Making the Modern World Book Summary - Making the Modern World Book explained in key points
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Making the Modern World summary

Vaclav Smil

Materials and Dematerialization

3.8 (32 ratings)
17 mins

Brief summary

Making the Modern World by Vaclav Smil is a comprehensive history of technological innovations, from the Industrial Revolution to present day, highlighting their impact on society and the environment.

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    Making the Modern World
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    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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    What is Making the Modern World about?

    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.

    Making the Modern World Review

    Making the Modern World by Vaclav Smil (2002) is a thought-provoking exploration of the interconnected systems that have shaped our modern society. Here's why this book is worth reading:

    • With meticulous research and a wide-ranging scope, Smil delves into the complex web of technological advancements, energy consumption, and societal changes that have defined the modern world.
    • Through compelling examples and data-driven analysis, the book sheds light on the profound impact of industrialization, transportation, and communication on our daily lives.
    • Ultimately, Smil's insightful perspective challenges readers to contemplate the intricate relationships between science, technology, and society, ensuring that this book is far from boring.

    Best quote from Making the Modern World

    [... We] will have to…redefine the very notion of modern societies whose very existence is predicated on incessant and massive material flows.

    —Vaclav Smil
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    Who should read Making the Modern World?

    • Anyone interested in the material flow and consumption of modern society
    • Every manufacturer, designer and product developer

    About the Author

    Vaclav Smil is an interdisciplinary researcher who has authored over 30 books and nearly 500 papers on energy, environmental and demographic change, food production, technical innovation, risk assessment and public policy. He is currently a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and, in 2010, Foreign Policy named him among the top 50 global thinkers.


    © Vaclav Smil: Making the Mordern World copyright 2014, John Wiley & Sons Inc. Used by permission of John Wiley & Sons Inc. and shall not be made available to any unauthorized third parties.


    © Vaclav Smil: Making the Mordern World copyright 2014, John Wiley & Sons Inc. Used by permission of John Wiley & Sons Inc. and shall not be made available to any unauthorized third parties.

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    Making the Modern World FAQs 

    What is the main message of Making the Modern World?

    The main message of Making the Modern World is the importance of understanding the history, scale, and complexity of human-made systems.

    How long does it take to read Making the Modern World?

    The reading time for Making the Modern World varies, but it typically takes several hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Making the Modern World a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Making the Modern World is a must-read for those interested in gaining a comprehensive understanding of the interconnectedness of technology, energy, and sustainability.

    Who is the author of Making the Modern World?

    Vaclav Smil is the author of Making the Modern World.

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