http://www.gatesnotes.com/ – The Blog of Bill Gates
The car I drive to work is made of around 2,600 pounds of steel, 800 pounds of plastic, and 400 pounds of light metal alloys. The trip from my house to the office is roughly four miles long, all surface streets, which means I travel over some 15,000 tons of concrete each morning.
Once I’m at the office, I usually open a can of Diet Coke. Over the course of the day I might drink three or four. All those cans also add up to something like 35 pounds of aluminum a year.
I got to thinking about all this after reading Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, by my favorite author, the historian Vaclav Smil. Not only did I learn some mind-blowing facts, but I also gained a new appreciation for all the materials that make modern life possible.
This isn’t just idle curiosity. It might seem mundane, but the issue of materials—how much we use and how much we need—is key to helping the world’s poorest people improve their lives. Think of the amazing increase in quality of life that we saw in the United States and other rich countries in the past 100 years. We want most of that miracle to take place for all of humanity over the next 50 years. As more people join the global middle class, they will need affordable clean energy. They will want to eat more meat. And they will need more materials: steel to make cars and refrigerators; concrete for roads and runways; copper wiring for telecommunications.
I had already read Smil’s books on energy and diet. Smil says at the start of Making the Modern World that he won’t spend much time on those topics (which means climate change doesn’t come up much). Instead he’s interested in the materials we use to meet the demands of modern life. Can we make enough steel for all those cars and enough concrete for all those roads? What are the risks if we do? In other words, can we bring billions of people out of poverty without destroying the environment?
Smil excels at answering big questions like these. Although he doesn’t make many predictions, he does something that’s even more valuable: He explains the past. He helps you understand how we got where we are, which tells you something about where we’re going. I study Smil’s histories so I can understand the future.
He argues that the most important man-made material is concrete, both in terms of the amount we produce each year and the total mass we’ve laid down. Concrete is the foundation (literally) for the massive expansion of urban areas of the past several decades, which has been a big factor in cutting the rate of extreme poverty in half since 1990. In 1950, the world made roughly as much steel as cement (a key ingredient in concrete); by 2010, steel production had grown by a factor of 8, but cement had gone up by a factor of 25. This animated GIF shows the dramatic transformation of Shanghai since 1987. Most of what you’re seeing in that picture is concrete, steel, and glass.
You can also see the importance of concrete in the graphic below, which illustrates what Smil calls the most staggering statistic in his book:
“China has used more cement in the last three years than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century. (U.S. 4.5 gigatons from 1901-2000 and China 6.6 gigatons from 2011-2013).
For the rest of Bill Gate’s blog posting, click here: http://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Making-the-Modern-World?WT.mc_id=06_13_2014_smilc_tw&WT.tsrc=Twitter