History from the ground up

December 26, 2023

Black is an environmental historian who studies the politics of resource extraction, breaking new ground in detailing U.S. government involvement in mining. As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Black majored in English and film studies, with a minor in history. She then enrolled in the American Studies program at George Washington University and became increasingly focused on environmental history, earning her MA in 2011 and her PhD in 2016. “I am interested in understanding the communities that have tried to say ‘No’ to mining,” Black explains. As her intellectual journey continues, things like the Crested Butte conflict seem increasingly relevant to the concerns her students have today, especially about climate change in general.

In many respects, minerals are a matter of money and power. Fortunes are won through resource extraction, while mining companies throw their weight around and environmental advocates try to stop them. It is a familiar scenario anywhere.

But sometimes this story contains surprising elements. MIT Associate Professor Megan Black has found a rich seam of them in her career. Black is an environmental historian who studies the politics of resource extraction, breaking new ground in detailing U.S. government involvement in mining.

Take the “Point Four” program, in which U.S. Department of the Interior officials fanned out across the globe in the 1950s to work with other countries on resource-extraction issues. On the surface, this might seem a curious task for a department preferring to be known for domestic land management, conservation, and national parks.

But as Black shows in her award-winning 2018 book, “The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power,” published by Harvard University Press, the program was actually consistent with the outlook of a department that, after its 1849 founding, had expanded mining at America’s frontiers. By the 1950s, that meant enhancing American interests around the world.

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

Or, consider the satellite revolution and mining, two things not usually viewed in tandem. Originally, satellites were regarded in national security terms or as a tool to anticipate weather. But the Landsat program, once jointly run by NASA and the U.S. Department of the Interior, let other nations and private corporations purchase images that were particularly useful to minerals exploration in the 1970s. Before long, as Black details in a 2019 article, Chevron found oil in Sudan and was pumping out millions of barrels there — another case of the Interior Department’s reach.

“Minerals issues had always been a fulcrum of [Interior] departmental power, and remain a very powerful centerpiece of their actions,” Black says. 

Today Black is gathering more historical materials, this time for a slightly different kind of book project, about a Colorado mining dispute that has influenced how people think about the local effects of global industries. For her research and teaching, Black was awarded tenure at MIT earlier this year.

Prospecting in the archives

Black grew up in Kearney, Nebraska, and recognizes that her surroundings likely had some influence on her eventual studies.

“The history of the Black Hills and gold extraction and settler colonialism looms very large in the part of the state where I’m from,” Black says.

As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Black majored in English and film studies, with a minor in history. She then enrolled in the American Studies program at George Washington University and became increasingly focused on environmental history, earning her MA in 2011 and her PhD in 2016.

As a graduate student, Black began spending copious amounts of time at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, a major records respository.

“I love that feeling of sifting through so much information and trying to piece together how things changed over time,” Black says. “Historians have a broad [capacity] for listening to sources, taking them seriously, and putting them in context.”

One day as Black was prospecting around the archives, she came across the text of a 1952 speech by Assistant Secretary of the Interior Vernon Northrop, outlining a broad view of the department’s historical role. It cemented Black’s interest in the Interior Department’s expansive minerals interests.

“He observed that whether it was the undeveloped [U.S.] West of the 1850s or the undeveloped world of the 1950s, the Interior Department had the requisite skillset to open up new frontiers,” Black says. “Northrop was making an argument about the department’s historical trajectory and for the continuity of its purpose across a broad swath of time.”

Pursuing that idea — while not taking Northrop’s claims for granted — helped Black shape her dissertation, which became “The Global Interior.” The book garnered a remarkable set of awards: the George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society of Environmental History, the Stuart L. Bernath Prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the W. Turrentine-Jackson Prize from the Western History Association, and the British Association of American Studies Prize.

In the meantime, after earning her PhD, Black served as a lecturer at Harvard University for two years, then joined the faculty of the London School of Economics in 2017. She became an associate professor at MIT in 2020 and continued researching her next book.

The real meaning of “Think Globally, Act Locally”

That book project focuses on a 1970s political confrontation in the town of Crested Butte, Colorado, where the company AMAX wanted to mine molybdenum, an element used in steel products. The 1872 General Mining Law in the U.S. makes public land available for acquisition and resource extraction, and AMAX was planning an operation on several thousand acres of mountain property.

However, the residents of Crested Butte, a town reorienting its economy to tourism, waged an energetic campaign to stop the development, aided by the group Friends of the Earth. Eventually, the local environmental advocates won, and AMAX (now Freeport McMoRan) abandoned the project. Black is analyzing these events, including the socioeconomic factors at play.

“I am interested in understanding the communities that have tried to say ‘No’ to mining,” Black explains. In Crested Butte, she notes, “Mostly white and educated elites were unimpressed by the thought that a multinational mining company would pursue an $8 billion investment there and tie up several thousand acres of public land.” And those well-off residents had the means and clout to win their local battle. However, Black adds, “Other communities were not in the same position to say ‘No’ to mining. Crested Butte had a rather singular ability to do that.”

Indeed, Black points out, the company simply shifted or intensified operations in other places, from British Columbia to Australia and New Zealand, and elsewhere in Colorado. Where one town wards off a mining development, it may become another town’s issue.

As it happens, the Crested Butte conflict may have helped popularize the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Which, in this case, can mean trying to lessen the global footprint of mining, so that local environmental action does not just transfer its location to somewhere else.

“There are different ways we can approach building the world that will accomodate an energy transition in ways that lessen the burden on communities,” Black says. That’s also a point she raises in the classroom with students.

“Teaching at MIT has been a dream,” Black says. As her intellectual journey continues, things like the Crested Butte conflict seem increasingly relevant to the concerns her students have today, especially about climate change in general.

“It’s not your older sibling’s climate catastrophe,” Black says. “There’s a necessity of making sure people understand the very existential reality of these changes. But it can be paralyzing to think about the extent of the problem, so examining how people have grappled with [environmental] issues opens up a set of possibilities.”

The source of this news is from Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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