Main content start

Sebastian Felten, visiting Stanford at the Europe Center from Vienna University

Thu April 14th 2022, 4:30 - 6:00pm

History as Resource: Mining Metals and Collecting Data in Central Europe

The origin of modern sustainability is often presented as a story of ecological rationalization: Managers in early modern Europe became aware of limited carrying capacities of farms and forests, embraced holistic thinking, and developed techniques to make soils yield grain and wood for years on end. This talk presents an alternative genealogy of modern sustainability by highlighting mining in the Ore Mountains (stretching between today’s Czech Republic and Germany). As elsewhere in Central Europe, miners developed a form of restrained extraction that mirrored scientific forestry and agronomy in being slow-paced, oriented towards a remote future, and aiming for total use of available deposits. To explain this mode of extraction, this talk examines why actors – from Renaissance scholars to technical experts in the Enlightenment – collected data about past mining activities. How did the material needs of mining infrastructure turn history into a resource? And conversely, how did historical thinking shape the allocation of material resources? While Ore Mountain mining declined in the 19th century, the Mining Academy in Freiberg attracted engineers and managers from Europe, its empires, liberated South America, Japan, and the USA. Through this conduit, history continued to be a resource for geopolitics and resource economics at the heyday of Euro-American imperialism.

Sebastian Felten (PhD, King’s College London) is Universitätsassistent at the Department of History at the University of Vienna and the author of Money in the Dutch Republic: Everyday Practice and Circuits of Exchange (Cambridge, forthcoming). He is a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford’s Europe Center and was a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Berlin (MPIWG) between 2015 and 2018. A collective volume on Histories of Bureaucratic Knowledge, which is the result of a working group at the MPIWG (co-convened with Christine von Oertzen), was published in December 2020. Recent publications include papers on Enlightenment ergonomics, distributed cognition in early modern mines, the revival of early modern mining culture during the Nazis' war effort, and bureaucratic rationality. Twitter @fesastian