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The Specter of Scarcity: Hanna Vikström defends her PhD thesis

Last Friday my PhD student Hanna Vikström defended her PhD thesis, entitled “The Specter of Scarcity: Metal Shortages in Historical Perspective, 1870-2015“. Mats Ingulstad from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), a leading expert in the historical study of strategic natural resources, acted as opponent. The venue at KTH was filled to the brim of people eager to take part of this festive intellectual event. For two hours we could enjoy a marvellous discussion between the two, centering on questions such as: Can Sweden really be regarded as a “small nation” in the global world of natural resource extraction? Has Sweden behaved like a colonial power in the resource field, even though it has not had any former colonies? And: To what extent is it possible to draw on experiences from metals scarcity when seeking to understand resource scarcity more generally?

A diverse examination committee, consisting of Julia Lajus from St Petersburg, Anna Sténs from Umeå and Anders Hansson from Linköping, contributed with further questions, for example, about the temporal dimension in the historical study of natural resources: perhaps it is necessary to go back much further in time – at least 500 years? – if we want to fully grasp what hides behind the notion of “resource scarcity”?

Hanna Vikström’s PhD research has aroused a lot of attention already during her studies. She has written popular-science articles and given public lectures on the topic of metals scarcity. She also spent several months at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. The five articles in her PhD thesis have all been either already published, or are accepted for publication – all in internationally renowned journals.

Hanna will now embark on the next stage in her academic career: a 2-year post-doc stay at Uppsala University.

 

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3 million SEK for Cold War Coasts

The FORMAS Research Council recently accounced its decision to fund a research project of an unusual kind: “Cold War Coasts: The Transnational Co-Production of Militarized Landscapes“. Set out to start in 2018, it will build on a collaborative effort with colleagues at KTH and Stockholm University. The project will run until the end of 2021.

The project aims to reconstruct how the coasts of the Baltic Sea have been physically and socially shaped through transnational interaction across the Cold War divide from 1945 to today. Our hypothesis is that magnificent maritime landscapes such as Stockholm’s famous archipelago or Gotland’s desolate beaches cannot be properly understood without taking into account how potential enemy attacks from the opposite shores of the Baltic stimulated a far-reaching militarization of these Swedish coasts. Conversely, we will study the Cold War’s shaping of Estonia’s and Latvia’s coastscapes. The project will in this contribute to a fascinating new strand of research in the intersection between environmental history and military history.

We have tried to get this project funded for several years already, and in actual practice we have already come a long way in carrying it out in the process of preparing repeated applications for funding. The experience should be encouraging for historians who find that their applications are rejected, as it shows it may be well worth trying again!

Read more about the project on Formas’ website.

Nuclear energy as cultural heritage

Last week I participated in a somewhat unusual conference at Södertörn University here in Stockholm: Nuclear Legacies: Community, Memory, Waste & Nature, organized by Anna Storm at Stockholm University. The most important parts dealt with nuclear energy as cultural heritage. The programme comprised presentations by a wide arrange of scholars, with speakers not least from the former Soviet Union playing a very active and important role.

But the real highlight of the conference was a visit to the decommissioned Swedish nuclear power plant at Ågesta in southern Stockholm. It was shut down permanently already in the mid-1970s, but when you visit the facility, sitting down for a while in the red chairs in the main control room, touching the emergency shut-down button or wandering around (well, under guidance) in the deserted reactor hall, you get the feeling that the plant could have been in operation until yesterday. Everything is still there, save the most radioactive components (notably the fuel elements).

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At Ågesta you step directly and abruptly into the Swedish nuclear age in its formative phase. This was Sweden’s first commercial-size nuclear power plant. It delivered electricity to Stockholm’s electricity grid and especially heat to the new district heating system in the modernist suburb of Farsta, 2 kilometres to the north of the plant, opposite Lake Magelungen. The facility is small compared to the reactors that were later taken into operation at Oskarshamn, Barsebäck, Ringhals and Forsmark. But it has a much stronger – and sinister – story to tell than those plants. It is a relic of the Swedish vision, now long forgotten, of becoming a nuclear-weapons nation; Ågesta’s reactor, moderated by heavy water and fuelled by natural (rather than enriched) uranium, was designed so as to enable it to produce Swedish weapons-grade plutonium. The fuel, or so the plan said, was to be sourced from western Sweden’s promising uranium deposits. Sweden was to become self-sufficient, independent of the great powers in its nuclear programme – and the Swedish nuclear programme, this was regarded as self-evident in the years around 1960, was to become the heart of Sweden’s industrial and societal development. Ågesta, quite literally, radiated Sweden’s high modernity. With one word, Ågesta was a centre-piece of technology for both warfare and welfare.

The question is now what is going to happen with Ågesta. SVAFO and Vattenfall, who jointly own the plant, told us during our visit that they simply want to demolish the whole facility, unbuild it – and that they are actually obliged to this by Swedish law. As an historian of science and technology, however, I find this strategy shocking. Anybody with a sense of Swedish postwar history who visits Ågesta will inevitably come to the opposite conclusion: that this facility needs to be preserved, in one way or the other! It’s a totally unique facility from which the entirety of Sweden’s post-war and Cold War reality emerges! No other industrial creation could tell the story of Sweden in the nuclear age in the way Ågesta is able to! So, is there really no other way forward than to destroy and dismantle it?

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Technology, natural resources, crises

I’m back from a somehwat unusual academic workshop in Berlin, organized by the Max Planck Society: “Energy Transformations: Perspectives from the Humanities“. Two different institutes of the society have initiated a cooperation: the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion – an interesting attempt to bring historians and natural scientists together. The natural scientists acted mainly as commentators, the historians as presenters. But how can such a discussion be made relevant for all? The contributions were diverse, to say the least, ranging from Jamie Cross‘s anthropology of energy storage (based on field research in New Guinea and the use of batteries there) and Benjamin Steininger‘s cultural-studies approach to motor fuels in the the twentieth century to Andreas Malm‘s provocative views on steam power in the British Empire and my own attempts to synthesize a transnational European energy history. Let’s see what comes next; a follow-up workshop is already being planned.

The Berlin workshop had some similarities with two other workshops I participated in last autumn but which I have forgotten to write about. The first took place in Trondheim (Norway) in early autumn and dealt with the history of natural resource extraction in national, regional and global perspective and brought together historians of various breeds, from transnational and business historians to historians of science and technology. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology at Trondheim has built up impressive expertise in this area and scholars such as Pål Thonstad Sandvik, Mats Ingulstad and Hans Otto Fröland have recently won several large research grants targeting natural resource history. The workshop featured a number of valuable discussions on topics such as resource nationalism, political regulation of natural resources, the EU’s evolving quest for raw materials and resource extraction from a colonial perspective.

The other workshop took place in St. Petersburg and I participated in it in conjunction with my archival research there. It was essentially a Tensions of Europe event and was a first step in the effort to explore one of the new wider themes that this network of historians of technology has identified as crucial: “Technology, Natural Resources and Crises in Past and Present of Europe and Beyond“. This workshop shared some focus with the Berlin and the Trondheim workshops, but it also differed from these in at least interesting respect – by going back in time not only to the 20th and 19th centuries, but also to Europe’s deeper past. The most interesting examples here included some of the Russian historians’ accounts of water and wood in early modern Russian history. I’m very sympathetic of such efforts. But as historians of technology we definitely need to work more on integrating these analyses and narratives into our general understanding of Europe’s history of technology – and of its crisis-ridden present. Too often do we neglect the heavy weight of the deeper past and how it continues to shape our own era in breathtaking ways. I will have reason to return to these issues later on this spring.

Stockholm-Istanbul Express

The 7th International Conference on Railway History, which took place in early November this year, had the history – and future – of East-West railway connections as its overarching theme, and the organizers had found the perfect venue for the event: the historic Sirkeci Railway Station in Istanbul, on the shore of the Bosporus.

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From the 1880s onwards, it functioned as the terminal station for the famous Orient Express from Western Europe to Constantinople, one of the most impressive East-West connections in infrastructure history. And the history continues: Turkey has now built a railway tunnel under the Bosporus, for the first time ever interconnecting Europe and Asia at these latitudes. During the conference, in which representatives from Iran’s and even from Afghanistan’s State Railways participated, it also became clear that a new Eurasian railway revolution may be in the making as China invests enormous sums in improving its land-based transport connections with Europe. The Marmaray tunnel under the Bosporus will become one of the most critical components in such a future transport system, or so the Turkish State Railways think and hope.

Given the topic of the conference, I couldn’t resist the temptation to give the already existing East-West railway system a try and take the train from Stockholm to the conference in Istanbul. It took a few days, but why always hurry and take the plane? In an age of state support to monstruous capital airports and minimal taxes on airlines’ carbon emissions (and none at all on the horrible sound pollution), it remains more expensive to take the train to distant destinations. But what an experience, gliding smoothly through Europe’s magnificent autumn landscapes, over the bridges interconnecting Denmark’s islands, through Germany and across the Austrian Alps into Slovenia and onwards through Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria to the southeastern corner of Europe!

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Everywhere people on the move, boarding and unboarding, everyone with one’s own destination and one’s own life story. I felt a child-like happiness. But at the same time, naturally, I couldn’t help thinking about the thousands and thousands of refugees who these days move in the opposite direction. Towards the end of my journey, I passed out of the European Union and Schengen, then returned briefly before leaving it again at the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Passport controls, stamps, torches searching for hidden passengers. A Cold War feeling reminiscent of train travels in the former Soviet Union. And outside: huge fences along the borders, some of them newly erected. Southeastern Europe is a sad and confused region of the world these days.

 

In Russia’s State Historical Archives

Yesterday was the 99th anniversary of what Russians officially call the Great Socialist October Revolution (although some argue that it was not great, not socialist, not really a revolution – and that it didn’t even occur in October…), and it comes to my mind that I’ve forgotten to report about my recent research visit to St. Petersburg, where it all took place. One of the consequences of Lenin’s coup was that the country’s capital moved from Petersburg to Moscow, a move that also has its effects on where historians go for archival research: so far I have been going to the archives in Moscow, which hold the Soviet-era collections, but thanks to our project on Sweden and the Origins of Global Resource Colonialism, which centers on the earlier period from 1870 to 1920, I had now the chance to explore the archives in St. Petersburg, which hold the Imperial-era documents.

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The visit became a surprisingly positive experience. Well, there is a need for patience with the bureaucracy and waiting times in Russian archives – not unlike the situation in German archives – which may come as a shock to Swedish historians, spoilt as they are with the relaxed state of things in most Swedish archival collections. But the Russian materials are truly rewarding, especially so in terms of all the private companies that were nationalized in the context of the Revolution and whose archives were subsequently  merged with the state holdings. This means, for example, that the Russian state archives hold the collections of a variety of imperial-era privately-owned oil companies. I came to St. Petersburg to look into the collections of one of these: the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Production Company, of which I’ve already written repeatedly in this blog.

Oil, of course, continues to feed the Russian economy in the 21st century. Ironically, some of this money now finds its way back to the state archives and their historical oil-company collections: the Russian government has recently invested in new digital and electronic tools that significantly improves and simplifies the research process. Since last year it is possible, for example, to order archival documents through the web, that is, from one’s own computer – even from a remote location such as Sweden. All opisy (lists of archival files) are also available online (although they are not yet searchable). In addition, some materials are being scanned and digitalized. A surprising and very positive development, which I hope will continue. The main threat to progress here is probably the low world oil price and the state budget deficit that it gives rise to in Russia!

Back in Baku

My study of the Nobel Brothers Petroleum Production Company as a colonial-style enterprise in Imperial Russia is far behind schedule, but every time I manage to find some time for it I’m reminded of the unique features of its history. Recently I finally got the chance to continue my earlier research in Azerbaijan’s National Archives, and the documentary material available there is truly great. I returned home with a few thousand copies of documents, which describe in detail, among other things, what actually happened in Baku and its oil industry during the violent years of the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the short-lived independent Azerbaijan Republic, and the Red Army’s final conquest of Baku in spring 1920.

But this time I also took my time to follow in the footsteps of the Nobel Brothers by first visiting Georgia’s key oil port of Batumi, which nowadays also hosts a museum dedicated to the Nobel Brothers, and the critical Surami pass in the mountains, which in imperial times caused much headache for Russia’s oil industrialists eager to conquer foreign markets. In 1890 a first railway tunnel across the pass was inaugurated, through which all trains en route from Baku and Tbilisi to Batumi continue to pass – but not for much longer; Chinese construction firms are now building a more modern tunnel. The purpose is still the same: to make oil products move as efficiently as possible from East to West.

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New Surami tunnel

This history is thus still, quite literally, under construction. It may be added that the Nobel Brothers’ company continues to play an important role in current affairs, although it basically ceased to exist a century ago. This is because its history and brand continue to be used actively by both politicians and industrialists in present-day Georgia and Azerbaijan, especially when it comes to forging fruitful relations with Sweden and Swedish business. I will come back to this aspect; at the moment I feel it deserves a whole journal article in its own right.