Material world – history of the past and future

Artist: Cosmas Shiridzinomwa


Considerations about Ed Conway's book

The book Material world: a substantial story of our past and future [Material World: A Substantial History of Our Past and Future] was written by Ed Conway. The author lives in London, is an economist and journalist. He is editor of Economics and Data at Sky News and regular columnist for The Times e Sunday Times. She has written two critically acclaimed books and best sellers: 50 economics ideas you really need to know e The summit: the biggest battle of the second world war – fought behind closed doors.

Six raw materials – sand (used for concrete), salt (for fertilizers), iron (and steel), copper (for electrical wires), petroleum and lithium – are the focus of Ed Conway's global research into substances critical for being supports around the world. The book, nominated for the award Financial Times/Schroders Business Book of the Year, is a celebration of human ingenuity and makes it possible to understand geoeconomics from a different perspective.

The reality of 21st century resource exploration is to reduce large quantities of rock to granules and chemically process the rest. In the case of gold extraction, in addition to the destruction of the environment, a risk is that the cyanide, lead and mercury used in the method escape into the surrounding ecosystem.

But the main thing that impressed Ed Conway was watching each stage of this destructive process of a mountain or huge area and thinking about how far one would go to secure a little piece of shiny metal that is rarely used, whether as a monetary standard or as a tooth filling. It's just jewelry and a supposed store of value.

After this depressing experience, he asked himself questions. If this destruction of the environment is necessary to extract a metal we could live without, then what is needed to extract the materials we actually need? What are the materials we really depend on? What are the physical ingredients without which civilization would truly grind to a halt, and where do they actually come from?

Economics, the discipline in which Ed Conway was immersed for most of his professional life, seemed to have few definitive answers to these types of questions. The value of something is what someone is willing to pay for it, says the conventional neoclassical explanation. If something is missing, people will cut back, find a suitable replacement (if such a thing exists) and move on. History end.

However, this story doesn't seem to line up with reality, because these things clearly matter. Despite everything said about us living in an increasingly dematerialized world, where more and more value resides in intangible items – financial applications, social networks and online services – the physical world continues to support everything else.

Today, approximately ¾ of value added in the Western world is attributed to the services sector and an increasingly smaller fraction is attributed to energy, mining, manufacturing and agriculture. But virtually everything, from social media to financial services, is completely dependent on its physical infrastructure and the energy to power it. Without concrete, copper and fiber optics there would be no data centers, no electricity, no internet.

This book began as Ed Conway's attempt to answer these questions. It's a meditation not so much on the market value of substances, but on our dependence on them.

Consider something as simple as a grain of sand. There is no element in the Earth's crust except oxygen, which is more common than the main ingredient in sand – silicon. There are marine sands at the bottom of the sea, desert sands, sands left by ancient tropical oceans of such purity that they are sold all over the world, including in smuggling.

Mix sand and small stones with cement, add a little water and you have concrete, the fundamental material of modern cities. Add it to gravel and bitumen and you have asphalt, which is what most roads are made of if not concrete.

Without silicon we would not be able to manufacture chips computer. Melt sand at a high enough temperature with the right additives and you will make glass. Glass is one of the great mysteries of materials science: it provides fiberglass with multiple uses and, refined into pure threads, it becomes the optical fiber from which the Internet is woven. Not to mention the Pyrex: stable, transparent and robust, capable of withstanding a wide range of temperatures, including in the home.

The crises in the global production, marketing and supply chain, caused by the Covid19 pandemic, left everyone surprised by the fact that there is a shortage of semiconductors, that cars need so many of them and that the scarcity of new cars pushes up car prices used to record levels. No CO2 the food industry was incapable not only of making drinks fizzy, but also of preserving and storing food!

We understand little about how everyday products are actually made. Given all this complexity, no human being could carry out, or even direct, these numerous production and commercialization processes of multiple essential materials.

The material world sustains our everyday lives. The best kept secret of the modern economy is world famous brands – Apple, Tesla, Google etc. – rely entirely on shadowy companies in the material world to manufacture their products and help their clever ideas materialize and become a tangible reality.

To operate in the material world, you have to dig and extract things and turn them into physical products, a difficult, dangerous and dirty business. Perhaps the most dangerous of all the myths prevalent in the ethereal world is the idea that we humans are moving away from physical materials.

Although for most of human history economic production has closely followed the exploitation of natural resources and the use of energy – in the last two decades these two lines have diverged: GDP has continued to increase while the value of use of such resources has stabilized. Hence, say orthodox economists, it is indisputable proof that we are getting “more with less”, that is, with greater productivity.

In fact, the First World is simply outsourcing all this dirty stuff to a different place, where its economists don't have to think about it. In short, for the material world of the Third World…

It makes much more extraordinary efforts to extract copper and oil, iron and cobalt, manganese and lithium from the ground. They dig in search of sand, rock, salt, stone.

Several environmental goals require, in the short and medium term, considerably more materials to build the electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels needed to replace fossil fuels. The result is, in the coming decades, we will probably extract more metals from the Earth's surface than ever before.

There is a lack of data. Economist-statisticians count dollars of GDP, but their understanding of how much is taken out of the ground is surprisingly primitive. There are material flow analyses, measuring the substances extracted from the earth, consumed and then recycled or discarded, tracking the “material” extracted, and not the equivalent volume of earth and rock moved to obtain it.

When a new era for necessary resources was ushered in, with the advent of trade and truly global supply chains, it seemed the race for materials was over. As a result, many countries, including the United States, began to deplete their reserves of these crucial minerals, accumulated over the previous half century.

When trade barriers were eliminated in favor of external openness, the manufacturing industry became a truly global enterprise, made up of supply chains just-in-time spread across the planet. But today, governments around the world are quickly realizing that it is strategic to control these materials and their production and commercialization processes for the foreseeable future.

There was a recent example of a shortage of semiconductors, that is, chips of silicon. For electrified car batteries, a collection of metals is required, including cobalt, nickel, zinc and, most important of all, lithium.

This book about the material world is told through six materials: sand, salt, iron, copper, oil and lithium. Classifying these materials as protagonists may seem a bit bold, because most stories of human progress come from one's own perspective. Think about your cell phone battery and the concrete in your home's foundation.

We remain in the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, not to mention the Copper, Salt, Oil and Lithium Ages. These are substances for which, for the most part, there is no ideal substitute. They shaped history and are beginning to shape the future.

*Fernando Nogueira da Costa He is a full professor at the Institute of Economics at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Brazil of banks (EDUSP). []


Ed Conway. Material world: a substantial story of our past and future. London, Penguin Random House, 2023; 512 pages. []

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