You are currently viewing Review: Ed Conway (2023) Material World. Knopf.

Review: Ed Conway (2023) Material World. Knopf.

Ideals and Materials

What do Donald Trump and Mao Zedong have in common? The belief that “IF YOU DON’T HAVE STEEL YOU DON’T HAVE A COUNTRY.” Frank Zappa thought you also need a beer—but that’s neither here nor there. Conway’s 2023 narrative science doorstopper is here to deliver a slightly different, less zingy but more important, message: no country has nearly enough sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium to operate as an autarky.  As the natural endowments of these substances vary across countries the economic, social, and political fates of all nations are intertwined.

The developed Western world likes to think itself and indeed projects itself as independent from the Global South, not just in material but also in ideological terms. At first blush the fact that most of the biggest brands are all located in the USA, and that the nation produces more oil than it uses, gives the  impression that it is at least materially independent from poorer, less developed countries. Thus, the confidence its presidents appear to demonstrate in speaking out against undemocratic policies and human rights violations abroad. But what explains the fact this energy independent nation nevertheless sees its presidents, from Roosevelt to Biden shuttle “around the world discussing oil”? The explanation is that the oil produced at home isn’t suitable for processing at domestic refineries, and the oil needed to keep the refineries running and supply the local energy demand must come from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Canada, Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela.

This plight of being dependent for crucial raw materials on trade partners located in adversarial polities isn’t unique to the United States. Supply shocks in essential commodities have a way of undermining sanctions and import restrictions and perhaps even softening ideological disagreements between any country and its trade partners. Remember that awkward time in 1915 when following a shortage of sand needed for the glass industry Britain had to import German lenses to manufacture binoculars for use by army personnel fighting the Germans? And Germany in turn delivered the goods in exchange for rubber it needed to manufacture tyres, tubing, and fan belts in engines? Conway does.

If you think oil is an exception and that transitioning to an electricity-powered world will remove the one substantial hurdle to US energy independence Conway will convince you things aren’t quite so simple. Argentina, Australia, Chile, and China, who hold large reserves of copper and lithium—essential inputs in electric batteries—are emerging as “electrostates” that are rhyming counterparts to petrostates like Saudi Arabia and Russia. Transitioning out of a fossil fuel powered economy will require negotiation and trade between nations that have the necessary raw materials and those that have the know-how to develop the infrastructure for the energy transition. Since these countries have their own competing interests, and materials and skills are unequally distributed, the world is again in an age of geopolitics.  

Matter Still Matters

People are apt to name the steam engine or the blast furnace as a critical civilisational development that set Europe rather than Africa on the path to the industrial revolution. But they’ll scoff at the idea that glass might have played an equally crucial role. Yet without glass it is hard to see how Galileo could’ve empirically confirmed that the Earth orbits the sun; or, how Hooke and van Leeuwenhoek could’ve learned about bacteria and cell reproduction; or, how the poor of sight could have their effective working lives extended with bi-convex lenses in spectacle frames. The obvious charisma of a steam engine or a blast furnace, dynamic and imposing in its operation, compared to an inert looking material that is ubiquitous and cheap is easy to appreciate. What’s interesting here is Conway’s diagnosis of the widespread underestimation of the importance of substances like glass; substances that permeate our daily lives and become invisible through our constant immersion in the world they furnish. The fact that those of us far from the industries making our cars, planes, phones, and medical equipment underestimate the importance of their crucial raw materials is testament to our amazing success in squeezing out enough of the stuff to keep the world running.

We all know that our phones and laptops are powered by rare minerals found in economically marginal and politically fractious countries. In the information age created by these devices it is possible to track the journey of each component across the various regions it underwent processing as an intermediate good before ending up as a consumer product in our hands. This encourages the comforting illusion that the “ethereal world” [as Conway puts it] depicted by supply chains crisscrossing the globe is the real one and the traditional idea of nations as landmasses separated by politically articulated geographical borders is in abeyance. When a sophisticated piece of technology made out of materials originating and processed in more than a few countries can be ordered from the comfort of one’s home, as Conway observes, it is easy to think the entire process is only as complicated as ordering the device. But this view elides the messy and arduous physical realities of mining for salt, sand, rare earth minerals, and copper, and the vast masses of concrete and steel needed to erect and run the associated manufacturing facilities.

Ever larger numbers of us live, work, and play in environments that have no tangible connection with agriculture, mining, construction, and manufacturing but our lives depend on the infrastructure and facilities created by these sectors more than ever. The ideological dematerialisation of the world, or our growing willingness to imagine ourselves inhabiting an “ethereal world”, is occurring at a time our sense of self at the individual and social levels is propped up by increasingly material and energy intensive lifestyles. For instance, there is now about 32 billion tonnes of steel in the world, and of this for every person in the developed world there is a corresponding 15 tonnes of steel servicing them from cradle to grave. If we want everyone across the world to enjoy the same allotment, solve the steel disparity between the west and the rest, we’d need to make an additional 112 billion tonnes of the stuff; creating four times more than has been since the beginning of humanity.

Ethereal Futures and Raw Materials

The animating idea behind the narrative of this book is that energy is the only universal currency—a leitmotif of an earlier book Energy and Civilization: A History by Vaclav Smil. Conway also shares with Smil the idea that human civilisational history is pretty much the history of humanity’s growing capacity to extract energy from the external environment. Like that book this one too provides thumbnail histories of our transition to energy sources that were either more energy dense—yielding more energy than spent in extracting them—or more readily available and cheaper depending on the location of the site where it was to be used. Some like Andreas Malm (2015) have observed that some energy transitions occurred not on the basis of a rational cost-benefit analysis of the energy density and price of fuels but on the basis of class antagonism between those benefiting from energy sources tied to a location and those who stood to benefit from fuels that could be transported at will and to which access could be restricted.

In his book Fossil Capital Malm argues that we would’ve inhabited a world variously powered by some mix of watermills, windmills, coal, and, subsequently, other fossil fuels depending on a given region’s topography and natural endowments. The reason we now have a near universal reliance on fossil fuels is because the British capitalist class found it easy to transport them in desired quantities to concentrate production at the sites it was cheapest to operate and at the hours it was most profitable to do so. Watermills, for instance, had to go because they were located at perennial waterbodies from which the local public couldn’t be excluded, and their limited capacity meant that they couldn’t be run at the scale necessary to make commercial exploitation profitable.  

There are undoubtedly other good books on individual histories of each of the six materials Conway has chosen to be his protagonists in his epic narrative of humanity’s movement away from complete reliance on manual labour and towards an ever growing array of substances from which energy can be extracted. Whatever one makes of the alternative energy landscapes that could’ve come about had the industrial revolution not committed most of our infrastructure to fossil fuels as their preferred energy source, the charm of Conway’s analysis comes from his potted histories of the uses of salt, sand, iron, copper, oil, and lithium. Though some of this is also available in Smil’s books, alongside broad and deep coverage of the technical aspects of energy innovation that made us modern, only here will you find a stream of Americanisms in measurement that are as entertaining as they are illustrative—which is to say modestly. Enjoy this small sampling:

  1. In 1971 a transistor was the size of a red blood cell; today we can fit four transistors from a smartphone inside a coronavirus.
  2. The cleanroom where processors for Apple, Tesla, and other fabless chip companies are made is about as big as 25 football pitches.
  3. If you made an I-beam out of the 32 billion tonnes of steel in circulation today you could wrap the world in it 33 times over; or build 7 high-speed rail tracks connecting the Earth and the sun.
  4. Every six seconds in Europe there is made enough polythene to wrap the Eiffel Tower from head to toe.
  5. Each year we use more than a billion tonnes of coal, which is easily more than the combined weight of every human on the planet.


Andreas Malm (2015). Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. Verso.

Ed Conway (2023). Material World: The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization. Knopf.

Vaclav Smil. (2013). Made in the USA: The Rise and Retreat of American Manufacturing. The MIT Press.

Vaclav Smil. (2018). Energy and Civilization: A History. The MIT Press.

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