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The elements behind everything

Matt Wall

Key Points

  • Journalist and economist Ed Conway explores six crucial commodities we often take for granted in his book Material World
  • He traces the journeys of sand, salt, copper, oil, iron and lithium as they create the objects and infrastructure we use daily
  • Conway shows why they matter more than ever amid challenges such as climate change

It may seem strange to be inspired by a pencil, but that’s what gave Ed Conway the idea for Material World: A Substantial Story of Our Past and Future.

Or rather, the economics and data editor for Sky News was inspired by Leonard Read’s 1958 essay, I, Pencil, which explained all the elements and processes that went into making this humdrum object: the wood, the graphite, the eraser, the metal that encases the eraser and so on. Simple objects, in other words, can be complicated to make.

“It made me want to know how everything else is made,” says the largely self-taught economist.

“Part of me felt overwhelmed and baffled by this world of different products, and we have no idea how they’re made. Economics isn’t very good at explaining that. I felt increasingly disconnected.”

So, Conway applied the I, Pencil approach to the near-miraculous objects and infrastructure we all take for granted, identifying the key materials – sand, salt, iron, oil, copper and lithium – essential to their creation.

We meet, appropriately enough, at the London Metal Exchange, encircled by screens quoting the latest prices for copper, steel, nickel and more – materials that have built our cars, railways, tower blocks, electric motors and batteries.

The book is stuffed with dizzying facts and historical anecdotes. Did you know that to make just one gold bar we blow up 5,000 tonnes of rock and earth? And that, in 2019, we extracted more materials from the earth than humankind did throughout its entire history up to the year 1950?

The scale of China’s activities alone beggars belief. It is now the world’s largest steel producer, accounting for roughly half of total global output. In the last two years “China has made more steel than the UK has since the industrial revolution,” Conway tells us. Its share of global cement production is even larger, and it’s also the world’s biggest refiner of copper and rare earth metals.

 

Interdependence

While the scale of these activities is awe-inspiring – if not terrifying – the complexity of the supply chains that make up our material world is also breath-taking. 

To highlight just one story, tracing every step in the manufacture of silicon chips was a “wondrous and amazing” journey that gave Conway a more profound understanding of just how interdependent – and fragile – our global economy has become.

Starting with the silica in sand, the journey involves mining, refining, chemical treatment and manufacturing. These many processes are carried out by a web of companies across the world, resulting in a tiny product that can contain billions of microscopically small transistors, “smaller than the coronavirus,” etched onto the purest silicon wafers using a printing process called extreme ultraviolet lithography.

These semiconductors are now in pretty much everything, from electric toothbrushes to cars, smartphones to satellites. And Moore’s Law, which stipulates that the number of transistors that can fit on a chip doubles every two years, could continue to operate for “another five to ten years”, says Conway, as electronics moves into the realm of quantum physics.

But the fantastically high-precision lithography machines used cost several hundred million pounds each and there is only one company in the world, ASML in the Netherlands, that can make them. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s TSMC, a semiconductor manufacturer and now one of the most valuable and important companies in the world, exists under the threat of conflict.

One broken link in this complex chain could bring much of the global digital economy crashing to its knees – as nearly happened during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The progress paradox

Writing the book gave Conway a new-found appreciation of the material world, of mankind’s inventiveness, ingenuity and perseverance – often in the pursuit of profit. But it also made him more acutely aware of the cost of this Anthropocene era.

Visiting the gargantuan Chuquicamata open pit copper mine in Chile was “like staring into the Grand Canyon – it’s such a big hole – you’re looking down more than a kilometre. And to stand on its edge and realise it’s an entirely human creation, and then realise that we’re going to need another three of them every year to satisfy our demand for copper in the future – it’s crazy.”

Pollution and greenhouse gases, primarily the result of burning wood, coal, oil and gas, are making life unbearable for millions, while habitat loss is driving hundreds of species to extinction. Potentially, this progress now poses an existential threat to humanity.

Conway reminds us that to combat global warming and reach net zero – the point at which we take out as much CO2 from the atmosphere as we generate – by the arbitrary date of 2050, we’re going to need millions more tonnes of commodities to build the wind turbines, solar panels, batteries, electric vehicles, pharmaceuticals, fibre optic cables, semiconductors and artificial intelligence that will help us achieve this healthier and more sustainable world.

 

Reasons to be cheerful

Conway is optimistic that with materials science, AI, new sources of energy like nuclear fusion, new forms of energy storage like carbon capture and a shift towards recycling, we have the wherewithal to achieve climate change targets.

Wright’s Law, whereby product costs fall roughly 15 per cent each time production volume doubles, will apply equally to these new technologies, Conway believes. And, as this history of the material world proves, necessity is most definitely the mother of invention.

Read this book and you won’t look at any object in the same way again, from your coffee mug to your office block, your glasses to your painkillers. And you may find yourself, as Conway has done, pausing before pressing the ‘buy’ button and asking: “Do I really need this?”

 

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Author

Matt Wall in an illustration style

Matt Wall

Matt Wall is a journalist and author specialising in technology, business and sustainability. A former Technology of Business editor for BBC News, his most recent role was as head of Editorial & Content for Vodafone UK.

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