.
W

e give so little thought to the things that make up the modern world. Sure, we may pause for a moment (or a lot more than a moment) and look at our phones and think what a marvel they are before scrolling to the next meme. We may grumble or gripe, especially on the Beltway that encircles Washington, D.C., about the state of the roads and the alarmingly large potholes, but likely have little idea how the massive road network is actually constructed. We only stop and think about how electricity is generated and transmitted when it goes out; it may as well be magic at all other times. 

In the crush of day–to–day life, who has time to give a fig about the building blocks of our modern world? Not the finished products themselves that we use and enjoy, but the elemental or foundational substances that are the base materials of everything around us: the sand that makes up both glass and semiconductor alike, and concrete, the iron that turns into steel to build everything from buildings to aircraft parts; the salts that are vital for every chemical reaction that creates the modern world; the copper that transmits electricity; the oil that fuels our world today, and the lithium that will store the power of tomorrow. Perhaps if we did take a moment we would see what a marvel the modern world really is and gain a better appreciation for both its complexity and elemental nature. 

Material World | Ed Conway | WH Allen (UK), Knopf (U.S.)

In his wonderfully enjoyable and deeply interesting book “Material World,” Ed Conway gives readers that needed moment of pause, taking them on a journey into the things that make our modern way of life possible. “Material World” blends science and history, travelogue and commentary into a standout book that, had the reviewer read it in 2023, would have almost certainly made the best books of the year list.  It is, however, some consolation that Conway’s book did find itself on a number of similar lists. 

“Material World” is a useful reminder that for as much as we focus on the finished products—the electrical vehicles, the iPhones, the solar panels and more—the modern world is founded on much more elemental precursors. So much of our attention is on physical goods and virtual services—the ups and downs of Wall Street and Silicon Valley—that we simply lose focus of the baser economy that enables everything else. Conway takes readers from the coal face and lithium mines to the refineries and smelters, all the way through the final production lines that turn what was once raw ore, fine sand, or gushing oil into the stuff that creates our modern worlds. 

The sheer size and scale of mining beggars belief. “In 2019, we mined, dug, and blasted more materials from the earth’s surface than the sum total of everything we extracted from the dawn of humanity,” writes Conway. Chile’s Chuquicamata copper mine is “so deep that if you dropped the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, into it, the whole thing, lightning rod and all, would be completely swallowed by this fissure.”

It is striking to reflect that many of the processes we use to build our modern world are, in fact, deeply ancient. The early accidental creation of glass to the smelting of early alloys are not massively dissimilar through the processes of today. Of course, these are modernized, improved, refined, and scaled up to unfathomable scale, but the rearrangement of atoms on a molecular level remains the same. In Conway’s hands these ancient stories are just as fascinating as the creation of fiber-optic cables or the trade agreement reached between the United Kingdom and Germany in World War II that allowed the former to import optical glass from the latter. “Material World” is filled with these fascinating anecdotes and stories that bring raw materials to life.  

Conway follows these critical materials as they crisscross the globe from sources in South America to refineries in China to final production in factories in Europe, and this is all before they enter the consumer economy. These flows are subject to disruption, as evidenced by the decision by several shipping companies to bypass the Red Sea and the Suez Canal in response to drone and missile attacks by Houthi rebels. The fragility is underscored by one encounter where an expert remarks that “If you flew over the two mines in Spruce Pine with a crop duster loaded with a very particular powder, you could end the world’s production of semiconductors and solar panels within six months.” The mines in question are critical to providing ultra–pure sand to the industry. 

The push and pull of strategic competition is exacerbating the fragility of these supply chains.  This contest manifests in multiple ways. China’s conscious strategy to corner the market for critical minerals and rare earth elements overseas and refining domestically has given Beijing disproportionate power and influence in the global markets. The Chinese Communist Party can, then, dump materials onto the market to depress their price and allow state–owned and state–backed companies opportunities to buy mines and refineries at cut–rate prices. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is being guided by  both Washington and Beijing. 

While Washington limits semiconductors and fabrication technology flows to Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party can retaliate by restricting the export of graphite, gallium, and germanium. This receives comparatively less attention yet is potentially more detrimental. This dichotomy in attention is not surprising. It is easier to understand chip restrictions than critical mineral export controls simply because the general public doesn’t understand how important these elements are to the modern world. 

“Material World” is, then, a useful corrective to this public ignorance. His writing style is breezy and engaging, and he neither assumes knowledge on the part of the reader nor does he write down to his audience in educating them. 

Conway’s book is also a sobering look at the underlying challenges facing the global green transition. Every step of the refining processes outlined by Conway consume unfathomable amounts of energy in the form of fossil fuels—some 80% of the energy we consume comes from these nonrenewable sources. This will continue to give petro–states like Venezuela, Russia and Saudi Arabia outsized influence in geopolitics, and incentivize efforts like fracking in the United States to increase domestic production. 

While efforts are underway to improve the efficiency of, for example, the refining of mineral ores or the reduction of concrete’s CO2 footprint, these are drops in the metaphorical bucket. The hope is that this is a positive feedback loop—the greener technologies we develop and use, the less carbon–intensive processes we will need. The adoption of this is, of course, uneven. Europe’s socially and environmentally conscious regulatory environment will be outpaced by Beijing’s need for near continuous growth to maintain its social contract.   

At the same time, the need for lithium, as Conway shows, is creating new challenges and new pressures as countries like Chile and Argentina seek to leverage their reserves into geopolitical and economic power. For as much as policymakers like to discuss carbon credits and transnational green trade, the remains that you cannot simply move a mine—quirks of geological and tectonic history have deposited the materials where they lay awaiting extraction and refinement. 

“Material World” is much more than the sum of its parts. Conway builds from the elemental building blocks of everyday life to construct a rich look into the structures of our modern world. He shows the processes and pathways by which we arrived here  and offers a grounded glimpse of where we may go tomorrow. At the end of the day, for as much as the global economy evolves and technology progresses, these core materials will remain vital to our modern world.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Excavating what makes our modern world

Mine tunnel. Image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay.

February 3, 2024

In the crush of day–to–day life, we have little time to give thought to the things that make up our modern world. In his deeply interesting book “Material World,” Ed Conway takes readers on a journey into the things that make our modern way of life possible, writes Joshua Huminski.

W

e give so little thought to the things that make up the modern world. Sure, we may pause for a moment (or a lot more than a moment) and look at our phones and think what a marvel they are before scrolling to the next meme. We may grumble or gripe, especially on the Beltway that encircles Washington, D.C., about the state of the roads and the alarmingly large potholes, but likely have little idea how the massive road network is actually constructed. We only stop and think about how electricity is generated and transmitted when it goes out; it may as well be magic at all other times. 

In the crush of day–to–day life, who has time to give a fig about the building blocks of our modern world? Not the finished products themselves that we use and enjoy, but the elemental or foundational substances that are the base materials of everything around us: the sand that makes up both glass and semiconductor alike, and concrete, the iron that turns into steel to build everything from buildings to aircraft parts; the salts that are vital for every chemical reaction that creates the modern world; the copper that transmits electricity; the oil that fuels our world today, and the lithium that will store the power of tomorrow. Perhaps if we did take a moment we would see what a marvel the modern world really is and gain a better appreciation for both its complexity and elemental nature. 

Material World | Ed Conway | WH Allen (UK), Knopf (U.S.)

In his wonderfully enjoyable and deeply interesting book “Material World,” Ed Conway gives readers that needed moment of pause, taking them on a journey into the things that make our modern way of life possible. “Material World” blends science and history, travelogue and commentary into a standout book that, had the reviewer read it in 2023, would have almost certainly made the best books of the year list.  It is, however, some consolation that Conway’s book did find itself on a number of similar lists. 

“Material World” is a useful reminder that for as much as we focus on the finished products—the electrical vehicles, the iPhones, the solar panels and more—the modern world is founded on much more elemental precursors. So much of our attention is on physical goods and virtual services—the ups and downs of Wall Street and Silicon Valley—that we simply lose focus of the baser economy that enables everything else. Conway takes readers from the coal face and lithium mines to the refineries and smelters, all the way through the final production lines that turn what was once raw ore, fine sand, or gushing oil into the stuff that creates our modern worlds. 

The sheer size and scale of mining beggars belief. “In 2019, we mined, dug, and blasted more materials from the earth’s surface than the sum total of everything we extracted from the dawn of humanity,” writes Conway. Chile’s Chuquicamata copper mine is “so deep that if you dropped the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, into it, the whole thing, lightning rod and all, would be completely swallowed by this fissure.”

It is striking to reflect that many of the processes we use to build our modern world are, in fact, deeply ancient. The early accidental creation of glass to the smelting of early alloys are not massively dissimilar through the processes of today. Of course, these are modernized, improved, refined, and scaled up to unfathomable scale, but the rearrangement of atoms on a molecular level remains the same. In Conway’s hands these ancient stories are just as fascinating as the creation of fiber-optic cables or the trade agreement reached between the United Kingdom and Germany in World War II that allowed the former to import optical glass from the latter. “Material World” is filled with these fascinating anecdotes and stories that bring raw materials to life.  

Conway follows these critical materials as they crisscross the globe from sources in South America to refineries in China to final production in factories in Europe, and this is all before they enter the consumer economy. These flows are subject to disruption, as evidenced by the decision by several shipping companies to bypass the Red Sea and the Suez Canal in response to drone and missile attacks by Houthi rebels. The fragility is underscored by one encounter where an expert remarks that “If you flew over the two mines in Spruce Pine with a crop duster loaded with a very particular powder, you could end the world’s production of semiconductors and solar panels within six months.” The mines in question are critical to providing ultra–pure sand to the industry. 

The push and pull of strategic competition is exacerbating the fragility of these supply chains.  This contest manifests in multiple ways. China’s conscious strategy to corner the market for critical minerals and rare earth elements overseas and refining domestically has given Beijing disproportionate power and influence in the global markets. The Chinese Communist Party can, then, dump materials onto the market to depress their price and allow state–owned and state–backed companies opportunities to buy mines and refineries at cut–rate prices. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is being guided by  both Washington and Beijing. 

While Washington limits semiconductors and fabrication technology flows to Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party can retaliate by restricting the export of graphite, gallium, and germanium. This receives comparatively less attention yet is potentially more detrimental. This dichotomy in attention is not surprising. It is easier to understand chip restrictions than critical mineral export controls simply because the general public doesn’t understand how important these elements are to the modern world. 

“Material World” is, then, a useful corrective to this public ignorance. His writing style is breezy and engaging, and he neither assumes knowledge on the part of the reader nor does he write down to his audience in educating them. 

Conway’s book is also a sobering look at the underlying challenges facing the global green transition. Every step of the refining processes outlined by Conway consume unfathomable amounts of energy in the form of fossil fuels—some 80% of the energy we consume comes from these nonrenewable sources. This will continue to give petro–states like Venezuela, Russia and Saudi Arabia outsized influence in geopolitics, and incentivize efforts like fracking in the United States to increase domestic production. 

While efforts are underway to improve the efficiency of, for example, the refining of mineral ores or the reduction of concrete’s CO2 footprint, these are drops in the metaphorical bucket. The hope is that this is a positive feedback loop—the greener technologies we develop and use, the less carbon–intensive processes we will need. The adoption of this is, of course, uneven. Europe’s socially and environmentally conscious regulatory environment will be outpaced by Beijing’s need for near continuous growth to maintain its social contract.   

At the same time, the need for lithium, as Conway shows, is creating new challenges and new pressures as countries like Chile and Argentina seek to leverage their reserves into geopolitical and economic power. For as much as policymakers like to discuss carbon credits and transnational green trade, the remains that you cannot simply move a mine—quirks of geological and tectonic history have deposited the materials where they lay awaiting extraction and refinement. 

“Material World” is much more than the sum of its parts. Conway builds from the elemental building blocks of everyday life to construct a rich look into the structures of our modern world. He shows the processes and pathways by which we arrived here  and offers a grounded glimpse of where we may go tomorrow. At the end of the day, for as much as the global economy evolves and technology progresses, these core materials will remain vital to our modern world.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Diplomatic Courier's Book Reviewer and Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.