Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

Background and Problems

In recent years, natural resources have become a crucial concern and received increasing political attention. Access to and the development of natural resources became an important element of national and international politics during the 19th and 20th centuries. Resource security emerged as an issue vital to national security and resource competition gave rise to international tensions. In the early 21st century, the rapid development of emerging nations has increased the global demand of and pressure on natural resources significantly. China emerged as a leading developer and consumer of global natural resources. Large corporations from many countries competed aggressively for resource development and exploitation on a global scale. Resource markets experienced soaring prices and increasing volatility. While some resource deposits (such as North Sea oil) soon face depletion, technological advances and climate change push speculations about new resource opportunities such as in the Arctic and the deep sea. These developments raise the fundamental question how well European countries are prepared to master the challenge of securing natural resources in times of increasing global competition and tension and confronted with additional pressures such as migration, terrorism, environmental change, rising nationalism and political conflicts in many world regions.

Contemporary debates about natural resources, however, have significant limitations:

  1. They tend to be ahistorical and to neglect the persistent legacies of historical processes such as colonialism, World Wars and geopolitics during the Cold War.
  2. These debates are predominantly framed by approaches in resource economics and the dynamics of commodity prices, whereas deeper factors such as ideological framings, political institutions and traditions, legal regimes and technological resources, practices and path dependencies tend to be underrated.
  3. Most attention focused on resource development and availability, whereas the environmental, social and political impacts of resource extraction and use remained of secondary importance.

Through historical research we aim to analyze the deeper historical roots of contemporary resource perceptions and policies and to contribute to its better understanding and to broadening discourses about it. History has formed lasting material conditions and intellectual traditions of resource policies and use; it has created path dependencies, institutional structures and ideological barriers; and it has informed contemporary problem perceptions and management. At the same time, historical experiences and legacies also represent a resource for understanding and managing present and future challenges.

The state of historical research on natural resources, however, has so far also suffered from limitations such as the following:

  • Methodology: Methodolo­gical questions and theoretical issues in resource historiography did not yet receive systematic and due attention.
  • Perceptions and constructions of resources: As important as the material and physical manifestations of resource regimes and its changes in time are its intellectual and ideological underpinnings. Only recently have historians started to analyze the constructed character of resources and the role of narratives around key concepts such as security, risk, scarcity, criticality and crisis. Further systematic research in this direction is needed.
  • Historiographical imbalances: Extracting actors and countries received much more attention compared to the interests of the people in and impacts on extractive territories. Likewise, historical analysis favored the analysis of large nations, whereas the conditions of small states received little attention.Transnation­ality: Research focused primarily on national perspectives and nar­ratives and lacked comparative transnational approaches and attention for periphery-center relations.
  • Integration: Natural resource history has lacked concerted international efforts of integrating individual research efforts and approaches. Lacking are especially transnational and comparative perspectives of resource crisis perceptions and management in European states. The EurReS network aims at providing significant contributions for overcoming these limitations.