THE World War suddenly brought into being a need not only for millions of men and tons of food, but for immense increases in transportation facilities and enormous quantities of equipment of all kinds. The experience taught men everywhere, as no human experience had ever taught before, the value of minerals and of the metals derived from them. Steel, copper, lead, zinc, coal, petroleum -- the common mineral products and many others little known or appreciated before, such as tungsten, chromite, manganese, molybdenum -- all were in unprecedented demand. In every quarter of the world there was a scramble for supplies. During the years since the war an almost equal furor has arisen over the effort of each nation to make itself secure for the future, either by forcing the domestic development of mineral resources or by acquiring control of foreign supplies. Not a few of the international difficulties of the post-war world have resulted from this effort.

Minerals, so essential to the complex fabric of modern life, are unequally distributed among the nations. No single nation is wholly independent as regards all of them. Thus 85 percent of the world's sulphur, one of the minerals most essential to modern industrial processes, is supplied by the United States, and 11 percent by Italy; no other country produces more than 2 percent. Nickel comes 89 percent from Canada. Of the molybdenum supply, 94 percent comes from one mine in Colorado, and 5 percent from Norway. Other similar instances might be cited. Even those minerals which are used in very large quantity, such as coal and iron, are derived mainly from but a few countries. It is the peculiar characteristic of minerals that they can neither be reproduced nor transplanted. The British introduced rubber from Brazil to Malaya; but the tin which is mined in Malaya was there already, and all the British could do was to develop the existing reserves.

In view of the essential rôle played in the modern world by minerals, and in view of the many peculiar limitations on their supply, "The Mineral Inquiry" was organized [i] two years ago "to make factual studies of the mineral resources of the United States and the world in their political and international relations." This study, which was undertaken for the Inquiry by William P. Rawles, uncovered much interesting data, in part incorporated in the accompanying charts, relating to the distribution and production of the principal minerals and the degree of political control exercised by various countries. These charts, which were first prepared for a Mineral Conference that was recently held at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, are based upon the output for 1929, the last year for which complete returns are available. The percentage of the world's output mined within a given country, and the percentage controlled by the citizens of various countries, are shown wherever it amounts to 5 percent or more; smaller percentages are lumped together as "other."

The striking fact will be at once noted that in every case the bulk of the production comes from but a few countries. Only here and there do more than four countries participate to an important degree in production, or more than three in control. In a number of cases two countries or even one mine or control 95 percent or more of the whole output. Commercial control is distinctly more closely concentrated than production; in most instances not more than three nations control 95 percent.[ii] No figures for gold are included, since it is especially difficult to trace out the commercial control of the mining shares. However, the British Empire holds a strongly dominant position both in mine production and commercial control.

The reserves of minerals rather than their present production would afford a more exact basis for arriving at an estimate of the long-time rating of the various nations. Complete figures for reserves unfortunately are not available. In general it may be taken that the recent annual production of the various countries, following so long a period of unrestricted development, provides an approximate measure of the relative reserves of each. This is not entirely true. Coal production, as shown by the figures used, was in 1929 mainly the business of the United States, Germany and Great Britain, with France and Poland figuring as bad seconds. The big coal reserves of the world, however, as estimated by the International Geological Congress, are found in the United States, Canada and China, with Germany, Australia and Poland as approximately equal secondary powers.

Study of the charts reveals the relatively strong position occupied by the United States. It is true that this country suffers from a marked deficiency in nickel, tin, manganese, tungsten, chromite and potash (though newly developed potash mines in the southwest have changed the picture, except possibly on the basis of competitive cost of delivery to consuming markets). It will be observed, however, that the United States can obtain adequate supplies of most minerals from domestic mines, and that the country's position has been notably strengthened by the extension of American interests abroad. The only other nation which is in the same class with the United States as to minerals is the British Empire. Together the two control the great bulk of the mineral wealth of the world.

This dominant ownership opens up great opportunities to the United States and to Great Britain. But it also entails a heavy responsibility, since control of the world's minerals gives control of the basic materials for peace and war.

[i] Consisting of C. K. Leith, Chairman, and H. Foster Bain, G. Temple Bridgeman, M. L. Requa and J. E. Spurr; with an Advisory Council consisting of Isaiah Bowman, Edwin F. Gay, Jerome D. Greene, T. W. Page and Nicholas Roosevelt.

[ii] The figures of commercial control are not exact. Shares in corporations are widely scattered, are not easily segregated by nationality of ownership, and furthermore are constantly changing hands. Moreover, it sometimes is undesirable from a business point of view completely to reveal ownership. Thus the figures given must be accepted as close approximations only. In the case of bauxite, there is a considerable block of production under commercial control which the Inquiry found it impossible to differentiate completely along national lines.

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  • H. FOSTER BAIN, formerly Secretary of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers; author of "Ores and Industry in the Far East"
  • More By H. Foster Bain