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Covering the Earth: Linseed Oil and Telecoupled Commodities in the Prairie West

Thu, March 30, 3:30 to 5:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Michigan


Sustainability scientists have advanced the concept of telecoupling to model the interactions between human and natural systems in the modern world, and recent environmental histories have argued that global connections were created in large part for industrial commodity trade. This paper tests the theory of telecoupling through a close examination of an intricate commodity network that developed along with other non-petroleum oils. Linseed oil was one of the most important organic products of the burgeoning chemical sector in the late nineteenth century, and the extensive grasslands required to produce this commodity was shaped largely by the modern urban demand for oil-based paint and linoleum. Painting cities required planting new land. Grassland farmers found that the flax grown to produce linseed oil thrived on the newly broken frontier. As North America became a truly global food supplier, its farmers also committed millions of acres of grassland to the production of paint.

As companies like Archer-Daniels-Midland and Sherwin Williams promoted paint’s role in “covering the earth,” they developed global commodity networks, regional expertise, and state-supported agencies that helped expand their supply of raw materials in the Northern Great Plains and Prairies. Building on new research in commodity and environmental knowledge transfer, this paper examines the role of enterprise and state knowledge generation in the development of new regional and global capitalism. By examining census data, business circulars, and the correspondence between linseed oil manufacturers like Archer-Daniels and state scientists, we can see how environmental knowledge traveled and how farm scientists and other state officials became important, but asynchronous information intermediaries in these networks.