specifically for the purpose of buying rocks for the war. (The Reconstruction Finance Corporation was a New Deal instrument for paying for uh, New Deal public works type things.)
The reason to focus on what’s the Metal Reserve Company records is not necessarily because it will be coherent–according to a 1948 federal comptroller audit, the MRC’s books were kind of a mess. The messiness itself of course doesn’t necessarily point to impropriety, but lots of impropriety happens in the fog of war and reading between the lines in the audit it seems like a lot of the actual buying operations were pretty sus.
Weirdly this was my “backup” thesis topic, one I developed in my first semester of grad school as a low-stakes exercise to get myself situated in Doing A Grad School, basically. Then the dynamics of the yearlong project I thought might make a good thesis shifted, and my partner got hit by a car and had a pretty scary period of medical stuff, and suddenly it was October 2022 and I had to pick a thesis topic and assemble a committee. The backup looked pretty appealing in those conditions!
But just because it’s a backup doesn’t mean it’s not as interesting or exciting as some other topic. It’s more that it’s doable within a tight-ish time constraint. But it’s also not a super-studied topic with real stakes. As critical minerals discourse today increasingly focuses its attentions on energy-transition minerals, a lot of annoying assumptions that end up baked into that discourse. Really looking at the intellectual history of the critical mineral and the practical implementation of minerals acquisition in arguably the most aggressive minerals policy period of U.S. history might be useful for thinking about what is and isn’t so great in current minerals policy–and like, what it even means for a government to have a “minerals policy.” I’m not dumb enough to think that a master’s thesis can be uh, impactful scholarship, but if nothing else it’ll make for some OK articles down the line and maybe helps me with following some other supply chain history threads.