Mining and might: reflections on the history of metals and power

David Humphreys

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Economic and military power have rested on the possession of metallic minerals for many centuries; far longer than has been the case with hydrocarbons. Since minerals are unevenly distributed around the world, there have been many instances in history where countries have sought to bolster or extend their power by the acquisition of minerals from others through trade or through territorial expansion (empire-building). This article explores the interplay of mining, metals and power, through case studies of Ancient Rome, Spain during its colonisation of South and Central America, Britain’s maritime empire, and the Soviet Union’s belated and rapid industrialisation during the twentieth century. These case studies serve to make the point that current concerns in the USA, Europe, Japan and China about the vulnerability of their economies and military capabilities to the disruption of mineral supplies from overseas are nothing new, although the range of minerals now used, the complexity of modern supply chains and prevailing geopolitical norms suggest that there may not be too much in the historical record to assist these countries and regions address their concerns.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages13
JournalMineral Economics
Early online date3 May 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 3 May 2023


  • Copper
  • Empire
  • Gold
  • Iron
  • Mineral supply
  • Power

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Economics, Econometrics and Finance (miscellaneous)


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