Ecologies of US Global Power

Geography/History/Government 3160 - Spring 2022

Here’s draft syllabus for a new course I am working on for Spring 2022. A PDF of the full thing is here, with images, assignments (everyone’s got a podcast now…), and waaaaaaaay too many supplemental readings. I think I’ll include them in the final version as they will help me frame the conversation in class and offer the students helpful starting points for their projects.

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Robbers of the world, now that the earth is insufficient for their all-devastating hands they probe even the sea; if the enemy is rich, they are greedy; if he is poor, they thirst for domination; neither east nor west has satisfied them; alone of mankind they are equally covetous of poverty and wealth. Robbery, slaughter and plunder they falsely name empire; they make a desert and call it peace.
—Tacitus, Agricola, 30.4


This interdisciplinary course will highlight the vital role that the physical environment played in the establishment and growth of U.S. power on the world stage. From timber and cotton in the 18th and 19th centuries to coal and steel in the early 20th century to oil and gas in the 21st; from bananas in Latin America to green energy sources and the carbon-intensive archipelago of military bases; from diplomacy to war, many of the foundational drivers of U.S. foreign relations are tangled with issues related to the control, extraction, or distribution of key natural resources. Students in the class will engage with a suite of sources, from historical archives to art and film, coming away with a firm understanding of the important geographical and economic connections between environmental, military, and diplomatic history.


1.0 Virtual Introductions on Zoom “They make a desert and call it peace”.

After spending a bit of time meeting each other, today we will explore a few of the general themes and terms that will structure our course discussions. We’ll outline our preliminary thoughts on ideas like nature, empire, nation, security, borders, and frontiers, and we will begin an open-ended conversation about why (or if) studying environmental resources and resource use/extraction is a productive lens through which to learn about US foreign & economic policy and the country’s rise in global power.

In-class viewing: The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Gracias Amigos (1944)

Excerpt: “War,” The Problem with Jon Stewart, September 30, 2021, Apple TV.

2.0 Pre/Colonial Americas and the Littoral Spaces of the Transatlantic “Strategy is the art of making war upon the map.”

Now that we’ve gotten to know each other a little virtually, we will meet face-to-face (yay!) and spend this week’s class exploring readings detailing indigenous and settler land use and the idea of the frontier. In engaging with the question of the frontier through its relations to internal and external geographies of power, we will ask a provocative question: what are the spatial limits of US environmental history? Our attempts to find an answer to this question (to the degree that there is a coherent answer) will be a journey lasting the next 13 weeks (or more!).

Greg Grandin, End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, (New York: Metropolitan, 2020). (Chapter 1: All that Space: 11-30)

Strother E. Roberts, “Pines, Profits, and Popular Politics: Responses to the White Pine Acts in the Colonial Connecticut River Valley,” The New England Quarterly 83, no. 1 (2010): 73–101.

Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, United States: Harvard University Press, 2008). (Chapter 1: The Gold Coast and the Atlantic Market in People)

3.0 Revolutionary Environments “A government of our own is our Natural Right”

This week we will focus less on the concept of frontier expansion and settler colonialism, and instead turn our focus to the role of commodity circulation in the forming of US power in the lead-up to and performance of the US Revolutionary War. Certainly, sugar, cotton, and tobacco were central to the establishment of a wealthy landowning class in the US (and the systems of domination that facilitated their wealth—which would eventually become a central focus of the US Civil War), but the 18th century environmental logics, the war, and the material needs of its soldiers form a key component of this nascent and rebellious US power.

David E. Nye, Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies, (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1999). (The Energies of Conquest; 15-40).

David C. Hsiung, “Food, Fuel, and the New England Environment in the War for Independence, 1775-1776,” The New England Quarterly 80, no. 4 (2007): 614–54.

Mark Fiege, The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States, (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2013). (excerpts from By The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God Declaring American Independence; 57-99).

4.0 The Civil War and the Racial Ecologies of King Cotton’s Southern Empire “Trees? American trees had ropes in them…and that bountiful land…who worked it?”

In recent decades, the US Civil War has become fertile ground for scholars studying the synthesis of environmental, military, and diplomatic history. From the role of the landscape in enabling or hindering troop advances to the transnational economies of cotton, sugar, and tobacco to the emergent need to secure the fuel for a steam powered war machine and a steam powered trade regime: securing US power meant harnessing and maintaining access to specific ecological spaces. We will explore these intersections this week.

Lisa Brady, War upon the Land: Military Strategy and the Transformation of Southern Landscapes during the American Civil War (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012); (Intro: Nineteenth-Century Ideas of Nature and Their Role in Civil War Strategy 1-23).

Erin Stewart Mauldin, Unredeemed Land: An Environmental History of Civil War and Emancipation in the Cotton South, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018). (Revealing Vulnerabilities; Intensifying Production: 42-99).

Joan E. Cashin, War Stuff: The Struggle for Human and Environmental Resources in the American Civil War, Cambridge Studies on the American South (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). (Chapter 4: Timber 82-107).

5.0 Imperial Sutures: Infrastructure and/of Islands and the Sea “We think of paths as existing only on land, but the sea has its paths too.”

Today we focus on the sea, a geography that might at first be understood as an imperial interstices but is in fact a key environment at the core of US global power from the 18th century to today. Seafaring spaces and systems were key to the global circulation of commodities, central to the regimes of extraction that facilitated the transition to steam power and fossil fuel locomotion, were key to US imperial control in the Pacific and East Asia, and in our digital world of today, they remain the vital sinews that facilitate the maintenance of the uneven geography of US political and economic control.

Rebecca M McLennan, “The Empire of Law Goes to Sea,” Diplomatic History 44, no. 5 (November 1, 2020): 786–807.

Jason W. Smith, To Master the Boundless Sea: The U.S. Navy, the Marine Environment, and the Cartography of Empire (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018). (chapter 3: The Common Highway 75-106; Epilogue: 202-209).

Peter A. Shulman, Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). (excerpts from chapter 1: The Challenges of Coal/The Politics of Steam: 25-40; chapter 4: Fueling the War)

6.0 Imperial Intimacies: Land and Labor, Race and Resistance “…by the importation of free sugar from our colonial dependencies a conflict has been precipitated between the Anglo-Saxon of this country on the one hand and the c**ly labor of the Orient and the cheap labor of the Tropics on the other.”

If last week’s readings and discussions drew our attention to the central role played by the spaces between sites and populations, this week we return to the ground—more specifically the processes of working the ground. We will read about sugar and bananas and the ways that controlling the uneven geography of resources was key to US economic growth. But we also explore the connection between land and human labor—in this case agricultural and sexual—were part of the terrain of US expansion and control. Power is not a one way street. That is, a banana is not only a plant, but also the result of particular intersections that infuse that plant with regimes of work (human and mechanical), economic power, resistance, and often violence.

April Merleaux, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015). (Sugar’s Civilizing Mission: Immigration, Race, and the Politics of Empire, 1898–1913: 28-54).

Jason M. Colby, “Chapter 11: Progressive Empire: Race and Tropicality in United Fruit’s Central America,” in Daniel E. Bender and Jana K. Lipman, Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism (New York: New York University Press, 2015) (289-311).

Seungsook Moon, “Chapter 5: Sexual Labor and the US Military Empire: Comparative Analysis of Europe and East Asia,” in Daniel E. Bender and Jana K. Lipman, Making the Empire Work: Labor and United States Imperialism (New York: New York University Press, 2015) (137-160).

7.0 Total War and the Expansion of US Industrial Frontiers “War clouds bring prosperity to producers of chromium…”

Understanding the intersections of US interests with the environmental geographies of the two world wars is an enormous task. Warfare in the early/mid-twentieth century was reliant on fossil fuels (which we will explore in the coming weeks), on industrial commodities like rubber and steel, on extractive regimes in the American West, research on (and deployment of) toxic chemicals on racialized populations in the Pacific, and much, much more. So, this week we will only scratch the surface, but we will continue to develop an understanding of the ecologies of total war in the coming weeks. Today’s class also marks the first foray into Megan Black’s outstanding 2018 book: The Global Interior, which we will read in its entirety over the next few weeks.

Megan Black, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power, (Harvard University Press, 2018). (1-50)

Matthew Evenden, “Aluminum, Commodity Chains, and the Environmental History of the Second World War,” Environmental History 16, no. 1 (January 1, 2011): 69–93.

Gregg Mitman, “Forgotten Paths of Empire: Ecology, Disease, and Commerce in the Making of Liberia’s Plantation Economy: President’s Address,” Environmental History 22, no. 1 (January 1, 2017): 1–22.

Spring Recess : No Class

8.0 Internalizing Global Imaginaries *“The old imperialism—exploitation for foreign profit—has no place in our plans. What we envisage is a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair-dealing.”

In today’s class we will start to explore how changes in internal institutional structures—coupled with political and economic interests—shifted the geographic focus of US power. As we will see over the remaining class meetings, this idea of a border between foreign and domestic space works visually on maps and politically as a part of the speeches of generals, diplomats, and leaders. Where it falls short is in helping us understand the circulation of power, where capital touches down and extracts from the earth, and whose interests these processes serve.

Megan Black, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power, (Harvard University Press, 2018). (51-148)

Dexter Fergie, “The Strange Career of ‘National Security,’” The Atlantic, September 29, 2019,

9.0 The Carbon-based War Machine *“Men have been known to starve and yet fight and again advance to battle, but history has been silent upon the act of a warship, without coal and oil, or without ammunition, doing such heroic acts of devotion to duty.”

This week begins a two-part unit on the centrality of fossil fuels to US foreign policy and environmental & military geography. This week will highlight the transformations to US war-making facilitated by its ample supplies of carbon-based energy reserves. Beginning with coal and steam power and moving towards an engagement with oil extraction, today we will look at how the uneven geography of energy supply shaped US territorial and economic engagements in the 19th and 20th century.

Megan Black, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power, (Harvard University Press, 2018). (148-183)

Victor McFarland, “Oil and U.S. Foreign Relations,” in A Companion to U.S. Foreign Relations (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2020), 942–60.

Peter A. Shulman, Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). (chapter 5: The Debate over Coaling Stations; chapter 6: Inventing logistics)

10.0 April 6, 2022: Oil Frontiers *“I drink your milkshake”

Part two of our (too?) small unit on fossil fuels and the ecologies of US foreign policy focuses on the construction of specific geographies of extraction, and by extension pulls myriad places into a willing or unwilling conversation with the US over matters of energy security, national security, or economic opportunity. Taken together, the selection of assigned and additional readings covers the US state’s involvement in an exceedingly broad geography of extraction.

Bret Gustafson, “The New Energy Imperialism in the Caribbean,” NACLA Report on the Americas 49, no. 4 (October 2, 2017): 421–28.

Laleh Khalili, “The Infrastructural Power of the Military: The Geoeconomic Role of the US Army Corps of Engineers in the Arabian Peninsula,” European Journal of International Relations 24, no. 4 (December 1, 2018): 911–33.

Chad H. Parker, “Aramco’s Frontier Story: The Arabian American Oil Company and Creative Mapping in Postwar Saudi Arabia,” in Oil Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2014). Brandon Wolfe-Hunnicutt, “Oil, Empire, and Covert Action,” in A Companion to U.S. Foreign Relations (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2020), 961–84.

11.0 The Hot Cold War: Counterinsurgency and War on the Environment *“We are fighting a war with no front lines, since the enemy hides among the people, in the jungles and mountains, and uses covertly border areas of neutral countries. One cannot measure [our] progress by lines on a map.”

Today’s class dives more explicitly into the US’s foreign (or perhaps more accurately external outsides and internal outsides) engagements during the decades of the Cold War. Many in the US are taught that the Cold War was ‘cold,’ that its violence never escalated to the level of a ‘hot’ war. But in thinking through both the environmental impacts and spatial extents of global counterinsurgency (what President Johnson once referred to as “a war to build as well as to destroy”) in the mid-to-late 20th century, we will get a better understanding of the redefinition of diplomacy and warfare in an era which was ‘cold’ while ‘hot’ enough to cause millions of casualties around the world.

Megan Black, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power, (Harvard University Press, 2018). (183-214)

Thomas Robertson, “‘This Is the American Earth’: American Empire, the Cold War, and American Environmentalism,” Diplomatic History 32, no. 4 (September 1, 2008): 561–84.

David A. Biggs, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010). (Chapter 6: American War 197-226).

12.0 Laying Waste *“Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

As should be quite clear by this point in the semester, war, security, and global power have dramatic impacts on the environment. What this week’s readings and discussion will draw attention to are the remnants of violent interventions, whether in the form of radiation poisoning, water pollution, or atmospheric carbon. Building and maintaining US global power means not only shaping certain policy futures, but also introducing a potentially toxic afterlife. We are also finishing Megan Black’s book, which after taking us to space, returns us to the ground, and in particular the valuable ‘wastelands’ of indigenous Americas.

Megan Black, The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power, (Harvard University Press, 2018). (214-250)

Sasha Davis, The Empires’ Edge: Militarization, Resistance, and Transcending Hegemony in the Pacific (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015). (Chapter 3: Seeing Like an Empire: Islands as Wastelands)

Leah Zani, “Bomb Ecologies,” Environmental Humanities 10, no. 2 (November 1, 2018): 528–31.

Oliver Belcher et al., “Hidden Carbon Costs of the ‘Everywhere War’: Logistics, Geopolitical Ecology, and the Carbon Boot-Print of the US Military,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 45, no. 1 (2020): 65–80.

13.0 The Uneven Geographies of the Drug War

*“…this is the time for Mexico, with the help of the United States, to wage WAR on the drug cartels and wipe them off the face of the earth.”

In our discussions this semester we have often had to adjust the scale of our analysis—from, say, the grand strategic vision of the US state to the intimate labor of the workers in the fields. Similarly, today we will have to recon with the connections and disconnections between sites of production and consumption along the supply chain—this time for drugs. Our readings and discussions will ask us to consider the complications caused by moving between thinking about the people who work the land growing narcotics, the bodies of the people who use them, and the often-violent methods of the state that has positioned drugs as an existential security threat.

Suzanna Reiss, We Sell Drugs: The Alchemy of US Empire, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014). (Raw Materialism: Exporting Drug Control to the Andes; 97-131)

April Merleaux, “Drugs, Empire, and U.S. Foreign Policy,” in A Companion to U.S. Foreign Relations (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2020), 572–95.

Michael Polson, “Making Marijuana an Environmental Issue: Prohibition, Pollution, and Policy,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 2, no. 2 (June 1, 2019): 229–51.

Daniel Weimer, “The Politics of Contamination: Herbicides, Drug Control, and Environmental Law,” Diplomatic History 41, no. 5 (November 1, 2017): 847–73.

14.0 Rare Earth Security and 21st Century Mineral Frontiers

*“But today, more than ever before, there has been reason to invade this whiteness, to mark and explore it, for an urgent military purpose.”

While all of our readings and discussions have had contemporary consequences, for our final meeting we will be looking at the some of the most innovative—and potentially geopolitics-transforming—landscapes (and deep-seascapes) of extraction. As everyday life in many parts of the world becomes increasingly digitized, as cars become electrified, and as the global demand for resources transitions towards a new suite of minerals, what, and where, is the future nature of US global power?

Excerpts: Nedal T. Nassar, Elisa Alonso, and Jamie L. Brainard, “Investigation of U.S. Foreign Reliance on Critical Minerals—U.S. Geological Survey Technical Input Document in Response to Executive Order No. 13953 Signed September 30, 2020,” Open-File Report 2020–1127

Johanne M. Bruun, “Invading the Whiteness: Science, (Sub)Terrain, and US Militarisation of the Greenland Ice Sheet,” Geopolitics 25, no. 1 (January 1, 2020): 167–88.

Charles J. Butler, “Rare Earth Elements: China’s Monopoly and Implications for U.S. National Security,” Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 38, no. 1 (2014): 23–40. Justine Calma, “Jeff Bezos Eyes Space as a New ‘Sacrifice Zone,’” The Verge, July 21, 2021.