Johns Hopkins University Press

Since the nineteenth century, access to and the development of natural resources became an important element of national and international politics. Resource security emerged as an issue vital to national security; and resource competition and crises gave rise to international tensions as well as to technological innovation and new modes of transnational cooperation.

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This paper discusses ongoing collaborative research activities in the Tensions of Europe network. Three broader themes are presented: (1) perceptions and constructions of resources, resource crises, and resource futures; (2) globalized resource chains and environmental transformation; and (3) managing crises: technologies, expertise, and the politics of natural resources.


Hundreds of millions of Europeans sleep in and wear cotton textiles. They use water running through copper pipes, wash with soap made of palm oil, drink coffee and tea, eat meat and fish products from animals fattened on soya, and consume pastry, soft drinks, jam, and many other products sweetened with sugar. They use gasoline to drive cars, oil and gas to heat their homes, and electricity produced by nuclear power plants fueled with uranium. Most of these basic resources, however, do not come from within European national borders and not even from within the European Union. The cotton probably comes from China, copper from mines in Chile, palm oil from Malaysia, coffee maybe harvested from Kenya, tea from India, soybeans from Brazil. Gasoline and oil may derive from countries of the Middle East, gas from Norway or Russia, uranium from Kazakhstan or Canada. Historians such as Kenneth Pomeranz explain the rise of Europe to global predominance, what he calls the “great divergence,” with the exceptional ability of Europeans to exploit and use natural resources and cheap labor from other world regions.1

The standard narrative of European engagement in natural resources runs as follows: European societies invented colonialism and imperialism, which involved land grabbing, resource exploitation, and the provision of European consumers with natural resources over centuries.2 Since the nineteenth century, access to and the development of natural resources became an important element of national and international politics. Resource security emerged as an issue vital to national security, and resource competition gave rise to international tensions as well as to technological innovation and new modes of transnational cooperation.3 During the twentieth century, global industrial capitalism replaced the colonial control of resources for maintaining existing and developing new resource chains and securing resources for the rich countries of the North.4 Supported by forms of resource diplomacy, often veiled as Third World aid, it [End Page 283] fueled economic growth but also resource dependencies in western Europe, whereas it increased the environmental and social burdens of resource-exporting countries and widened the gap of wealth between the North and the Global South. In the socialist countries, in contrast, forms of resource geopolitics predominated, but levels of prosperity did not increase significantly.5

While the 1980s and 1990s were characterized by relaxed supply conditions and a long downward trend in the prices of most commodities, the twenty-first century has seen an intensified competition for natural resources.6 The rapid development of “emerging” nations has increased global demand for and pressure on natural resources significantly. China emerged as a leading developer and consumer of global natural resources, investing heavily and gaining control over natural resources in all world regions. Likewise, multinational corporations and companies from many countries competed aggressively for resource development and exploitation on a global scale. Commodity markets experienced soaring prices and increasing volatility.7 While some resource deposits (such as North Sea oil) will soon face depletion, technological advances and climate change push speculations about new resource opportunities such as in the Arctic and the deep sea.8 Europeans pursued a variety of strategies to secure access to needed resources in the postwar era, Western European countries arguably with an emphasis on less aggressive or at least less military-centered approaches than the United States, the Soviet Union, or, more recently, China.

Research Agenda

This well-established standard narrative raises many fundamental questions for both historians and decision-makers. The Tensions of Europe research group Technologies, Environment and Resources (hereafter Research Group) has the goal to raise pertinent questions, develop new narratives about European resource activities, enhance the understanding of resource challenges, and investigate the historical roots and development of strategies and preparedness to tackle challenges and crises.9 It aims [End Page 284] to explore the role of European engagement in resource regimes and policies, resource technologies, and environmental transformation on a global scale from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries and to examine the complex links between resources, politics, technology, societal challenges, and environmental change. The ongoing work of the research group relates to three major questions.

First, what are resources and what is resource security? Resources are not resources per se, but they are made resources in specific historical contexts. Likewise, conceptions of resource security are ambiguous historical constructions and often biased and reductionist. Resource perceptions and policies were built predominantly on approaches in resource economics, the dynamics of commodity prices, and national perspectives, whereas deeper factors such as ideological framings, political traditions, legal regimes, cultural conflicts, transnational entanglements, and technological path dependencies tended to be underrated. Resource extraction involved multi-actor, long-term, high-capital, high-technology, high-risk ventures and a large number of national and transnational actors with either fundamentally different or often conflicting perceptions and interests.10 A first major theme in the research group, perceptions and constructions of resources, resource crises, and resource futures, investigates how European societies perceived and framed resources and resource crises and the ways in which such framings informed strategies of relief or served as rhetorical tools to further partial interests. Strategies of relief included changing patterns of resource exploitation, technological innovation, transnational cooperation, etc.

Second, what is Europe in a global perspective in relation to resource activities? Reaching from Russia in the East to Greenland in the West and from Norway in the North to Cyprus in the South, Europe today comprises some forty-four countries, many of them very small, and a diverse range of geographies, resource conditions, and national cultures and interests. Perspectives and narratives about European resource policies have likely been just as diverse. In addition, the spatial extensions of Europe are far from clear. While perceptions of Europe mostly refer to its geographical definition (a historical construction in its own right), Europe proved a global phenomenon as a continent of colonizers and powers of resource extraction and social and environmental change all over the globe.11 A second major theme pursued in the research group, globalized resource chains and environmental [End Page 285] transformation, addresses these global entanglements and investigates global European resource activities and their environmental impacts.

Third, recent developments raise a fundamental question: how well are European countries prepared to master the challenge of securing natural resources in times of increasing global competition and tension, especially since they are also confronted with multiple additional pressures (such as migration, terrorism, political conflicts in many world regions, rising nationalism, separatism, and environmental and climate change)?12 Mastering current and future challenges is, however, dependent on historical patterns of resource knowledge, technologies and institutions, and the perceptions, path-dependencies, and traditions deriving from it. A third major theme in the research group, managing crises: technologies, expertise, and politics of natural resources, explores historical cases and trajectories of the types and roles of expertise in managing crises and its historical legacies in shaping resource technologies and politics.

Theme 1: Resource Challenges and the Construction of Scarcity

Societies tend to be oblivious to their resource needs unless they perceive their supply to be at risk. If there is a broader public discourse on natural resources, it is usually about scarce and/or critical resources. Apart from supply problems during both World Wars, the oil price-shocks of the 1970s are the prime example.13 Recently, rare-earth metals have become a synonym for scarce and critical resources after China, the main producer, restricted exports in 2010.14 Concepts such as “scarcity” and “criticality” are at the center of resource-related perceptions and policies, although they are anything but objective and clear.15 They carry ambiguous meanings, are historical constructions, and, due to political and economic expediency, modified over time. Furthermore, actors who take an interest in resources are not just concerned with the observable past and present but form expectations about the future with the help of instruments such as resource statistics, inventories, mapping, and projections. While it is undisputed that the amount of metals in the earth’s crust is a finite quantity, optimistic and pessimistic voices since the 1970s have nevertheless come to very different conclusions regarding future resource supply.16 [End Page 286]

Two striking cases illustrate the anticipatory constructions of scarcity. When the European iron and steel industries adopted limestone as a flux in the 1850s, the rapid expansion of mass-produced steel fed perceptions that limestone was a critical resource. While there was never an actual shortage, concerns about vulnerability and scarcity proliferated. The example of limestone shows that scarcity or criticality is not a fixed attribute of raw materials based on their chemical-physical properties or the geographical distribution of the deposits. Perceptions of criticality are rather related to the dynamic (re-)construction of the technological system based on limestone use. Likewise, perceptions and the discourse of criticality disappeared with system changes that reduced demand for limestone. This was the case after the introduction of a new process associated with the use of minette ore. Although all raw materials are subject to limits, perceptions of scarcity and criticality of raw materials are socially constructed. Scarcity discourse mattered more than scarcity experience.17

Similarly, Western industrialized countries perceived their supply of base metals such as copper, nickel, and aluminum as endangered from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. The so-called commodity crisis of the 1970s remained to a large degree an anticipated crisis with no actual shortages, although prices for base metals reached unprecedented heights. After the oil-price shock of 1973, when ore-exporting countries from the Global South tried to emulate OPEC’s success, the perception of threatened imports intensified into a sense of crisis. For the first time, metal-producing countries in the Global South attempted to use increasing demand and scarcity of commodities to put pressure on the industrialized states in the North. By the end of the 1970s, however, the underlying notion of “commodity power” and the equation of import dependency with vulnerability had proved in most cases unfounded. The construction of scarcity and criticality was based on expectations of future political and economic developments that turned out to be wrong.18

Theme 2: Creating, Capturing, and Circulating Commodities

The process of developing a resource from its initial discovery to its widespread adoption could be likened to traveling along a long, winding, and often bumpy road, in time as well as in space. Histories and contemporary narratives of resources tend to focus on one section of this long road, often either exploration, production, or consumption. In such narratives, resources can be labeled as either indigenous or imported, and the intricate web of actors and decisions that make up the full flow of a resource are lost.

One example of this is the case of Swedish nuclear power, which is by [End Page 287] many considered a national power source, although Sweden (like Europe as a whole) is dependent on imported uranium. Furthermore, in 1979 uranium imported by Sweden was not a seamless process of transition but included discrete stages in the processing system in at least four different countries and most likely traveled through many more. This winding journey of the uranium depended on juridical control, bilateral agreements, commercial contracts, and technical circumstances in each of these steps, thus raising risks of disruption.19

As this example shows, resources are highly mobile. We aim to broaden resource narratives by showing the development of a resource as it travels through time and space. As Gavin Bridge points out, the classification of a material as a resource tells us more about society than about the material itself, since the labeling of a substances as resources is relational to the physical world, knowledge, infrastructure, technology, and politics.20 This classification can happen differently in different spatial contexts. Such spatial contexts are increasingly global and thus imply a need to investigate the relationship between global, national, and local contexts but also to question these categories as such. By taking as a starting point the spatial movement of a resource and how its movements connect different types of governance (local, national, transnational) as well as various types of technical and geographical characteristics, we can go beyond fixed views of national and transnational, and disentangle how they relate and overlap. Furthermore, by using a transnational view of resource spaces and their variations over time, we can account for both resource colonialism and resource nationalism, in other words, how nation-states have exploited other countries’ resources while also attempting to profit from their own.

The history of crude oil extraction by Royal Dutch Shell in Nigeria, for example, shows the misbalance of profits and burdens between regions of extraction and consumption. Shell started extracting oil from the late 1950s. Oil production quickly transformed the Nigerian economy and increased material well-being, education, and living conditions. In the Niger Delta, however, oil spills, flaring, and other types of pollution adversely impacted the environment and livelihoods and caused local resistance and violent conflicts. Shell, however, continued to view its Nigerian activities solely in terms of increasing Dutch resource security, whereas its downsides in Nigeria remained neglected. Since the 1990s, supported by Dutch environmental pressure groups, this conflict led to legal cases in Dutch courts. European environmental views have been transferred to the extraction regions in Nigeria.21

This example shows how resource sustainability in itself is a spatially situated concept and highlights the transnational technopolitics inherent [End Page 288] to resource flows. All resource flows are mediated by technological infrastructures, often transnational, whose mere existence is a result of techno-political action. The distribution of water is an example of this. In arid regions, water distribution and hydropower application are transnational and highly politicized issues that have had a long history of fueling international tensions and conflict. But even in water-abundant regions water management, drainage, and pollution regulations lead to local and trans-national conflicts of interest between nature, tourism, agriculture, industries, and other societal activities.22 Resources, in the same way as technological artifacts and infrastructures, may be used to enact politics as a strategic practice. By following the spatial flows of resources, we can thus interpret how engineers and politicians have used already defined resources as well as their flows to pursue transnational and national politics, and to create new resource infrastructures with inherent political goals.

Theme 3: The Environment, Resource Security, and the Limits of Expert Knowledge

Ensuring reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable resources has historically posed profound challenges for nation-states in Europe and elsewhere. Competition for resources has led to political, economic, and social tensions, which have often been a precursor for international conflict and even war. This has been particularly evident in terms of the desire by nation-states to achieve food security.23 Often top-down initiatives and directives predominated, where the state, guided by expert knowledge, formulated what was portrayed as the most appropriate response to intervening, controlling, and exploiting natural resources. Such an approach, under the guidance if not the direction of expert knowledge, has often given scant regard to local people and indigenous groups that are affected by both the decision-making process and the consequences of their strategies.

Two examples of recent research are illuminating. During the nineteenth century, conflicts emerged in Russia between peasants and the Russian forest administration about the use of the Białowieza Primeval Forest, which peasants used for cattle pasturing. Influenced by German principles of “rational” forest management, the state forest administration banned forest use, which in turn put the subsistence of poor peasants at risk. The conflict between state and peasant remained contained, however, because local administrators, knowing the living conditions of the peasants well, deliberately and for pragmatic financial reasons implemented a lax regime [End Page 289] of control. In this case, state expert knowledge and regulation proved ignorant of local circumstances. The envisaged state-driven reconfiguration of the natural environment would have led to significant social disruption and put state authority itself at risk.24

Similarly, conflicting interests in nitrogen use in Britain prior to the First World War illustrate the role of expert knowledge. Nitrogen was an essential component of munitions production and an important nutrient in agricultural production. Britain depended heavily on imported food, of which 60 percent originated from overseas. The country’s commitment to free trade meant that there was little official interest in increasing domestic food production. Britain even exported nitrogen as a by-product of town gas manufacture to Germany, where it served the cultivation of sugar beets, much of the harvest of which was subsequently purchased by Britain. At the same time, Britain made strenuous efforts to monopolize access to Chilean nitrate for its munitions production. This case revealed a gap between scientific knowledge about plant and soil chemistry, on one hand, and agricultural practice on the other, a gulf that the British government has been slow to address, in stark contrast to the efforts made in Germany. This neglect threatened food security during the First World War when imports collapsed and revealed the limitations of expert knowledge in dealing with the food crisis.25


Resource challenges are commonly counted among the grand challenges of our time. They are intricately linked to other grand challenges such as rising nationalism and protectionism, global violence, insecurity, inequality, mass migration, and environmental and climate change. With collaborative historical research across national borders and disciplinary boundaries and including non-Western scholarship of the Global South, we aim to broaden perspectives, enhance understanding of crises and tensions, and inspire new ways of thinking about resource activities, technology, and politics. Historical knowledge could be of assistance in enabling society to understand better and identify ways of addressing the present tensions and challenges of resource security. [End Page 290]

Matthias Heymann

Matthias Heymann is professor of the history of science and technology at the Centre for Science Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark. His research focuses on the history of environmental science and technology. He co-coordinates the Tensions of Europe research group Technologies, Environment, and Resources with Elena Kochetkova.

Per Högselius

Per Högselius is professor of the history of technology and international relations at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. His teaching and research centers on energy, natural resources, and infrastructures in transnational history.

Elena Kochetkova

Elena Kochetkova is senior lecturer in the Department of History at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg (Russia). Her research interests include the history of technology and natural resources in socialism, history of forests and forestry industry, and technological innovations in the Cold War context. She co-coordinates the Tensions of Europe research group Technologies, Environment, and Resources with Matthias Heymann.

John Martin

John Martin is Professor of Agrarian History and a research fellow at Leicester University. His policy-based research focuses on the issue of European food security in a global context, particularly in terms of the impact of inclement weather on food production. He has acted as an adviser and consultant for the Wartime Farm, Tudor Monastery Farm, and Full Steam Ahead series for the BBC as well as acting as a consultant for ITV’s Home Fires series.

Ole Sparenberg

Ole Sparenberg currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship from the Gerda Henkel Foundation. He is working on the history of deep-sea mining and metal supply in general in the 1960s to 1980s.

Frank Veraart

Frank Veraart is an assistant professor of the history of technology at Eindhoven University of Technology. His research interests include the historical development of transnational resource chains and sustainability.

Anna Åberg

Anna Åberg is an assistant professor in the history of science and technology at the Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden. Her main research interests are energy and resource history.


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5. Cantoni, “Oily Deals”; Gabrielle Hecht, Being Nuclear; Per Högselius, Red Gas; Marcus Power et al., China’s Resource Diplomacy; Karl Bruno, “The Government’s Business?”; Lino Camprubi, “Resource Geopolitics.” For further discussion on international diplomacy, see Leonard Laborie et al., “Governing Technology in an Age of Grand Challenges,” in this forum.

9. Collaborative activities so far included workshops in St. Petersburg in 2016, Aarhus in 2017, and Stockholm, Aarhus, and Paris in 2018. Further workshops will take place in the framework of two research networks: “Challenging Europe: Technology, Environment and the Quest for Resource Security (EURES),” coordinated by Matthias Heymann, and “Global Resources and Sustainability of European Modernization, 1820– 2020 (GREASE),” coordinated by Erik van der Vleuten.

15. See also the forum contributions on crisis imaginaries and technological futures and on the deconstruction of energy and energy transitions.

23. The Research Councils of the UK recently identified food security as one of the grand challenges for the international research community.

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