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Material World

The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization

Author Ed Conway
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Sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium. These fundamental materials have created empires, razed civilizations, and fed our ingenuity and our greed for thousands of years. Without them, our modern world would not exist, and the hidden battle to control them will determine our future.

The fiber-optic cables that weave the World Wide Web, the copper veins of our electric grid, the silicon chips and lithium batteries that power our phones and cars: though it can feel like we now live in a weightless world of information—what Ed Conway calls "the ethereal world"—our twenty-first-century lives are still very much rooted in the material. 

In fact, we dug more stuff out of the earth in 2017 than in all of human history before 1950. For every ton of fossil fuels, we extract six tons of other materials, from sand to stone to wood to metal. And in Material World, Conway embarks on an epic journey across continents, cultures, and epochs—from the sweltering depths of the deepest mine in Europe, to spotless silicon chip factories in Taiwan, to the eerie green pools where lithium originates—to reveal the underpinnings of modern life on Earth.

Material World is a celebration of the humans and human networks, the miraculous processes and little-known companies, that combine to turn  raw materials into things of wonder. This is the story of human civilization from an entirely new perpsective: from the ground up.

“Full of colorful characters and fascinating connections, Material World shows how the seemingly simplest materials—from sand to salt to iron—require unbelievably complex refining and processing before arriving at their final form. With absorbing storytelling, Conway shows why we should not take the material world for granted. Fascinating and insightful, this book has changed the way I see the material world.” —Chris Miller, author of Chip War

“Lively, rich and exciting. . . . Full of surprises.” —Peter Frankopan, author of The Earth Transformed

“Fascinating and forensic in equal measure . . . Reveals the web of mining and manufacturing that underpins the lives of everyone on the planet.” —Mark Miodownik, author of Stuff Matters
 
“A highly-engaging and important look at the key materials powering our modern world, and how we feed our insatiable appetite for them.” —Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics at Harvard University and ex-Chief Economist of the IMF

“A compelling narrative of the human story.” —Tim Marshall, author of Prisoners of Geography

“Expansive, erudite, and edifying. A stunning insight into the materials that shaped our history and built the modern world.” —Lewis Dartnell, author of Origins
 
“Fascinating, fun, and vitally important. A wonderful exploration of the world we’ve built yet somehow manage to ignore.” —Tim Harford, author of The Data Detective
 
“Conway’s gripping explanation of a world you didn’t know needed explaining deserves this highest of accolades: Material World, once read, leaves us baffled that nobody ever thought of writing it before.” —Matthew Parris, author of Fracture
 
“A stunning book that will transform the way you think about economics and life. Brilliantly written.” —Matthew Syed, author of Rebel Ideas

“Ed Conway is a great thinker. . . .  Material World is an engrossing study of the basic substances on which we all depend. Anyone who cares about the resources which built our world and where mankind is heading must read this vital book.” —Adam Boulton, Times Radio
 
“A masterful exploration of how materials shape our world more than ever—economically, geopolitically and environmentally.” —Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge

“[A] masterful exploration of the materials that underpin civilization. . . . Like Bill Bryson, Conway delights in facts . . . but what distinguishes Material World is his access. Although he is very well informed, this is not a remote, academic analysis: he has been to the salt mines beneath the North Sea, the mineral railway of the Atacama Desert, the Chilean town being swallowed by the world’s demand for copper, and as a TV journalist he conveys a vivid sense of these places.” —Will Dunn, The New Statesman
 
“Deconstructs the modern world for us to see inside. . . . As we fret and argue about how to tackle climate change, economic development, and geopolitical tensions, this book is a timely reminder of our reliance on physical stuff, and it offers a challenging, practical perspective on these debates.” Paul J. Davies, Bloomberg

“Fascinating. . . . Lucidly shows the scale of the environmental problem and the irony of new demand created by efforts to wean ourselves off oil on to batteries.” John Gapper, Financial Times
  • LONGLIST | 2023
    Financial Times and Schroders Business Book of the Year Award
© Sky News
ED CONWAY is economics and data editor of Sky News and a columnist for the Times (London). He has won numerous awards for his journalism, including most recently the 2018 Wincott Foundation Journalist of the Year Award. He lives in London. View titles by Ed Conway

About

Sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium. These fundamental materials have created empires, razed civilizations, and fed our ingenuity and our greed for thousands of years. Without them, our modern world would not exist, and the hidden battle to control them will determine our future.

The fiber-optic cables that weave the World Wide Web, the copper veins of our electric grid, the silicon chips and lithium batteries that power our phones and cars: though it can feel like we now live in a weightless world of information—what Ed Conway calls "the ethereal world"—our twenty-first-century lives are still very much rooted in the material. 

In fact, we dug more stuff out of the earth in 2017 than in all of human history before 1950. For every ton of fossil fuels, we extract six tons of other materials, from sand to stone to wood to metal. And in Material World, Conway embarks on an epic journey across continents, cultures, and epochs—from the sweltering depths of the deepest mine in Europe, to spotless silicon chip factories in Taiwan, to the eerie green pools where lithium originates—to reveal the underpinnings of modern life on Earth.

Material World is a celebration of the humans and human networks, the miraculous processes and little-known companies, that combine to turn  raw materials into things of wonder. This is the story of human civilization from an entirely new perpsective: from the ground up.

“Full of colorful characters and fascinating connections, Material World shows how the seemingly simplest materials—from sand to salt to iron—require unbelievably complex refining and processing before arriving at their final form. With absorbing storytelling, Conway shows why we should not take the material world for granted. Fascinating and insightful, this book has changed the way I see the material world.” —Chris Miller, author of Chip War

“Lively, rich and exciting. . . . Full of surprises.” —Peter Frankopan, author of The Earth Transformed

“Fascinating and forensic in equal measure . . . Reveals the web of mining and manufacturing that underpins the lives of everyone on the planet.” —Mark Miodownik, author of Stuff Matters
 
“A highly-engaging and important look at the key materials powering our modern world, and how we feed our insatiable appetite for them.” —Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Economics at Harvard University and ex-Chief Economist of the IMF

“A compelling narrative of the human story.” —Tim Marshall, author of Prisoners of Geography

“Expansive, erudite, and edifying. A stunning insight into the materials that shaped our history and built the modern world.” —Lewis Dartnell, author of Origins
 
“Fascinating, fun, and vitally important. A wonderful exploration of the world we’ve built yet somehow manage to ignore.” —Tim Harford, author of The Data Detective
 
“Conway’s gripping explanation of a world you didn’t know needed explaining deserves this highest of accolades: Material World, once read, leaves us baffled that nobody ever thought of writing it before.” —Matthew Parris, author of Fracture
 
“A stunning book that will transform the way you think about economics and life. Brilliantly written.” —Matthew Syed, author of Rebel Ideas

“Ed Conway is a great thinker. . . .  Material World is an engrossing study of the basic substances on which we all depend. Anyone who cares about the resources which built our world and where mankind is heading must read this vital book.” —Adam Boulton, Times Radio
 
“A masterful exploration of how materials shape our world more than ever—economically, geopolitically and environmentally.” —Diane Coyle, Bennett Professor of Public Policy at the University of Cambridge

“[A] masterful exploration of the materials that underpin civilization. . . . Like Bill Bryson, Conway delights in facts . . . but what distinguishes Material World is his access. Although he is very well informed, this is not a remote, academic analysis: he has been to the salt mines beneath the North Sea, the mineral railway of the Atacama Desert, the Chilean town being swallowed by the world’s demand for copper, and as a TV journalist he conveys a vivid sense of these places.” —Will Dunn, The New Statesman
 
“Deconstructs the modern world for us to see inside. . . . As we fret and argue about how to tackle climate change, economic development, and geopolitical tensions, this book is a timely reminder of our reliance on physical stuff, and it offers a challenging, practical perspective on these debates.” Paul J. Davies, Bloomberg

“Fascinating. . . . Lucidly shows the scale of the environmental problem and the irony of new demand created by efforts to wean ourselves off oil on to batteries.” John Gapper, Financial Times

Awards

  • LONGLIST | 2023
    Financial Times and Schroders Business Book of the Year Award

Author

© Sky News
ED CONWAY is economics and data editor of Sky News and a columnist for the Times (London). He has won numerous awards for his journalism, including most recently the 2018 Wincott Foundation Journalist of the Year Award. He lives in London. View titles by Ed Conway

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FROM THE PAGE: An excerpt from Ed Conway’s Material World

Material World is a celebration of the humans and human networks, the miraculous processes and little-known companies, that combine to turn  raw materials into things of wonder. This is the story of human civilization from an entirely new perspective: from the ground up.   1 Homo Faber This story begins with a bang. An explosion

Read more