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Materials matter

Ironbridge, Shropshire, in 1781 the first major bridge in the world to be made of cast iron. Photo Martin Pettit/Flickr CC BY 2.0 DEED.

We live in a material world in more senses than one. In fact, our modern world depends as much on sand and rock as is does on technology…

Material world: a substantial story of our past and future, Ed Conway, hardback, 501 pages, ISBN 978-0753559154, WH Allen, 2023, £22. Kindle and eBook editions available. Paperback edition due June 2024.

This amazing book, which has won several awards, shows how all our social and distribution networks, all our services, rely wholly on physical infrastructure and energy sources.

Writer and broadcaster Ed Conway cites Albert Einstein’s reply to a group of reporters who had asked him to explain his theory of relativity: “I can explain it as follows. It was formerly believed that if all material things disappeared out of the universe, time and space would be left. According to the relativity theory, however, time and space disappear together with the things.”

Conway comments, “You might say the same thing about the Material World. These substances are the fabric of civilisation. Without them, normal life as we know it would disintegrate.”

He contrasts the world of ideas with the material world, “the best-kept secret of the modern economy is that these world-famous brands [the Walmarts, Apples, Teslas and Googles of the world] depend entirely on the obscure firms of the Material World to make their products and help their clever ideas, well, materialise. It is where ideas become a tangible reality.”

Six key materials

The book examines six key materials: sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium, and explains how they are produced and how they are used. Conway says, “Given how much sand and rock we still blast from the planet, we are still firmly embedded in the Stone Age.”

We now extract more materials from the earth each year than the sum total of everything extracted from the dawn of humanity up to 1950. Every year,  43 billion tonnes of sand and gravel, 8 billion tonnes of oil and gas, 7 billion tonnes of coal, and 3 billion tonnes of iron ore are dug, blasted and pumped out of the earth.

Sand is a key component of cement, a product which makes a huge difference to our lives. Rather than having to form and fire bricks before laying them laboriously with mortar, you can pour concrete into a mould. A job that previously took days or weeks can be done in hours by far fewer workers.

When Mexico provided families with cement to cover dirt floors, parasitic infections fell by 78 per cent. The number of children with diarrhoea fell by half, and with anaemia by four-fifths. Children did better at school, and their mothers became happier and less depressed.

‘Coal was vital for the industrial revolution, used to produce iron and steel…’

Coal was vital for the industrial revolution, used to produce iron and steel. By 1800 almost all of Britain’s energy came from coal. But France was still reliant on wood. “No longer was Britain yoked to the organic limitations of how many trees could be grown on its landmass. And around this time, its income per capita, which for most of history had been more or less the same as France’s, began to soar. By the early nineteenth century it was 80 per cent richer than France.”

The energy-dense coal abundant in Britain allowed a rapid surge in iron production, leading to a series of other innovations that together gave birth to the industrial revolution. Coal then fuelled the machinery made of the iron it had produced.

Iron is a fossil fuel product. Each year we put more than a billion tonnes of coal into the thousand or so blast furnaces operating around the world, producing steel. Our world of today is made from steel, it is “…in the structures we inhabit, the infrastructure and transportation we use, and the tools that manufacture everything else.”

Whatever we may do in future to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, at present we remain completely dependent on them. Most of the world’s primary energy – which includes electricity generation, transport, heating and industrial processes – comes from burning fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. In 1980 the proportion was 85 per cent: dropping to 80 percent by 1990. It has remained at about that level ever since.

In 2020, 78 per cent of world energy was still from fossil fuels. Oil and gas provide about 55 per cent of our energy – a proportion which has remained the same for the past twenty years. Traditional biomass (wood) accounts for around 7 per cent, renewables 11 per cent and nuclear power 4 per cent.

Conway points out that oil and gas are difficult to substitute, being near-perfect sources of energy. Refrigerant gases (chlorofluorocarbons) were much easier to replace. And oil is almost irreplaceable as a feedstock for nearly every manufactured product – including textiles and medicines. He says, “Weaning ourselves off them will take far more than a bit of goodwill and a net-zero target.”


It is an irony that pursuing environmental goals will, in the short and medium term, require considerably more materials and energy to build electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels to replace fossil fuels.

Conway concludes, “We are also capable of living far more sustainable, cleaner lives, diminishing our destruction and contamination and living in closer harmony with the planet. We will do so not by eschewing or dismissing the Material World, but by embracing it and understanding it. These six substances helped us survive and thrive. They helped us make magic. They can do it again.”