Resources and their substitutes: natural surrogates and synthetic competitors in world history

Moritz von Brescius's picture
June 8, 2022 to June 9, 2022
Massachusetts, United States
Subject Fields: 
Asian History / Studies, Economic History / Studies, Environmental History / Studies, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Humanities

This international conference brings together the histories of various natural resources with a particular focus on the rich histories of their potential substitutes. It works with the hypothesis that any profitable commodity at one point faced possibly cheaper, more easily accessible or producible surrogates, and seeks to explore such competing resource cycles and their social, ecological, economic and political effects.


WEDNESDAY, June 8, 2022

9.00–9:15: Welcome and Introduction

Elaine Papoulias, Executive Director, Center for European Studies (Harvard)

Moritz von Brescius (Harvard)

9:15 – 10:15: First Keynote Lecture

Corey Ross (Birmingham):

The Ecological Life of Things: Environmental History, Commodity Production, and Commodity Substitution

10:15-10:30: BREAK

10:30–12:00: Panel I: Ivory, its Uses and Substitutes

Robert Friedel (Maryland): Rescuing Elephants: Ivory, Scarcity, and Material Choice

John McNeill (Washington): East African Ivory and Yankee Ingenuity, ca. 1820-1930

Commentary: Jessica Wang (University of British Columbia)

12:001.30: BREAK

1:30–3:00: Panel II: Medicinal Resources and Substitutes

Anna Winterbottom (McGill): Substitution, Confusion, and the Origins of Aloe vera

Harold J. Cook (Brown), Quid pro quo: Substitutions among Medicines or Bodies?

Commentary: Mary Lindemann (Miami)

3:30–5:15: Panel III: Asian Commodities

Jessica Ratcliff (Cornell): “Improving” Colonial Market Knowledge in Mid-nineteenth-century Britain: The Decline of the East India Company’s Monopoly and the Rise of the Economic Museum Movement

Prakash Kumar (Pennsylvania State University): Global Indigo Texts

Commentary: Ghulam Nadri (Georgia State)


THURSDAY, June 9, 2022

9:00–10:00: Second Keynote Lecture

Edward Melillo (Amherst): When Silver Bullets Miss their Marks: Reflections on the Promises and Failures of the Synthetic Age

10:15–11:45: Panel IV: The science of polymers: rubber and synthetic fabrics

Moritz von Brescius (Harvard): Entering the Rubber World: Perceptions, Industrial Uses and the long Quest for Substitutes

Erin Freedman (Harvard), Polymer Science and the Birth of Synthetic Fibers

Commentary: Erika Rappaport (Santa Barbara)

11:45–1:00: BREAK

1:00–2:30: Panel V: Oils and Substitutes

Fredrik Jonsson (Chicago): The Great Coal Panic and the Invention of Modern Scarcity

Jonathan E. Robins (Michigan), ‘What Nature Provided’: Palm Oil’s Changing Fortunes 1800-2020

Commentary: Arnab Dey (Binghamton)

2:30–3:00: BREAK

3:00–4:30: Panel VI: Early ‘Plastics’ and Plastics

Suzanne L. Marchand (Louisiana State University): On Porcelain and its Substitutes

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (Paris), From Substitution to Colonization. Synthetic Polymers as Candidate Markers of the Anthropocene

Commentary: Jeffrey L. Meikle (University of Texas at Austin)

4:30–6:00: Concluding Discussion

Input paper by Edward Barbier (Colorado State University): Reflections on Resources and their Substitutes from the Perspective of Scarcity and Frontiers throughout World History

Conference Commentary: Stuart McCook (University of Guelph)

Contact Info: 

Moritz von Brescius (Harvard)