This bold and wide-ranging book views the history of humankind through the prism of natural resources – how we acquire them, use them, value them, trade them, exploit them. History needs a cast of characters, and in this story the leading actors are peat and hemp, grain and iron, fur and oil, each with its own tale to tell.
The uneven spread of available resources was the prime mover for trade, which in turn led to the accumulation of wealth, the growth of inequality and the proliferation of evil. Different sorts of raw material have different political implications and give rise to different social institutions. When a country switches its reliance from one commodity to another, this often leads to wars and revolutions. But none of these crises goes to waste – they all lead to dramatic changes in the relations between matter, labour and the state.
Our world is the result of a fragile pact between people and nature. As we stand on the verge of climate catastrophe, nature has joined us in our struggle to distinguish between good and evil. And since we have failed to change the world, now is the moment to understand how it works.