Trump’s August 2019 proposal to buy Greenland for its mineral wealth raised eyebrows, but it was not the first time in US history that the government looked to overseas territories to satisfy its mineral needs. Consider, for example, Obama’s 2015 signature of the SPACE Act, which allows US citizens to claim any outer space resource as private property. As historian Megan Black demonstrates in The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power (Harvard University Press, 2018), surveying and acquiring mineral resources have been key mechanisms through which the US has projected extraterritorial power since its earliest days of settling the Western frontier, by rendering ever more expansive spaces—the substrata, the ocean floor, and outer space—interior to the nation state.

The United States Department of the Interior (DOI) is Black’s primary object of analysis. Founded in 1849, it is the common institutional element across 170 years of US domestic and foreign policy: settler colonialism, Manifest Destiny, post-WWII international development, Cold War interventions in the Third World, the past and present Space Race, and the war on terror. Curiously, the DOI has received scant attention in the vast majority of these histories. After reading The Global Interior, one has the feeling of just now noticing an elephant that’s been in the room all along.

Extensively researched, The Global Interior makes significant contributions to the growing body of scholarship that historicizes the relationship between natural resource sciences, empire, and nation building. This comes at an exciting moment. Over a century after the first transnational geological congresses convened in London, Berlin, and Beijing—some gathered in the spirit of cosmopolitan scientific cooperation, others were imperial stooges—scholars are looking more closely at the interplay between major world-historical shifts and contemporaneous efforts to understand the history of the physical world. The contemporary social science conversation, like the geoscientific enterprises they study, is unfolding across the globe, with recent works examining China, Germany, Burkina Faso, India, Brazil, Canada, Greenland, Antarctica, and Outer Space, to name a few. Transnational histories on the raced, gendered, and legalistic evolution of geological sciences have also emerged to situate the production of knowledge in diverse social contexts.

But most studies of geology’s fraught history, including recent geographical scholarship on verticality and volume, feature the DOI only in brief cameos, or not at all. By contrast, Black examines its workings in minute detail, thereby unmasking some of the principle actors behind the reconfiguration of the entire Earth—and beyond—as a potential mining site. That the Department of the Interior increasingly worked in areas external to US borders through the 20th century was not, Black argues, a contradiction. In Chapter 1, Black presents archival evidence from the immediate aftermath of the Mexican-American War to show that the department “was born of and for American expansionism,” (17).

During the first decades of its existence, the DOI administered settler colonialism and the confinement of Native Americans to reservations. But the 1890 closing of the Western Frontier “posed an existential crisis for the nation,” and “organizational crisis,” (17) for the Department.  Endlessly quotable officials came to the rescue, reinterpreting the DOI’s activities according to the flexible logic of American exceptionalism. For example, following the US’ violent annexation of the Philippines in 1899, geologist George F. Becker noted that “the task of developing the immense resources of the archipelago appeals most congenially to a nation descended from pioneers,” (16). Half a century later, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Vernon Northrop stated: “Once it was the undeveloped West of the 1850s which constituted a primary reason for the establishment of this department and conditioned its development. Now it is the underdeveloped areas of the free world of the 1950s,” (4).  As it turned out, any part of the world could be made into a “frontier” to “explore” and “develop.”

Chapter 2 charts how Department officials navigated the contradictory mandates of facilitating private sector mineral acquisition while also promoting domestic conservation. The exigencies of World War II offered a partial solution. In Chapter 3, Black details how the DOI oversaw a strategic mineral procurement program in the Americas in order to provision the US and Allied militaries. Reciprocal knowledge exchanges with Latin American counterparts helped mitigate against accusations of imperialist exploitation while simultaneously facilitating unprecedented rates of extraction from Latin America. No doubt many benefitted from these international scientific collaborations, but the geopolitical and institutional context in which they unfolded requires critical evaluation.

Here the book intersects with critical development studies literature. Black notes how histories of strategic mineral procurements fall through the cracks of histories of postwar developmentalism and international relations studies of great power politics, when in fact the DOI was key to both. Black shows how “wartime production merely whetted the appetite for what might follow in a peacetime economy,” (87) when US firms and US-oriented supply chains consolidated into a hemispheric division of labor that continues to the present.  The DOI resolved its contradiction between domestic conservation and facilitating mineral extraction through a geographic fix, which enabled the conservation of US environments and the promotion of US corporate interests overseas, but also locked central and South American countries into dependence on primary commodity export.

Chapter 4 demonstrates how mineral programs brought together Cold War strategy and post-war economic globalization. President Harry S. Truman’s Point Four program (1949-53) deployed DOI personnel across the globe to counter Soviet influence by providing technical assistance to “backward” countries while also facilitating foreign mineral acquisitions for US firms. US taxpayers funded the DOI to engage in everything from far-flung field expeditions to rewriting foreign governments’ laws to favor US firms, to philosophizing on the inability of “primitive” peoples to appreciate the value of mineral resources. All the while, prominent officials such as Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall (1961-9) insisted that the DOI’s purview was nature and nature was borderless.  In this way, “the environment itself became a means and logic of intervention…Interior officials claimed that because natural resources crossed borders, so should natural resource experts” (7).

Source: Scientific American

But with the rise of post-colonial governments, US geologists became less welcome in the hinterlands of foreign states, particularly as growing numbers of newly-elected leaders revolted against what they saw as a continuation of colonial relations of extraction dressed up in developmentalist rhetoric. In the face of these challenges, the Interior looked beyond land for new frontiers: to the continental shelf under the oceans, and to outer space. Chapters 5 and 6 cover these two new frontiers respectively, which provided a means to address the core areas of the Department’s concerns at the time: reduce US dependence on overseas sources and provide new extractive opportunities for US firms while promoting conservation of domestic lands. The continental shelf added 760,000 square miles of submerged lands—an area nearly as large as the Louisiana Purchase—while outer space promised potentially infinite resources that seemed tantalizingly within reach.

Chapter 7 follows DOI activities back home, so to speak, when the Oil Crises of the 1970s directed extractive interests to Native American reservations. Black writes:

“In an irony that would escape few contemporary commentators, the seeming wastelands to which many Native Americans had been relocated or allowed to stay in the 19th century—a spatial arrangement overseen by the Interior Department itself—were revealed by the Geological Survey to cover approximately half of the nation’s uranium, one-third of its low-sulfur strippable coal, and a decent percentage of its oil shale and natural gas,” (215).

Black’s analysis of Indigenous movements—in particular, the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT), which dubbed themselves “the Indian OPEC“—shows that the DOI’s far-flung ambitions had to contend with local groups that had different ideas for the resources under their feet.  Herein lies another important contribution of the book: Indigenous resistance to ongoing expropriation within the US is less visible than other anti-Imperialist social movements of the era, despite CERT’s transnational linkages.

Black situates her discussion of the ultimate outcomes of CERT’s campaigns within the onslaught of neoliberalism in the 1980s: a process that began with Reagan decimating funding for civilian agencies while drastically increasing defense spending. This military and corporate capture of public institutions culminated in, among other things, Blackwater founder Erik Prince‘s 2018 pitch to take over the US-led occupation of Afghanistan in exchange for a hefty mineral concession. Although The Global Interior was in press before this particular development, Black writes that US government interest in Afghanistan‘s mineral deposits represented “a return to form,” rather than a totally new development as it tended to be conveyed by US media at the time. With this history, we can understand how the seemingly outlandish ideas of the present—buying Greenland, turning another country’s minerals over to mercenaries, or legalizing  “finders keepers” in outer space—represent not the exception, but the rule of US territorial expansion as exercised through mineral expropriation.