Making the Modern World | Vaclav Smil

Summary of: Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization
By: Vaclav Smil


Embark on a fascinating exploration of the complexity and vastness of our material world with Vaclav Smil’s ‘Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization’. Discover the crucial materials that shape our lives, from agriculture and forestry products to metals, industrial gases, electronics, and more. Delve into the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval eras as you learn about their signature materials, and examine materials’ increasing importance and indispensability in the modern world. Finally, envision the materials of the future with groundbreaking developments like graphene and biodegradable plastics.

The History of Materials Analysis

Have you ever wondered how we analyze the complex material flows of modern society? This book explores the early development of material surveys and the categories used to classify materials from 1900 to 1995. The analysis includes all raw materials from agriculture and forestry, metals, minerals, and non-renewable organics derived from fossil fuels. The author proposes adding industrial gases to this list as they are crucial to modern production methods. However, the analysis excludes hidden material flows, such as earth and rocks extracted during production cycles, which account for most of the material flow in countries with large mineral-extracting industries. Oxygen, water, food, and fuel are also excluded from the material analysis for various reasons. This comprehensive yet insightful book takes you on a journey through the complex world of material analysis and its history.

The Evolution of Materials in Human History

Humans have been using materials creatively since prehistoric times. The prehistoric era saw the expert selection of stones for the manufacturing of tools like hammers, axes, arrows and knives. Antiquity and the Middle Ages relied heavily on stone, while wood was crucial for shipbuilding. The ability to smelt metals like copper, bronze, and iron was the most important material development of antiquity, but wood remained the most common material in preindustrial societies. Today, we use mostly metals and plastics, but traditional materials like wood and stone still play a significant role in modernization. Steel and copper are used extensively, but plastic has replaced wood and metals in most household and industrial products. Paper and textiles are also still essential materials, with paper production revolutionized by the invention of the continuous paper-making machine in the 19th century and mechanized weaving paving the way for mass textile production.

Six Major Material Categories

The modern society runs on six major material categories that keep daily life functioning. The categories are biomaterials, construction materials, metals, plastics, industrial gases, and electronics. Biomaterials include lumber, cotton, and wool, while construction materials incorporate sand, stones, cements, and concretes. Metals and plastics emerged with industrialization, transportation, and mass consumption, and industrial gases like oxygen and nitrogen are essential to modern economy. Finally, silicon is necessary for the production of most consumer electronics. These six categories provide the framework that upholds and sustains the way we live today.

Material Flows

The assembly of complex products such as smartphones and the difficulties in material accounting pose environmental challenges. By focusing on national material flows, increasing material consumption, declining biomaterials, and the importance of recycling can be observed. The life-cycle assessment approach quantifies the environmental impact of materials, enabling people to make decisions based on the least impactful choice. Surprisingly, recycling is the best option as it conserves energy and reduces environmental impacts.

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