Regions, in Theory
From the Series: Geological Anthropology
Nine years ago, one could be forgiven for imagining all of western Canada as sitting on the precipice of an extractive revolution. “Stretching for some 2,500 km from just above the Idaho and Montana borders in the south to the Yukon border in the north, Mother Nature has created the right geological environment along the Rocky Mountain Rare Metal Belt for the emplacement of both rare earth elements and rare metals.” So says a glossy brochure included in a 2011 issue of ResourceWorld magazine. For those familiar with mineral exploration advertisements, the imagery is predictable enough: spectacular landscapes dotted with drilling platforms, helicopters, and core sample boxes; crews at work, in boots and reflective vests. The scale of the imputed region, though, is arresting: a single mineralogical “play” encompassing the entire Canadian Rockies. Spilling out over six pages, site photographs are bracketed by financial and mineralogical data for over a dozen companies. Such a crowded field signaled not diminishing returns, though, the document suggests, but abundant possibility (cf. Kneas 2016). North America’s biggest rare earths region is only now being discovered, the brochure observes, but its promise was there all along.
What is a “region,” geologically speaking? How is the language of regionalism—the associations it facilitates, the documents it marks, and the stories it helps to circulate—important for understanding contemporary worlds of resource work and extractivism? Like the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute, the Human Relations Area Files, and other initiatives through which regionalisms proliferated in ethnographic practice nearly a century ago (Price 2011; Lindee and Radin 2016), the institutional prerogatives and theoretical groundings of geological regions are impossible to disentangle. Eager to displace the language of “natural groupings” that had for decades oriented ethnographic work in the Caribbean, Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1992, 20) urged readers to treat attempts to impute conceptual coherence to the space as “scattered posts on an open frontier,” and to focus new efforts on articulating “encounters” between theories and disciplinary histories. Decades after similar critiques became mainstays of anthropological theory (cf. Abu-Lughod 1989; Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Clifford 2013), though, how has the persistence of regionalisms in actors’ categories inflected anthropology’s sense of itself as a science of critique? Negotiations over the usefulness of “Rocky Mountain Rare Metal Belt” as morphological description, geopolitical location, and corporate brand reveal numerous professional anxieties at play. For exploration geologists, always ready to abandon a claim to follow new markets, regions hailed through mineral prospecting and promotion are understood to be suspect from the moment they emerge. That the language of geological regions remains pervasive, however, says less about discursive constraints on individual geologists’ orientations toward the world than about the affordances of a corporate form.
Since the 1970s, much of the work of “discovering” new geological regions has been undertaken by geologists working for junior exploration companies, or “juniors.” Regardless of the ores they seek, juniors’ brief and frantic lives are defined by ever-changing spatial and temporal horizons (Tsing 2000). For hundreds of juniors founded between 2010 and 2013 during a brief yet spectacular spike in prices for rare earth minerals, the novelty of the minerals required promoters to rapidly assemble new circuits of comparison, too. As an ethnographer working at the promotional office of Mercantile Minerals,1 one of sixteen companies profiled in the “Rare Metals Belt” campaign (and the only one extant in 2020), I often witnessed this labor of assembly in real time. Mercantile employees routinely found ways to cite emergent “conflict minerals” supply chain reporting laws,2 for instance, while answering investors’ questions about the geology of British Columbia. Such legerdemain also structured consequential conversations in the field. Reminiscing about the skepticism she encountered at her first meeting with members of a Secwepemc First Nation whose reserve lay downriver from the company’s primary exploration site, Eleanor, Mercantile’s chief geologist, emphasized the revulsion her audiences expressed at hearing stories linking Congolese artisanal mining to the recruitment of child soldiers. At each meeting thereafter, Secwepemc representatives asked new questions about how constructing a mine on their territory might affect warfare a continent away. By 2012, Secwepemc representatives had rejected three other mine proposals nearby. Their negotiations with Mercantile, however, proceeded apace. “These guys know about gold mines, how they come and go,” Eleanor offered. “They know we’re different.” Utopian visions of “ethical mining” became particularly persuasive for Eleanor’s audiences, her stories suggested, when she could hail a region that located other sites and projects in the past (cf. Hughes 2005).
Most junior promotional campaigns are as evanescent as the market trends that occasion them. The regions they conjure, however, can lead more complicated half-lives. In their final post before most of the companies profiled in the campaign sold their claims and shut down, the managers of the Rocky Mountain Rare Metal Belt website posted a link to a new map produced by the British Columbia Geological Survey depicting 107 “known occurrences” of rare metals throughout the province (British Columbia Geological Survey 2012). Still available online, the map aggregates oceans of data into another beguilingly simple chart: academic studies; tonnages from old mines; prospectors’ anecdotes; and juniors’ legal filings, condensed into a web of icons denoting where the next big strike might occur. As other governments around the world rushed to produce their own maps of rare earths potential, though, each new map increased the legibility of the “Rocky Mountain Rare Metal Belt” as geological theory even as it diluted its allure as a brand. At the astronomical prices commanded during the 2011 boom, Mercantile employees admitted, dozens of government-mapped sites could have been mined economically even at extremely low concentrations. To a new junior company riding a future market bubble, another regional rare earths–bearing formation might be found nearly anywhere a geologist looked.
Three decades since Trouilllot and others began critiquing the notion that culture could be reducible to place, the ambivalent nature of geological regions suggests alternative modes of analysis. Imputed geological regions coordinate work, generate documents, and lend shape to everyday conversations. They outline economies and political scales to which many actors might later aspire. Such aspirations, of course, often lead brief lives. Regardless of their persistence as theory, most regions “discovered” through mineral exploration work are simply ignored after markets move on. As indices in government archives, though, some regions eventually send new researchers into the field with hopes of dissolving generalizations, or of translating hints of potential into realizations of emplaced wealth. A circumspect anthropology, then, must track how such divergent aspirations and forms of life emerge from the categories our interlocutors abandon.
1. Mercantile Minerals and Eleanor are pseudonyms.
2. The most prominent of these laws was the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform
and Consumer Protection Act, which was passed into law by the U.S.
Congress in 2010. Although its reporting requirements were removed from
the law in 2016, the original Dodd-Frank Act is still frequently cited
by exploration promoters as an example of what future “conflict
minerals” legislation may look like.
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