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Global resource colonialism in historical perspective

April 21, 2013

A few months ago I received a grant from the Swedish Research Council (VR) for a project called “Sweden and the Origins of Global Resource Colonialism: Exploring a Small Country’s Natural Resource Interests in Africa, Caucasia and the Arctic“. My colleagues Dag Avango, David Nilsson and Hanna Vikström at KTH also participate in the project and we have now started up the project in earnest. We have two main goals: the first is to show that the exploitation of colonial natural resources, as it developed from around 1870 up to today, was not something in which only the colonial powers themselves were involved, but a process of which smaller nations were also deeply part. To do this we map the phenomenon of global resource colonialism as a large technical system with a variety of interelated varieties and interests. The second goal is to revise earlier research on Sweden’s development as a nation during the same period, by scrutinizing the ways in which Sweden’s involvement in global resource colonialism shaped everything from its foreign policy and military strategies to its industrial and economic development. To do this we combine our technical systems perspective with a political economy approach.

At a recent internal seminar we critically reread the existing literature on Swedish foreign policy in historical perspective and found that most authors in the field tend to discuss foreign policy almost totally in isolation from industrial development and technological trends. That’s far from satisfactory for anyone with an ambition to view Swedish history as something taking place not only in Sweden itself, but globally as well. In the next phase of the project we’ll proceed by carrying out a number of specific case studies. David Nilsson is already about to complete an article on Sweden’s role at the Berlin conference (1884-85), at which Africa was divided up. Dag Avango looks at the Arctic as a region of colonial-style resource exploitation, with deep Swedish involvement. My own case study deals with the Swedish Nobel brothers in Baku, where they early on became the dominant actors in the making of the Russian oil industry before the revolution. What really were their connections with the Swedish government? Hanna Vikström meanwhile is starting up an exciting PhD project on Sweden in the context of rare metals extraction and processing in colonial regions.

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