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To the ends of the Earth: Europe and the global expansion of mineral investment in the late 19th century

Final Activity Report Summary - ENDS OF THE EARTH (To the end of the Earth: Europe and the global expansion of mineral investment in the late 19th century)

This project had three objectives:
(1) to conduct research on the global role of European mining firms and institutions in the late 19th/early 20th century;
(2) to leverage a record of high quality research and association with centres of excellence outside Europe to build effective and lasting contacts with leading researchers and institutions within the European Research Area (ERA); and
(3) to accelerate the process of embedding these research capabilities at the University of Manchester by developing the core of a research team.

The starting point for the project is the striking parallel between the internationalisation of capital-intensive mining in the late 19th/early 20th century and contemporary patterns of mineral investment. Both periods witnessed a rapid geographical expansion of mining activity as firms scrambled to 'the ends of the earth' to explore and develop mineral deposits. In both periods geologists and engineers fanned out across the globe to probe its remotest corners, the embodiment of a series of exchanges - of knowledge, capital, and material (rock samples, instruments, documents) - between core and periphery. By inserting distant landscapes into the taxonomies of geological and mineralogical science, the exchange of knowledge across these networks enabled mining firms to achieve global reach and enrolled far-flung regions into an expanding, global economy. Having analysed the geographies of the contemporary mining boom in earlier work (Bridge, 2002 and 2004), ENDS OF THE EARTH sets out to understand the historical analogue. It combines empirical research on the practices through which extractive (mining) economies took form on the periphery of the global economy in the late 19th/early 20th century with a rigorous theoretical treatment of the political economy of 'making nature' in the context of non-renewable mineral resources. It focuses in particular on two instances of extractive economies emerging at the 'edge of empire': tin mining in northern Nigeria; and the Copperbelt of Northern Rhodesia.

ENDS OF THE EARTH makes three distinctive contributions to work in geographical political economy, environmental history, and natural resource studies. First, it re-interprets the geographical expansion of extractive activities - the restless drive of the extractive frontier to the 'ends of the earth'- as a key moment in the circulation and accumulation of capital, rather than a natural, inevitable response to rising metropolitan demand and physical resource scarcity. It foregrounds the economic, political and cultural 'work' undertaken to produce subterranean 'spaces of nature' as geological and commercial assets through which capital can circulate.

Second, it pays attention to the materiality of the socio-ecological and hydro-geological systems on which extraction depends, and explains how these biophysical processes condition the speed and organisational form of capital circulation.

Third, it seeks to explain why extractive economies exhibit a geographically-expansive logic and how expression of this logic depends on a number of contingent factors. Findings show how the extractive frontier expands discontinuously over time in a series of waves. ENDS OF THE EARTH illustrates how surplus capital is able to circulate through new subterranean spaces when the returns for internationalising capital via extractive enterprises are greater than in other sectors (a form of external contingency) and when social and socio-ecological relations can be assembled in 'the right disposition' (a form of internal contingency).