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Book Review - "Material World" by Ed Conway

The author (who is an economist) spent about three years working on this book. It's an attempt to tell the story of the modern world (with some history and predictions) from the vantage point of six important substances upon which civilisation depends.

Those substances are sand, salt, iron, copper, oil and lithium.

Sand, because it's vital for the production of concrete and glass plus also provides the silicon that we need for solar panels and the electronics that we can't seem to live without. Glass fibre makes our communications possible at speeds and capacities that we need to keep everyone in touch.

Salt, vital for life but also necessary for the production of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals.

It's hardly a secret that iron is fundamental to the things we build and manufacture, to transport, the steel towers that carry electricity wires and a good proportion of the things I can see from my steel-framed office chair. The Iron Age ran from about 1,600BCE to 600BCE so the importance of the metal has been known for a very long time.

The Iron Age might have replaced the Copper and Bronze Ages, but copper is an essential ingredient for the power transmission systems that allow us to make electricity in one place and use it somewhere else. And who wants to go back to the days of iron plumbing?

The importance of oil (and gas) must be obvious, but they aren't just used to fuel our cars and trucks or to cook our food and keep us warm. Without them we wouldn't have the plastics and fertilisers that we don't seem to be able to do without. (Yes, there are people who claim that all plastics are evil and no fertilisers are ever needed, but the rest of us live in the real world.)

Lithium is what is going to give us the batteries we need to run our electric cars and store the electricity from renewable energy resources when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing. Lithium batteries have a reputation for self-ignition but we've managed to find ways to safely use other highly combustible things safely (see oil and gas above) and there are some very clever people working on this very problem.

So, if we can't live without these things but the mining and use of them produces atmospheric carbon, can we ever escape the inevitable dangers of climate change?

The author has this to say about that:

"When you see the world from the materials' perspective you start to see why it will be such a challenge to get to net zero. We need to reimagine a whole panoply of industrial processes, many of which we haven't really refined all that much since the Victorian era. Take solar panels. The silicon inside them is refined in a process which involves throwing chunks of rock into an electric arc furnace alongside coking coal and wood chips. Or take nitrogen fertilisers: they're mostly made using natural gas. The deeper I ventured into this world, the more I realised that pretty much *every* industrial process produces carbon, or at the very least is very energy intensive. Getting to net zero isn't just about building more wind turbines; it's about reappraising the nature of industry. Many within the industrial and engineering community get this, but it's a lesson we ought to be talking about more."

This is an excellent book and makes the reader think about where we are and where we might be going. In the nineteenth century, manufacturing and agriculture were totally changed. We simply can't imagine what life really was like before the Industrial Revolution, but the thrust of this book is that we have to think like that again.

Highly recommended.

A version of this review was published on the Oberon Matters web site on May 9, 2024.

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