The Fate of Nations. Natural resources and historical development, 1880-2015


 "Without a considerable knowledge of raw materials and of their adaptations, we could not live"

Duration: 2017-2022
Funding: The Research Council of Norway
Principal investigators: Hans Otto Frøland, Mats Ingulstad, Pål Thonstad Sandvik, Jonas Scherner, Espen Storli
Researchers: David Alenga (PhD). To be appointed: 2 Postdocs, 3 PhDs

Project summary
The concurrent emergence economic liberalism, political nationalism and high imperialism in the late 19th century, firmly imprinted on the minds of political leaders, captains of industry and scholars that access to natural resources is essential for economic growth and state power. Even though the trade in primary commodities relative to other traded goods has since declined, their importance for nutrition, industry and defense - the fate of nations in short - has not waned. Questions of access and supply security remain as urgent today as they were perceived to be in the late 19th century.

Access to natural resources is presumed to be organized in global value chains that are organized and structured through the cooperation and competition between a diverse cast of actors including companies, states and international organizations. To investigate how participation in global chains influences the fate of nations the project proceeds from a straightforward hypothesis: Those actors that succeed in building and controlling robust value chains will prosper, while those who do not, fail.

This hypothesis unlocks a set of intriguing research questions. Why have these value chains been shaped as they are, for what reasons, and with what consequences? To answer these questions, the project's first objective is to map the resource chains for different non-renewable mineral resources using historical trade data on trade volumes, prices and capital flows. To understand how and why the value chains have been organized as they are, one cannot deduce merely that firms are profit maximizing entities striving for the best possible utilization of available resources. While seeking the optimal organization of the resource flows and exploitation of cost differentials, firms are constrained by their own perceptions of risks and knowledge of available resources. Home and host states also impinge on their freedom of maneuver by establishing and enforcing their own preferences through regulation, as do international institutions. Finally, there is the looming threat of resource conflicts that decisively alters both demand and supply. The project's ultimate objective is therefore to study how actors perceive the problem of natural resources, how they act within the structural constraints of their environment to address the problem, and the outcomes of these actions.

The project is headed by Professor Hans Otto Frøland. The research is divided in four work packages, each headed by a principal investigator:

  • Companies and cartels (Espen Storli)
  • National regulation (Pål Thonstad Sandvik)
  • International institutions (Mats Ingulstad)
  • War and resource conflicts (Jonas Scherner)

Citation: John Yeats, The Natural History of Raw Materials of Commerce (Scribner, 1878) 2-3
Image: Island Copper mine reclamation 1996, Copyright Gord McKenna, licensed under Creative Commons,