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Book Reviews

#WavellReviews Material World by Ed Conway

Material World A Substantial Story Of Our Past And Future is available from Penguin

This book is excellent.  It is compelling, relevant, engaging, and easy to read.  It breaks down complicated science and economics and makes it accessible.  Ed Conway brings to life the world we live in through a lens that almost all of us ignore: materials.  From security professionals to those with a casual interest in economics, it will challenge and change how you view things around you.

Material World tells the story of six critical materials: sand, salt, iron, oil, copper, and lithium.  His research, experience, engaging style, and ability to tell stories bring these materials to life.

So what?  You may ask.  It’s a fair question.  Within its pages, Material World pieces together the important stories of these six materials and how they contribute to the modern world.  Despite changing technology and changing pace of  ‘things’, materials have remained relatively static and more interconnected than we generally consider.  

A simple argument on the face of it, but one which Material World expands on and demonstrates the very real-world risks and opportunities that come from things we take for granted.

A grain of humble salt

Conway traces the history of the six materials bringing important detail and implications.  We all put salt in our food.  But almost all of us miss the broader use of salt and how it is made.  Conway’s analysis challenges us to see the material world differently.  

But salt is more complex.  The Romans used it for health.  We take it for granted today.   Material World opens the second and third-order implications of basic materials and how humans use and abuse them.  “Without salt”, he concludes, “you cannot turn metallurgical silicon into super pure polysilicon” and therefore no computer chips.  

I was more taken by the human stories embedded in Material World.  Conway visited a salt mine in the UK with high temperatures and long physical work.  A workplace many will think decayed under Thatcher that many will believe to be entirely done by machines.  But a workforce that remains critical to success in the modern world.  Conway brings the human story (and consequences) of raw materials to life – be it in salt mines, oil drills, or making batteries.  

For security professionals?

It would be easy to suggest that none of this matters to security professionals.  After all, ammunition and logistics are more relevant discussions.  Material World is littered with military and security links.  Security is intertwined with the story of critical materials, from the need for critical mineral strategies to the more mundane discoveries made in military service.

For example, in 1915, the UK Government was concerned that a lack of glass meant the country could not manufacture telescopes and optics needed to fire artillery accurately.  Securing critical material is a central theme in the book leading to war and competition.  

Conway’s challenge to readers is to view the world not through the lens of political theory or newspaper headlines (my words, not his).  Instead, to see the world as it operates.  The ease of modern life hides the very real material world which underpins the things we take for granted. 

Batteries in phones require lithium.  Wire needs copper and is critical to an electric future and to reducing global emissions.  Despite exporting more oil than it needs, why is the US still dependent on oil imports?  The answer lies in the nitty details of the material world.  Few, if any, readers will have taken the time to understand this beyond the most limited information included in military staff training.

Academics and implications

But Material World is not a hard-core and unreadable academic textbook, far from it.  Conway’s style engages the mind and forces attention.  He draws on known theory and explains it in simple terms that even the most basic infantry officer like me can understand.  And yet, Material World somehow also communicates depth and credibility.  Conway’s ease of language makes this a readable book and the topic accessible. 

Perhaps the most depressing implication of the book is our more general need for more strategy.  Conway lays out the importance of the materials we rely on.  But also shows how we take them for granted.  In the balance of private vs public sector investment, he indirectly makes a strong case for a more robust mineral policy and investment.  I was taken aback by how little I have studied this topic through my years of postgraduate security education.  

A cynic might suggest that all Government Ministers should read it. Indeed, some already have.  You may also review the latest UK Defence and Security papers and question if our understanding of security issues is so shallow that we have missed this in our thinking.  We (strictly) don’t hold political positions in the Wavell Room, but it certainly made us pause and think about what we think we understand and what we don’t.  

Should I read this book?

Material World is excellent.  I struggled to put it down.  Conway’s compelling narrative brings something we may otherwise consider boring and unimportant to life.  We strongly recommend reading it.  The gushing praise for it on the cover art is well-earned.

The Wavell Room Team

The Wavell Room Team are a bunch of enthusiastic individuals who believe strongly in constructive debate, discussion and openness in order to arrive at a sound, non-bias and informed position on many subjects.  The team are all volunteers and support this non-profit in their own time.

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