Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization
By Vaclav Smil
To start off, a note on Vaclav Smil: this guy is Bill Gates’ favorite author, and seems to be something of a polymathic genius; he’s written a huge number of books, very many of which look fascinating, only one of which I own (not this one), and (as yet) none of which I have read. I’m not sure why he’s not more famous than he is…but in a word, dude is legit!
This book takes on questions of material production and consumption, sustainability, recycling and resource flows, population and economic growth, and more. To put it simply: this is about the stuff that stuff is made of! It draws on many disciplines: history, geology, manufacturing, economics, material science. Oh and also “environmental studies, energy analysis, mineral geology, and industrial organization.”
It “considers the principal materials used throughout history, from wood and stone, through to metals, alloys, plastics and silicon”, examining their production, applications, costs and environmental impact, and implications for the future.
This is another book with an annoyingly abridged preview, unfortunately cutting off nearly the entire table of contents. (Gosh darn it!) Ironic, actually, in this case, because the preview of the text itself is fairly extensive. But no matter; it’s slim, just a couple hundred pages — shorter than I was expecting, maybe because the cover screams “textbook” — not that it isn’t scholarly!
Smil “finds music in statistics” and displays virtuosic “fact-based reasoning” in this “fascinating and thorough analysis”. He’s not afraid to wield data, and the book is comprehensive and technical enough that in parts in can be hard to digest. But he’s a clear and engaging writer, and getting through this book is an “exhilarating experience.”