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5. Deserts. The Geopolitics of Geology

Monopolies of raw materials are as much political and historical as they are based on ‘natural’ resources. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the growing dependency of national food supplies on fertilizer has turned phosphorus into a critical resource within, and as, the catalyst of geopolitical conflicts. Lino Camprubí tells the (post-)colonial and geopolitical history of the Western Sahara—the last African colony that still exists to this day—and gives historic insight into why Morocco holds approximately 75% of the world’s usable phosphate. Timothy Johnson’s article highlights how World War I exposed the vulnerability of a fertilizer-based agricultural system, but also helped install mineral-fueled agriculture.

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Timothy Johnson

University of Georgia

Timothy Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Georgia whose research focuses on the broad intersections between environmental history and business history. His dissertation “Growth Industry: The Political Economy of Fertilizer in America, 1865-1947,” examines how capital and politics “rewired” agricultural production to coalesce state power between the collapse of slavery and World War II. His research has received funding from the Social Science Research Council, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and the Harvard History Project.