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Ed Conway: “Material World: The Key Resources Underpinning Modern Economies”

June 12, 2024

(Conversation recorded on May 7th, 2024)

Show Summary

In contrast to ‘The Great Simplification’, some might call the events of the last few hundred years a ‘Great Complexification’ in terms of relationships, governance, supply chains, and many other human activities. Today’s conversation with economics journalist Ed Conway focuses on the six essential resources that underpin our modern economies –  sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium – and dives into the (often unseen) environmental and human costs of extracting them, as well as the surprisingly fragile global supply chains they fuel.

In order to understand what possibilities – and dangers – may await us in the future, we need to understand the realities and constraints of the present, as well as the fail points of the past. What does it take to mine, refine, and transform the materials that are foundational to the world around us – which many of us now take for granted? How can we ensure the stability of global supply chains, and could we predict potential disruptions and chokepoints before they arise? If we understood the intricate web of complexity, energy, and resources that go into everything we consume, would it change our expectations for how much we need in order to live a good and fulfilling life?

About Ed Conway

Ed Conway is a writer and broadcaster. He is the Economics and Data Editor of Sky News and has written for many newspapers and publications, including the New York Times, the Times of London and the New Statesman. His latest book, Material World, was an Economist and Sunday Times Book of the Year and was shortlisted for the 2023 FT Business Book of the Year Award. He has also written two other critically acclaimed and bestselling books and has won numerous awards for his journalism. He was educated at Oxford and Harvard. He lives in London.

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Show Notes & Links to Learn More

PDF Transcript

00:00 – Edmund Conway Works + Info, Material World: The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization

01:23 – Olivia Lazard + TGS Episode, Michael Michaux + TGS Episodes

03:53 – I, Pencil

04:52 – Invisible Hand

05:40 – Brexit

05:55 – Distorted gold export stats for the UK

07:02 – The supply chain of gold

10:08 – History of glass

10:20 – What we use sand for today

11:16 – How Silicon Chips are made

11:40 – 1915 Glass Famine

16:06 – The importance of concrete, CO2 emissions

17:18 – Chip War

18:12 – Silica, Wentworth Scale

18:57 – Hawaiian Beach Sand is Parrot Fish Excrements

20:11 – Types of sand

20:58 – Constraints of mining useful sand, Yukon Delta

23:19 – Cement research

23:40 – Ancient cement recipes

24:48 – Cement absorbs CO2 over time, research on this

29:40 – Global map of sand mines

31:26 – Limestone availability

32:02 – Ultra high purity quartz, crucibles, Spruce Pine, NC

33:12 – History of salt

33:39 – Mark Kurlansky

34:21 – Importance of salts to pharmaceuticals

35:01 – Salt’s importance to batteries

35:22 – Salt use in petroleum products

35:41 – Indian independence and salt production

36:55 – Salt is used for so many things

37:33 – Salt for water purification

39:02 – Sand mines under the mississippi river

40:11 – Sodium batteries

40:30 – Soda ash U.S. deposits

42:41 – Lithium scarcity, lithium uniqueness as an energy storage medium

43:25 – History of lithium batteries

46:19 – Copper importance and availability

46:52 – Copper substitutability with aluminum or silver

48:19 – Peak Copper

48:29 – Julian Simons and Paul Ehrlich bet

50:08 – Energy and water intensity of mining copper

50:28 – Declining density of copper in the crust available for mining

51:47 – Chuquicamata

54:45 – Social push back against mining projects

55:52 – Health effects in mining towns

57:21 – International Energy Agency, net zero models and anticipated country development

59:43 – Russia is one of the richest countries in natural resources

1:00:53 – Brandauer

1:03:24 – Fukushima Earthquake effects on ford truck supply chain

1:04:10 – Comparative Advantage

1:04:57 – Richard Baldwin

1:07:11 – Invention of GDP

1:08:30 – Semiconductor industry war

1:09:37 – UK no longer domestically producing fertilizer, Haber Bosch

1:10:07 – Fertilizer plant shut down causes crisis for CO2 canister for pig farms in the UK

1:12:53 – Wassily Leontief , input/output tables

1:15:45 – Camborne Mining School, shut down their mining course

1:20:50 – Recycling rates

1:21:15 – Steel per nation per capita, 15 tons for a developed nation

1:24:11 – Logom

1:24:28 – Conway’s Jevons Paradox Thread, Jevons Paradox

1:25:10 – William Stanley Jevons

1:28:10 – AI and increase in energy consumption

1:38:52 – Resource per capita vs standard of living

1:40:15 – The Summit, Bretton Woods Conference

1:41:48 – China’s dominance in EVs

1:42:16 – Global imbalances of debt and surplus

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens is the Director of The Institute for the Study of Energy & Our Future (ISEOF) an organization focused on educating and preparing society for the coming cultural transition. Allied with leading ecologists, energy experts, politicians and systems thinkers ISEOF assembles road-maps and off-ramps for how human societies can adapt to lower throughput lifestyles. Nate holds a Masters Degree in Finance with Honors from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Natural Resources from the University of Vermont. He teaches an Honors course, Reality 101, at the University of Minnesota.