The Global Interior: Prospecting Mineral Frontiers from U.S. Settler Colonialism to the Space Race

Lunchtime Lectures
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
1:00 p.m.–2:00 p.m.

This talk by Megan Black, associate professor of history at MIT, was part of Science, Incorporated: Constructing the Natures of American Modernization, a series of six lectures that unpick the diverse ways in which nature—and the study of nature—became entangled with the modernization of America, from the early origins of laboratory pedagogy to mineral prospecting by satellite.

When one thinks of U.S. global expansion, the Department of the Interior rarely comes to mind. Its very name declares its narrow portfolio. Yet a government organ best known for managing domestic natural resources and operating public parks has constantly supported and projected American power. After overseeing settler colonialism in the American West, the department cultivated and exploited its image as an innocuous environmental-management organization while continually satisfying America’s insatiable demand for raw materials. It pursued these prizes across a seemingly disparate array of zones: indigenous lands, formal U.S. territories, foreign nations, the oceans, and even outer space.

This talk recounts the wide-ranging history of the department’s expansive unfolding, with particular focus on its role developing a satellite, Landsat, that could prospect minerals from outer space. Black’s analysis demonstrates that in a period marked by global commitments to self-determination, the Department of the Interior helped the United States maintain key benefits of empire while maintaining a benevolent image. As other expansionist justifications—manifest destiny, hemispheric pacification, Cold War exigencies—fell by the wayside, the department ensured that the environment itself would provide the foundational logic of American hegemony.

About the Speaker

Megan Black recently accepted the post of associate professor of history at MIT, specializing in environmental history, political economy, and the United States and the world. Her recent book, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power (Harvard University Press, 2018), has received four top prizes in history: the George Perkins Marsh Prize for best book in environmental history, the Stuart L. Bernath Prize for best first book in international relations history, the W. Turrentine-Jackson Prize for best first book in Western history, and the British Association of American Studies best book prize. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of American History, Modern American History, and Diplomatic History. She previously taught at the London School of Economics and has completed postdoctoral research at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University and the Dickey Center of International Understanding at Dartmouth College. Black was a Doan fellow at the Science History Institute in 2015–2016. She received her PhD in American studies from George Washington University in 2015.

About the Series

Lunchtime Lectures are a series of (mostly) weekly, informal talks on the history of chemistry or related subjects, including the history and social studies of science, technology, and medicine. Based on original research (sometimes still in progress), these talks are given by scholars for an audience of the Institute staff and fellows and interested members of the public.