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Making the Modern World

Materials and Dematerialization

By Vaclav Smil
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  • Contains 7 key ideas
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Making the Modern World by Vaclav Smil

Making the Modern World (2014) is a guide to humanity’s material consumption through history and into the future. These blinks explain the major material categories of our time and how we can effectively manage them as we move forward.

Key idea 1 of 7

Material use surveys should include the raw materials used in every sector of the economy.

From the production of clothes to houses to all manner of electronics, the sheer variety of materials used by modern-day humans is dizzying. But how can we determine which materials to take into account when analyzing our modern material flow?

Well, no human material use survey would be complete without considering agricultural and forestry-derived products, as well as metals, industrial gases and non-renewable organics.

Back in 1882, the US Geological Survey, or USGS, began preparations for one of the first reports on material flows ever conducted for an entire country. Their survey grouped materials into major categories and covered the period between 1900 and 1995.

The categories, of course, included all raw materials derived from agriculture, including cotton, seeds, wool and tobacco; everything the forest industry produced, like wood and paper; and finally metals, minerals and non-renewable organics derived from fossil fuels, like asphalt, waxes and oils.

To these, the author would suggest adding industrial gases, because such materials are essential to our modern methods of production. Other than that, USGS classifications are still valid today.

So, breaking material surveys down into such categories is a long-standing procedure; but it only works because it only assesses raw organic materials that are designated for further processing, while omitting oxygen, water, food, fuel and all hidden material flows.

Hidden material flows are all the materials extracted during a production cycle that don’t end up in finished products, like all the earth and rocks that are moved to reach a mineral deposit. Materials like this would actually account for the vast majority of total material flow in countries with large mineral-extracting industries.

So, water isn’t listed for quantitative reasons, because it would overshadow practically all other materials; leaving oxygen off the list makes sense because it’s practically an inexhaustible element of the earth’s atmosphere; and food as well as fuel are excluded because they have historically been analyzed separately, and aren’t quite materials but instead finished products.

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