Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Making of the Modern World

If you enjoy drowning in a sea of numbers, Making of the Modern World is for you. This Bill-Gates-recommended book is about all the different materials we use and have used, with emphasis on changing trends and directions.

I spent most of the book wondering why there were no charts (at least in the electronic version I read), as it would give the numbers so much more context. Instead, I definitely had some perspective issues. As Smil trots from material to material citing all the tons of materials that have been put to use, it becomes to difficult to really fathom it all.

I did find the part about China's modernization interesting, however. Here, it was possible to have some perspective as China's use of materials was compared to that of the US, and it is incredible.

There was also some good discussion of advances in usage/design along with recycling of materials which has reduced the amount that we consume. I particularly enjoyed some of the examples Smil described of improved industrial processes that have led to usage reductions.

If this book taught me one thing it's that we are not reducing our material consumption, despite what I may have thought. Sure, things like alarm clocks, watches, remote controls, video etc can all be done on a single device now. But with few exceptions, all that does is free up more money for us to spend on other materials. Relative to GDP, our material usage has declined and looks like it will continue to do so. But in absolute terms, we use more materials than ever, especially when one accounts for imports of manufactured goods.

If you're down with the fact that this book is mostly a jumble of numbers with a couple of words mixed in, by all means, enjoy.

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