World History 2 134 - 9.2.1 Raw Materials and Markets

By the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution, new inventions and industrial processes demanded new raw materials, such as petroleum to fuel engines, natural rubber for valves and tires, palm oil for lubricating machinery, copper to conduct heat and electricity, silver for medicine and photography, and lead for pipes. Coal was in demand to transform iron into steel, to produce the gas that heated homes, and to generate the electricity that powered machines and lit streets and buildings. Not all the industrialized nations could produce enough to supply their increased needs.

New fashions and tastes also created demand for foreign imports. Middle-class families in Europe and the United States wanted their daughters to play the piano and drove a market in ivory (from which piano keys were once made). The need for quick sources of energy for industrial workers fueled an increased demand for coffee, tea, and sugar. Elites and aspiring members of the middle class filled their homes with furniture of mahogany, rosewood, and ebony. Cotton textiles remained fashionable, but following the abolition of slavery in the United States, cloth manufacturers could no longer depend on an inexpensive supply of raw cotton.

The Past Meets the Present

The Demand for Elephant Ivory

In the nineteenth century, the demand in industrialized nations for pianos (and thus piano keys), hair combs and hairpins, handles for silverware, false teeth, letter openers, billiard balls, and other objects made of ivory employed thousands of people in the United States, especially in the lower Connecticut River Valley. Between 1863 and 1929, one firm alone processed 100,000 elephant tusks (Figure 9.14). But the demand for ivory declined at the beginning of the twentieth century. Among other changes, radios and phonographs replaced pianos as the chief source of music in the home, and the call for instruments fell.

A picture shows men standing and sitting in front of a wall with a small window amid three large piles of stacked elephant tusks. Twelve of them are African and wear long white shirts, jackets, over cloths tied around their waists. Some are bare chested and some wear hats or turbans. Two Caucasian men wear long white coats and pants and have moustaches. Three pairs of men in the back hold tusks between them while four men hold tusks over their shoulders in the front. Some of the tusks are taller than the men.
Figure 9.14 East African hunters of the 1880s or 1890s posed with the elephant tusks they sold to European buyers. (credit: “Ivory trade, East Africa, 1880s/1890s” by Bassenge/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

There is still a demand for elephant ivory today. Although many governments have made the sale of ivory products illegal, people in Asia and the United States continue to purchase them, considering them fashionable or status symbols. Many believe that governments will take steps to prevent the extinction of elephant herds hunted for their tusks, and that purchasing a few small items will not cause serious harm. Demand for ivory has decreased in recent years, but elephant herds in some parts of Africa are still declining, and evidence suggests the animals are evolving to grow smaller tusks.

The desire for elephant ivory is not the only consumer demand that threatens to harm the environment. Rainforests are cut to clear more land to raise cattle. The demand for gasoline has also led oil companies to drill beneath the ocean and seek access to protected wilderness areas.

  • Are you aware of other current consumer demands that could have similar effects on the natural environment? What are they?
  • Should we be held more responsible for the harm caused by our demands than the people of the nineteenth century, given that we are more aware of the consequences for the natural world? Why or why not?

The industrializing powers could satisfy their needs for raw materials and markets only by reaching outside their borders to places in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Ocean. To amass large profits, however, they needed to extract raw materials at such low prices that it was unlikely Africans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders would consent to them. In addition, and also unlikely, these nations would have to agree to purchase manufactured goods from their industrialized partners even though they might be able to produce such things for themselves. Business owners and politicians in industrialized nations thus believed they needed to gain control over these distant countries and rule them as part of an empire. Quite often, military conquest was the means by which they did so. Once these foreign territories were secured, markets established, and funds invested, the imperial powers then needed to prevent encroachment on their possessions by other industrial powers. This led to them to exercise even greater control over their colonies and often to attempt to conquer neighboring regions. Great Britain, for example, competed with Russia for control of Afghanistan largely to limit Russian access to Britain’s prize colony of India.

The new colonies were quite different from those that European powers had established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was not generally expected that large numbers of Europeans would relocate to Africa or Asia and make permanent homes there, and the colonies were not intended to have quite the same relationship to the home country that earlier “settler colonies” had had. The U.S. treatment of the Philippines and Filipinos was fundamentally different from what North American colonists had experienced from Great Britain, for example. The industrial nations intended to exploit the resources and people of the colonies they established, not settle them.

There were some exceptions. The North African colony of Algeria, which France had taken control of in 1830, was incorporated as part of France in 1848. Many French people and other Europeans immigrated to the coastal regions of Algeria and Tunisia with government encouragement in the nineteenth century. Many Europeans also settled in the British and Dutch colonies in southern Africa. However, this was not the imperial norm.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax