The specific terminology—staple or staples approach, or theory, or thesis—is Canadian, and the persistence with which the theory has been applied by Canadian social scientists and historians is unique.
The leading innovator was the late Harold Innis in his brilliant pioneering historical studies, notably of the cod fisheries and the fur trade; others tilled the same vineyard3 but it is his work that has stamped the “school.” His concern was with the general impact on the economy and society of staple production. The staple approach became a unifying theme of diffuse application rather than an analytic tool fashioned for specific uses.
More importantly, many of those “ifs” in the staples thesis narrative don’t fit the data.
Or perhaps it’s better to say that they fit too many data points, and not just the resources sector.
The staple approach to the study of economic history is primarily a Canadian innovation; indeed, it is Canada's most distinctive contribution to political economy. For helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper, I am indebted to J.
It is undeveloped in any explicit form in most countries where the export sector of the economy is or was dominant. Perhaps more to the point, Innis is credited with developing the “staples thesis” of economic development, a class of arguments warning of the dangers of relying on natural resource wealth — “staples” — as a driver of economic growth.The fact that the staples thesis was never developed in a formal axiomatic framework — this is why it’s called a “thesis” instead of a theory — was not considered to be a fatal flaw in Innis’ time, and it continued as a basis for an active branch of Canadian scholarship after his death in 1952.Innis was certainly right about boom-and-bust cycles in resource prices, but his solution — reduce the importance of the resource sector — doesn’t hold up very well.Innis was writing in the 1930s and 1940s, and we’ve since learned more about how exchange rates work.And if the profits from resource exports are captured by foreign investors, then commodity exporters would have very little to show for their natural wealth.Such an economy would be caught in a “staples trap,” unable to export anything but resources, and unable to use resource export revenues to finance economic development.Innis’ thinking was motivated by the collapse of wheat prices in the 1930s and the economic devastation it inflicted on western Canada, particularly in Saskatchewan.To give some idea of the scale of the crisis, Saskatchewan was the third most populous province in 1931, but lost 10 per cent of its population over the next decades.It didn’t recover its lost population until the 1960s, a period in which the population of Canada as a whole increased by 70 per cent.Innis can hardly be blamed for trying to figure out a solution.