THE quest of iron and copper and flint for use as weapons, and of gold and silver and precious stones for adornment, runs far back into history and is associated with many stirring events of exploration and war. But they were used on a relatively small scale and served only as a minor factor in the environmental conditions controlling human activities. With the advent of the industrial revolution of England, a century ago, began the real exploitation of earth materials in a way to influence essentially our material civilization. In this short time, at an ever accelerating rate, minerals have become the fundamental basis of industrialism, to be ranked with soil, climate, and other major influences on our activities. In these hundred years the output of pig iron has increased 100-fold, of mineral fuels 75-fold, and of copper 63-fold. In the last fifty years the per capita consumption of minerals in the United States has multiplied fifteen times. By harnessing up the power from coal, gas, and water we have multiplied our capacity for work. The acceleration of the rate of mineral exploitation may be realized from the fact that the world has exploited more of its resources in the last twenty years than in all preceding history.

In appraising the effect of this new element in human environment we have no historical precedent to guide us, for the change is too recent, too all-pervasive, for us to understand all its significance. Yet a few clear tendencies are beginning to be discernible.

The rising use of mineral resources has naturally led to an intensive search of the earth for adequate supplies, which is just beginning to give us some realization of their ultimate geographic distribution. Changes will still be made by discovery, usually in expected fields, but the main outlines are now pretty well fixed. The curve of geographic discovery is falling. The great discoveries of the future will in the main relate to better methods of recovery and use. As the insatiable appetite for minerals has risen, many sources of supply which formerly were adequate are beginning to look relatively small. As the demand multiplies, the sources known to be capable of meeting it become proportionally fewer. In short, it is being realized that nature has concentrated the really big sources of supply, adequate to meet present and future world demand, in a very few places on the globe, a fact which will play an increasingly important part in the future history of the world.

Thus, about thirty of the principal mineral districts account for three-fourths of the world's mineral production. Three-fourths of the world's iron comes from only half a dozen districts in the United States, England, France, Sweden, and Spain. Two-thirds of the world's coal comes from the eastern United States, England, and western Germany. Two-thirds of the world's copper comes from a half dozen districts in the western United States and Chile. The Union of South Africa produces over half the world's gold. And so on. A review of the entire list of commercial minerals would be merely a monotonous repetition of geographic facts of the same general import.

An obvious consequence of this inequality in the geographic distribution of minerals -- of such practical bearing on world affairs, in peace and war, -- is the interdependence of nations and their community of interest in regard to mineral supplies. There are not enough of the great primary sources to go around. Even the favored nations -- among them the United States -- lack a considerable number of them in sufficient quantity to meet modern demands, and many nations are conspicuously deficient. There is a high degree of specialization in production which, in the case of some nations and for some minerals, amounts practically to monopoly. A balanced ration of raw materials necessary for modern industry simply cannot be made up within the boundaries of any one nation. Immense international movements are therefore necessary. Reflecting this situation, the great commercial and industrial companies are becoming international in their scope, and to an increasing extent find it necessary to disregard national boundaries in securing supplies.

These are simple and more or less obvious facts of commercial geography. What is less generally understood is that this situation is essentially new in history. Only a few decades ago a state's dependence on mineral resources was much less marked. Nations could be more or less self-sufficing on the basis of smaller mineral supplies and of agricultural or other resources. A really new element in our environment now requires that nations work together if they are to advance along material and industrial lines. The pressure is inexorable and growing. It is a situation which cannot be changed by public will or for political motives. Neither will it be essentially changed by the substitution of chemical synthetics, nor by improvements in methods of mineral recovery, as now proclaimed by certain chemists. One must be hopeful indeed if he expects to synthesize substitutes on the stupendous scale of nature's laboratories, which have been on the job since the beginning of the earth's history. No, the nations actually stand today, and will continue to stand, in reciprocal and complementary relationships one to another in regard to mineral raw materials.

This is true not only as regards normal industrial development, but also as regards the requirements for a great war. War on the scale of the last one cannot be fought on the basis of the raw materials within any one national boundary. The United States is better supplied than any other nation, but for the prosecution of a great war it is necessary even for our nation to reach to the far quarters of the globe for many essential raw materials which cannot be either substituted for or stored in advance in sufficient quantities to last. Staff preparation for war now includes a study of how to control these far distant sources. The difficulties of this are so great that where they are realized they cannot fail to be real deterrents to hasty war. It is reassuring to know that there is now lively appreciation of these facts by our own and other war departments.

It is easy to infer that anything which tends to bind nations together materially is conducive to world peace. But it does not always follow that community of material interest eliminates friction, whether the family be that of nations or individuals. As a matter of fact, political reactions are on the whole away from any unification of international interest in minerals. One cause seems to be common inertia and opposition to anything new. Another is that it is no longer possible for nations to expand the areas of their political control to keep up with the expansion of commercial units, as was possible during much of the nineteenth century, when leading commercial nations, particularly of Europe, were rapidly opening up backward parts of the world, thereby giving outlet for commercial expansion. In Europe itself since the war political units have on the whole actually become more numerous and smaller, in the face of the marked tendency of commercial units to become larger and to expand their spheres of influence across international boundaries. Still another and powerful cause is the post-war flare of intensive nationalism, of "self determination," coupled with a fresh realization of the vital part played by minerals in national economy, as a result of which there has been a world-wide wave of nationalization of resources, represented by measures ranging all the way from outright acquisition of minerals by nations to many measures of more indirect control, such as control of operations, prices, distributions, markets, tariffs, licenses, etc. The same tendency is manifest also in many kinds of prohibition against any foreign exploitation of minerals, covered by the general term "the closed door," and other attempts of nations to acquire or to protect resources by various political and military measures. There are powerful and usually justifiable reasons for these tendencies, -- the desire to protect the future of the nations, to reap the benefits of any resources possessed, to prevent foreign exploitation hurtful to the nation, to avoid foreign political and military influence which often follows commercial investment, to aid "conservation" in a national sense, and for military protection.

We are therefore witnessing the conflict of two powerful opposing forces -- on the one hand, world demand for raw materials, which knows no national boundaries and which is forcing coöperation in order that demand may be efficiently satisfied; on the other, the nationalistic forces directed toward partitioning resources for national gain or security. Many recent international episodes are an expression of this problem, and more are in store.

In our search for a solution of this problem a natural first thought is that one or other of the great opposing forces might be minimized or eliminated, but a little reflection will, I think, show the impracticability of accomplishing much along these lines. Nationalism is deeply rooted in history and ethnology; it is usually based on sound instincts of self-preservation; it involves many factors other than supplies of natural resources. There would have to be a radical change indeed in the national psychology to allow even the smallest alienation of political control of essential resources in favor of supernational or international control. Even if this difficulty were surmounted, it is doubtful if brains have yet developed capable of planning such administration in a way to provide for all contingencies.

It seems equally difficult to lessen the insistence of the demand for raw materials. "Industrial civilization" and "the machine age," are often disparaged, and disadvantageous comparisons are made with the intellectual or artistic accomplishments of earlier times, but no practicable method of changing its tendencies is suggested. The very people who take the view that commercial development should be curbed are not consistent when at the same time they buy household equipment made of materials from the other side of the globe. When one rides in an automobile, for instance, a demand is created for supplies coming from a dozen countries and by no possibility obtainable from one. Wholesale and world-wide self-denial in the use of common implements of human comfort is not likely to come about until the average material comfort of the world is on a much higher plane than at present. Rather is it more likely that the desire for them will harden into a belief in their urgent necessity. Even if it were possible, there remains the question whether there would be any ethical, moral, intellectual, or artistic gain in so curbing industrial demands. This is a topic of endless academic discussion, but academic it will doubtless remain.

It may be assumed, therefore, that, right or wrong, the demand for resources will continue to grow, which means also that the fundamental conflict with nationalism will remain. About the best that can be hoped for is a working alliance of political and economic states, involving mutual compromise, and yet preserving the really essential rights of each. There is being gradually worked out, through many commercial and political agreements, a certain adjustment in the international flow of mineral products which is effecting a workable compromise between world demand on the one hand and nationalistic policies on the other. There are also international agreements of one kind or another, now under discussion, which promise to minimize world friction. But one must be hopeful indeed to expect anything more than a slow amelioration of some of the grosser difficulties in the problem. The essential conflict will remain and its course will continue to be marked by flashes of international animosity. This need not lead to pessimism and inaction. There is a wonderful opportunity for practical accomplishments in this field. One, which seems to offer as much chance for discouraging war as any yet suggested, is a better understanding of foreign exploitation.

The primary meaning of the word "exploit" is to develop, or get the value out of, but there has come to be attached to it the idea of unfairness, selfishness, and force which is now reflected in supplementary definitions in dictionaries. In the public mind the objectionable connotations so over-shadow the primary meaning that the term has come to stand for one of the most objectionable of human activities. I use the term here mainly in its primary sense, but not exclusively so. If a less provocative term like "develop" were substituted, it would probably not be understood by most people as covering essentially the same activity which has come historically to be known as exploitation. A term is needed which will identify the facts, whether they be regarded as good or bad. Even the best of development is seldom completely free from selfishness and unfairness; the worst of exploitation is seldom without some underlying justification in world needs.

Much the larger part of the world's mineral production has come from North Atlantic countries, and has served to build up the industrial and commercial supremacy of this part of the world. The concentration of heavy industries about the North Atlantic is based primarily on the possession of immense coal and iron deposits, together with adequate quantities of copper, lead, zinc, oil, gas and other essential minerals. The main industrial power belt of the world crosses the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Belgium, and Northern France, with minor extensions eastward to other parts of Europe. From this belt originates the commercial, and in some cases the political, control of a preponderant part of the mineral production of the rest of the world. The United States originates and controls about 40 percent of the world's mineral production, and the United States and Great Britain together control at least 75 percent.

By reason of their exploitation of power resources, -- coal, oil, gas and water -- the North Atlantic countries, counting both man power and mineral power, are doing annually five times the mechanical work of the combined total of Russia, China and India, the three most populous countries of the world, though the population of the North Atlantic countries is only a third as great. With a fifth of the world's population, this group of countries is doing about two-thirds of the world's work. The United States alone is doing about 40 percent of the world's work, and its next nearest competitor, Great Britain, about a quarter as much as the United States.

This perspective reflects more or less the distribution of national wealth and the prevailing standards of living, as might be expected from the fact that wealth is essentially a product of work. With certain qualifications, assuming equality of preparedness, skill, and courage, these figures probably also measure the relative ultimate power for sustaining war.

One frequently hears, particularly in connection with international debt discussions, that the present great wealth of the United States is due largely to the fortunes of war, that the United States came out of the Great War suddenly enriched. The student of natural resources sees that what really has happened has been the partial emergence into world consciousness of the cumulative results of the rapidly growing volume of work by our country, based on use of resources, a tendency started long before the war, temporarily accelerated but later retarded by the war, easily and certainly predictable from pre-war curves, but only now reaching such towering proportions that it can no longer be ignored. The back of the monster can now be seen above the horizon, but its form and characteristics are not yet fully apparent. There are still many people who fail to understand that the mid-Victorian material standards of international comparison are gone and gone for good. The phrase "back to normal," implying as it does static conditions, becomes meaningless when applied to the present dynamic situation. There is no such thing as going back and reconstructing old conditions, much as we individually may have liked them.

In the past the leadership of the North Atlantic countries in mineral and power production has been regarded as a mere reflection of the initiative and energy of the North Atlantic races, and it has been more or less taken for granted that in time the development of other parts of the world would equalize the mineral situation; that, broadly speaking, one part of the earth would yield to human effort about as well as another. This belief was a natural one under commercial conditions existing in the past, when the requirement for minerals was on a much smaller scale. There were many parts of the world capable of yielding the supplies then needed. But the vastly increasing requirements of modern industrial civilization have brought a new perspective into the situation -- new even to the special students in mineral resources. We see more and more clearly that the preponderant position of the North Atlantic countries is not a mere passing episode, but is based on a real concentration of mineral resources, of a quantity, distribution, grade, and availability which can hardly be duplicated elsewhere, and which assure primacy in heavy industry for hundreds of years to come.

It is to be emphasized that the building of the great industrial civilizations has not been based on any single mineral but on unusually fortunate associations of minerals, in very large amounts, particularly the combination of coal and iron necessary for the iron and steel industry. China has large undeveloped resources of coal, but it is very deficient in iron ore. The Philippines and the Dutch East Indies have considerable low grade iron ore, but no suitable coal. India has iron ore, but insufficient coking coal for a really great industry. Japan has neither coal nor iron in notable amounts; its control of the Manchurian coal is a great asset, but the necessary supply of iron ore has not yet been secured. Australia and South Africa have insufficient quantities of both coal and iron of proper grade and geographic association for the first rank of world industry, even though locally, as in eastern Australia, satisfactory local units of the iron and steel industry are developing. The countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea are conspicuously deficient in both coal and iron. Their resources were adequate for an earlier civilization but not for the kind which has now developed around the North Atlantic. Southern Russia has moderate quantities of both coal and iron, which will in time be reflected by considerable industrial development, but not on a scale comparable with that of the Ruhr, England, or the United States.

While 80 percent of the world's oil now comes from countries bordering the western North Atlantic, there are other centers of production in southeastern Europe, southwestern Asia, the Dutch East Indies, as well as potential fields in South America, Sakhalin Island, and in Africa, but these outlying sources are not likely to change the major geographic distribution of heavy industries, for several reasons. Oil cannot be substituted for coal for smelting except at increased cost; it is too valuable for other purposes. Even if it could, its volume is much too small to be used as a large scale substitute for coal. In recent periods of flush production in the United States, which has been by far the greatest oil producing country, oil has furnished only 28 percent of the total energy units, as compared with 72 percent for coal; and in the future, considering relative reserves, there is likely to be even a smaller ratio of the use of oil to the use of coal. There is little likelihood that any other region will produce oil in the huge amounts necessary to make up for the absence of coal. Moreover, because it is easy to transport, it is likely to flow toward industrial centers already established rather than to serve as a basis for local industries, except on a small scale.

As for other minerals -- the copper of South America and central Africa, the gold of South Africa, the lead and silver of Burma, the iron ores of South America, the antimony of China, the tin of the Straits, and so on -- in no case do they exist in a regional association with coal, iron and other essential minerals so as to furnish the basis of great industry. All of them are important to local industry, but there is no indication that any of them foretell the building of industries which will rival those of North Atlantic countries.

The recent rapid development of waterpower has led to a popular belief that this may cause a redistribution of heavy industry. As a matter of fact, when compared with coal, waterpower is even less important than oil. In the United States it furnishes only 5 percent of the total energy, and a survey of potential waterpowers of this and other countries shows that when fully developed they can supply but a very small part of the energy necessary for the creation of heavy industry on a modern scale.

In summary, then, the mounting world demand for minerals has brought more and more centralization of industrial power in the North Altantic countries. The outlying units of production have grown, but the large central units have grown faster. Nowhere on the horizon today is there any clear indication of decentralization in the mineral field, and consequently in industrial power. The mineral industries of the world will remain tributary to the North Atlantic countries for a long time to come. It does not follow that the rest of the world may not be prosperous, but its activities must take other lines, and as yet there is nothing in sight that promises to approximate the power that is based on the possession of mineral resources.

This is a lengthy preamble to a simple and bald conclusion, namely that the North Atlantic countries will continue to be the great exploiters of mineral wealth, as in the past. In these countries originate the necessary wealth, skill, and driving power. In these countries originates the main outward thrust, commercial and political, against the remainder of the world. From the standpoint of mineral resources, no such thing as equality of nations exists. Economic self-determination in the field of natural resources is and will be possible only to the North Atlantic nations.

In attempting to appraise the problem objectively the first step is to rid ourselves of the notion that our own nation is not exploiting, or that if it is exploiting it can stop. A large part of our American public seems to hold one or the other of these opinions, which is not surprising in view of some of the recent statements of our Government in relation to Mexico and Nicaragua. There is no use blinking the fact that we are now the world's chief mineral exploiters, and will continue so by virtue of the direction given to our activities by our environment.

The history of exploitation shows that our own and other governments have almost never frankly disclosed the exploitation being done by their nationals. They are keen to "protect legitimate interests" of their nationals, but deplore or ignore "exploitation." On the other hand, critics of suspected imperialistic tendencies (like Senator Borah), are likely to condemn all exploitation as pernicious, without recognition of its essential nature.

Our thesis, if you please, is acceptance of the principle that might makes right, but only to the extent and in the sense that nature's environment creates might. Human volition plays little part, and it seems futile to argue this as a moral or ethical question. This concentration of power, with its consequences, is no more right or wrong than was nature's original distribution of resources. One of the keenest philosophic writers on foreign affairs, Captain Mahan,[i] has perhaps done as well as anybody in claiming this course as a natural right:

"The claim of an indigenous population to retain indefinitely control of territory depends not upon a natural right, but upon political fitness . . . shown in the political work of governing, administering and developing, in such manner as to insure the natural right of the world at large that resources should not be left idle but be utilized for the general good. Failure to do this justifies in principle, compulsion from outside; the position to be demonstrated, in the particular instance, is that the necessary time and the fitting opportunity have arrived."

Without exploitation our land would still be in the hands of the aborigines. Has the world benefited as a whole by the change? We hope it is for the good of the greatest number, and can make out a good case for this point of view, when all the elements of exploitation are taken into account; but we cannot prove it.

Having recognized that the international exploitation of minerals exists today, as in the past, and is inevitable for the future, the next step is to direct our attention to the manner of exploitation, to see that it is done intelligently, in the open, with due regard to the rights of people who must feel its brunt. In exploitation, as in most other fields of human activity, there are good ways and bad ways, fair and unfair ways, which are pretty well recognized by the people professionally in touch with it. In almost no other field of international relations is there such an opportunity today for nations to get together around the conference table, to standardize methods of exploitation and correct its abuses; in short, to bring the many exceptions and local causes of difficulty into conformity with well tried, fair, and effective measures developed by the long experience of many countries. If England and the United States alone could get together on this question, controlling as they do such a large and well assorted proportion of the world's mineral wealth, nearly three-quarters of the total, they could pretty well fix the procedure.

It evidently is the rôle of higher statecraft to make it clear that the demand for the open door is justified on a broader basis of world welfare. The closed door slows up mineral development and dams up commercial and political pressure from many sources, often to a dangerous point. Many backward countries have neither the capital nor the trained organizations for this work. Where the initiative lies with governments, there is often a conspicuous lack of imagination and venturesome spirit, so necessary for mineral exploration. Even where the factors of competence are apparently present back of the closed door, this policy in practice narrows participation and variety of attack to a notable degree. Unless the world turns backward from its present material habits of living, closed doors will increasingly become sources of international friction. Commercial and political pressure is likely to open the door, sometimes by force, sometimes by intrigue, by bribery, or by private bargaining, as shown in many striking recent episodes in Morocco, Mosul, Mexico, and elsewhere. In the interest of international good will, it ought to be possible for nations to agree on basic principles of procedure which in effect compromise legitimate national aspirations with insistent world pressure. Many recent specific bargains between nations and commercial companies seem to point the way to a better formulation of international agreements touching this important subject.

If this is too much to hope for in view of other elements in the political situation, the United States still has responsibility, as the world leader in mineral exploitation, to revise its own methods, to show that exploitation can be done with a decent regard to the rights of others, and to take advantage of its strength to help other nations placed by nature in a defensive position. In the long run it should accrue to our national self-interest even from a commercial standpoint. How far we are from taking that attitude is made evident by the mere mention of the belligerent way in which our so-called rights in the field of exploitation are sometimes "defended," the marvellous ways these rights are defined and construed, the way they are sometimes hidden under the skirts of the Monroe Doctrine, and the failure to acquaint the public with the real underlying needs and facts of exploitation. We need Mexico's minerals, and will get them. We believe that the exploitation of these minerals will in the long run accrue to the advantage of both countries. But cannot this be done without taking ruthless advantage of our weaker neighbors, often in a spirit of anger, and with an attitude of righteous self-complacency which ignores the abuses of our action or even denies its very existence? The international political methods now in vogue, which usually deal with this problem only in a spirit of narrow nationalism, afford little promise of early relief. Yet both as a scientist and an optimist I cannot but conclude that ultimately political arrangements must conform with the new environment.

[i] Mahan, A. T., "Problem of Asia," p. 98: Little, Brown & Co., 1900.

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  • C. K. LEITH, Professor of Geology in the University of Wisconsin, Technical Adviser to the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, 1918-19
  • More By C. K. Leith