This bold and wide-ranging book views the history of humankind through the prism of natural resources – how we acquire them, use them, value them, trade them, exploit them. History needs a cast of characters and in this story the leading actors are peat and hemp, grain and iron, fur and oil, each with its own tale to tell.
The uneven spread of available resources was the prime mover for trade, which in turn led to the accumulation of wealth, the growth of inequality and the proliferation of evil. Different sorts of raw material have different political implications and give rise to different social institutions. When a country switches its reliance from one commodity to another, this often leads to wars and revolutions. But none of these crises go to waste – they all lead to dramatic changes in the relations between matter, labour and the state. Our world is the result of a fragile pact between people and nature.
As we stand on the verge of climate catastrophe, nature has joined us in our struggle to distinguish between good and evil. And since we have failed to change the world, now is the moment to understand how it works.
Part 1. History of Matter
Chapter 1. Cry Fire
Chapter 2. Grain’s Way
Chapter 3. The Remains of Foreign Bodies
Chapter 4. Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice
Chapter 5. Fibres
Chapter 6. Metals
Part 2. History of Ideas
Chapter 7. Resources and Commodities
Chapter 8. Resource Projects
Chapter 9. The Mercantile Pump
Chapter 10. The Resources that Failed
Part 3. History of Energy
Chapter 11. Peat
Chapter 12. Coal
Chapter 13. Oil
Conclusion. Leviathan or Gaia
Alexander Etkind is a Professor of History at the European University Institute.
"Provocative, insightful and informative, Etkind explores the cultural, economic and political institutions built on the humble foundations of commodities such as hemp, coal and wheat. The ideas of matter and the matter of ideas leap to life in his pages. Readers will find themselves rethinking their notions of civilisation, its origins and future."
– Edward Lucas, formerly senior editor at The Economist and author of The New Cold War
"Etkind's book is a treasure trove of ideas about the material, cultural and political lives of natural resources. An utterly original and fascinating blend of intellectual, ecological and moral history. A great read, not to be missed!"
– Nancy Fraser, New School for Social Research, author of Capitalism: A Conversation in Critical Theory