Material World

The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization

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Spoiler: Author Ed Conway's "six raw materials that shape modern civilization" are: sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium. (Well, not much of a spoiler: they are named and pictured right on the front cover.)

I was somewhat surprised by how much I liked this book. Conway's enthusiasm for his topic is infectious, his research diligent, his prose punchy and accessible. His eyes are wide open for interesting details and good yarns, and he passes them along. His travels take him to all sorts of interesting sites, which are colorfully described. It's a crash course in history, politics, geography, chemistry, economics, you name it.

Material World reminded me of a multipart PBS documentary—one of the good ones! Narrated by Richard Attenborough as he waves his arms and walks through refineries, mines, factories, … Conway is a Brit, and there are a number of British spellings and terms throughout, so Attenborough is a good fit.

A couple of items on Conway's list might seem a little mundane at first glance. Sand? Ah, but without sand, there's no glass. No fiber optics. No cement. No sand means no silicon, so no computer chips, …

Things I noted with post-its:

Why did Britain and Germany make a deal to supply the other with vital war material during WWI? (Page 49)

What happens to chip supply if China invades Taiwan? (Page 120)

What's the earliest likely evidence of manufacture and trade? (Page 129)

How did the Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrates lengthen WWI? (Page 174)

What site inspired Aldous Huxley's dystopic view in Brave New World? (Page 188)

Why is there demand for steel pirated from sunken warships in the Scapa Flow? (Page 231)

Why does Conway claim that the tasty tomato you're enjoying is "made of fossil fuels"? (Page 349)

Why was that guy in The Graduate movie totally correct to encourage Benjamin to go into plastics? (Page 351)

Is Andean garlic, grown with mineral-laden water, therapeutic or a form of torture? (Page 388)

If there's a flaw in the book, it's that Conway seems to buy into climate alarmism, and kind of handwaves his way through remediation scenarios that smell of central government planning. This, after approvingly quoting Leonard Reed's famous essay, "I, Pencil".

But: As a mostly-libertarian guy who generally despises "industrial policy" as corporate welfare, I was perturbed by Conway's description of the worldwide supply chains involved in moving selected materials out of the ground and putting them into miraculous products you can buy amazingly cheaply. Disruption of any of those myriad long supply chains can bring chaos, shortages, and privation. Might I have to walk back my religious principles against government interference if it turns out that we can't get computers?