Review: Material World

By David Zetland

The one-handed economist

I found, while reading this book, that I paid a lot more attention to concrete, and steel, and other aspects of our built environment. It forced me to balance away from the digital world where I spend too much time.

The author, Ed Conway, devotes a section to each of six materials (sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium), looking into the history of their use and their role in our lives today.

One fact that anyone should keep in mind is the large difference between the price we pay for any of these materials and their value in use. That difference is often very large for water, but it’s also large for these “endless” (not!) raw materials.

I was fascinated from beginning to end, so here are some quotes and notes:

  1. Consumption of some materials is falling in some locations, but it is rising globally, which often means that the pollution and other negative impacts from sourcing the materials is rising faster than rates of extraction, due to the common habit of mining the easier stuff (less work, less pollution) before looking to more difficult sources.
  2. Sand is quite the material, with many uses, like mirrors that are “probably the smoothest man-made structures in the universe’. If you blew one of them up to the size of the United States, the biggest bump would be less than half a millimetre high.
  3. Don’t think “supply chain” but “supply web” with all the complexity that allows for.
  4. We need salt in our diets to live, but it’s used in so many other ways. Governments tax salt for this reason (we need it). The obligation to pay for 7kg of salt per year (sel du devoir) spurred the French Revolution. Gandhi’s march to harvest salt outside the British Government’s monopoly (salt satyagraha) spurred Indian independence.
  5. Iron …accounted for roughly 95 per cent of all the metal we produce and use. Indeed, it’s so fundamental to our lives that it is just as good a measure of living standards as GDP. If you live in a developed economy like the US, Japan, UK or most of Europe, you have roughly 15 tonnes of steel in your life.
  6. If we wanted everyone in the world to have the same amount of embedded steel as we enjoy in the rich world – 15 tonnes per person – that would imply increasing the total global stock of this alloy to 144 billion tonnes. And since that is nearly four times what we have ever produced since the beginning of humanity, and since methods of producing steel without any emissions remain experimental and expensive, we are caught in the horns of a dilemma. The world’s twin goals of decarbonisation and development are heading for a collision. As countries become richer and more prosperous, are they really to be denied the concrete or steel the West poured and forged as it developed?
  7. The need to smelt iron and charcoal to get steel led to shortages of wood until that fuel was replaced by coal. Welcome to the Industrial Revolution, an exponential increase in wealth, and the beginning of climate chaos.
  8. In 1800, 95 per cent of Britain’s energy came from coal; at the very same point, almost all of France’s energy – over 90 per cent – still came from burning wood. No longer was Britain yoked to the organic limitations of how many trees could be grown on its landmass. And around this time, its income per capita, which for most of history had been more or less the same as France’s, began to soar. By the early nineteenth century it was 80 per cent richer than France.
  9. Here we run smack bang into the same lesson we learned from concrete [sand]: what makes steel [iron] a mainstay of the Material World? Not merely that it is very good at doing what it does, but that it is both very good and very cheap. That cheapness – which means steel is a vanishing part of our GDP statistics – is its secret weapon. Back in 1810 Americans spent roughly the same proportion of their national income on iron nails as they do today on computers. Today steel nails cost next to nothing – while being far superior to their iron predecessors – meaning we have more money to spend on, well, computers. The same observation (a big gap between cost and value) can be said about water.
  10. Copper is the great, unseen substrate that supports the modern world as we know it. Without it, we are quite literally left in the dark. If steel provides the skeleton of our world and concrete its flesh then copper is civilisation’s nervous system, the circuitry and cables we never see but couldn’t function without.
  11. There was an …astonishing leap in productivity afforded to manufacturers by electric drive motors [built with copper coils and powered by electricity delivered via copper wires]. Out went the clunky, inefficient steam engines in factories and in came electric motors. This alone doubled American manufacturing productivity by 1930, and then again by 1960.
  12. A note for the industrial ecologists: The flipside of getting ever more effective at mining ever poorer copper ores is that we displace ever more amounts of the planet in our bid to do so. Between 2004 and 2016 Chilean miners increased annual copper production by 2.6 per cent. Yet the amount of ore they had to dig out of the ground to produce this marginal increase in refined copper rose by 75 per cent. The most staggering thing about this statistic, however, is not just the numbers themselves but the fact that they show up in no environmental accounts or material flow analysis, which count only the refined metal. When it comes to even the United Nations’ measures of how much humans are affecting the planet, this waste rock doesn’t count.
  13. When scientists discovered the hole in the ozone layer it didn’t take long to engineer near-identical alternatives to the chlorofluorocarbons that were mostly responsible. It was possible to save the environment without even noticing. Oil and gas are by their very nature far trickier to substitute since they represent an almost perfect energy source and a near irreplaceable feedstock into nearly every manufactured product. Weaning ourselves off them will take far more than a bit of goodwill and a net-zero target.
  14. As of 2019, right before the pandemic struck and skewed the data, just over 80 per cent of the world’s primary energy – which includes both electricity generation and also other uses such as transport, heating and industrial processes – came from the burning of fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. The striking thing about this number is how stable it has been: just over 80 per cent at the turn of the millennium, just over 80 per cent in 1990 and only a touch higher – around 85 per cent – in 1980. Wind and solar, by contrast, provided just 1.5 per cent of our energy in 2019.
  15. The story of modern agriculture is really about… replacing natural forms of energy with fossil fuels…a kilogram of greenhouse tomatoes generates as much as 3 kilograms of carbon emissions… And since most consumers are reluctant to spend much more on tomatoes, and for that matter have little conception of how they are actually grown, that suits everyone just fine… In 2022, as gas prices soared after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some growers simply opted out altogether. All of a sudden, glasshouses were left empty, tomatoes were in short supply, and food prices rose across Europe – in large part because of the shortage of natural gas. Even growers in Spain and Italy, who tend not to grow their tomatoes indoors, were hit by the rise in costs of fertiliser and of the diesel fuel in the trucks transporting their produce. Vaclav Smil has calculated that each tomato from this region has an energy cost of five tablespoons of diesel.
  16. So we return to that same tension we have encountered repeatedly: How to balance the demand for stuff with the consequences of producing it? In the case of lithium the balance is even harder to strike, since it is our means of escaping fossil fuel dependence. Yet in much the same way as the internal combustion engine helped humankind out of one hole (the pollution of our towns and cities by horse manure) yet helped create another one, what are the chances the very same thing happens with lithium, or cobalt or nickel or manganese?
  17. As Wright observed this steady fall in prices and improvement in quality, he came up with a rule of thumb: every time the production of an item doubles, its cost falls by about 15 per cent. And Wright’s law, as it is sometimes called, has been eerily successful at explaining the fall in the price of everything from container ships to specialised plastics.
  18. We are beyond carrying capacity: …we went from having to rely on the sun for all our sustenance, complemented by some mined fertilisers such as the caliche of the Atacama, to relying on fossil fuels. Today our tomatoes, our potatoes and indeed pretty much everything else are nourished with fertilisers made of natural gas. Thanks to the Haber–Bosch process, we are all made out of fossil fuels. That allowed the global population to grow beyond its Malthusian limits – the carrying capacity of the planet if we could only rely on renewable resources like the sun, the wind and the unfertilised soil – but as our numbers swelled there was an arithmetic increase in the amount of fossil fuels we burned. There is a paradox here. Without fossil fuels, roughly half of us would not be alive. Yet now, the carbon emissions from those fossil fuels are causing problems that threaten us all.
  19. No energy transition of this sort [net zero carbon by 2050] has ever been achieved as quickly, indeed the previous four would be better measured in centuries and we are still reliant on coal for more of our energy than oil. And this is before you factor in that in each of the previous transitions – the move from coal to oil and from oil to gas – there was a big incentive to shift: manufacturers could benefit from cheaper, more energy-dense fuels. Each previous shift made their lives easier. This time around, the opposite is often the case. Except for nuclear power, we are shifting to less dense sources of energy. And we are doing so even as the world’s most populous nations are industrialising, and hence increasing their energy consumption. The numbers are challenging: some would say nearly impossibly so.
  20. Consider what it takes to replace a small natural gas turbine, pumping out 100 megawatts of electricity, enough for up to 100,000 homes, with wind power. You would need around 20 enormous wind turbines. To build those turbines you will need nearly 30,000 tonnes of iron and almost 50,000 tonnes of concrete, along with 900 tonnes of plastics and fibreglass for the blades and 540 tonnes of copper (or three times that for an offshore wind farm). The gas turbine, on the other hand, would take around 300 tonnes of iron, 2,000 tonnes of concrete and perhaps 50 tonnes of copper in the windings and transformers. On the basis of one calculation, we will need to mine more copper in the next 22 years than we have in the entirety of the past 5,000 years of human history.
  21. As someone who has worked my entire life in the ethereal world, enjoying the spoils of the Material World without ever getting my hands dirty, the journey recounted in this book has been somewhat chastening. The more I travelled, the greater the nagging feeling that we have all become disconnected from the primary industries upon which we all rely for our survival. Perhaps this is simply the quid pro quo of modern capitalism. You can get anything you want from anywhere in the world for a bargain price, but don’t whatever you do expect to understand how it was made or how it got to you. Perhaps it hardly matters that there is no single person in the world who understands how to make a pencil, or a silicon chip. But what if this disconnection is fuelling the alienation so many people feel towards capitalism?

Bottom line: I give this book FIVE STARS. Read it and appreciate the infrastructures that make our modern lives possible and pleasurable, and then think of (a) how expensive it will be to shift to sustainable consumption and (b) the consequences if we do not.