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Material World: A Substantial Story of Our Past and Future

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Lively, rich and exciting ... full of surprises. Underlines that to understand global geopolitics, you need to understand natural resources and geology -- Peter Frankopan, author of THE SILK ROADS The elevator pitch: this is the story of the modern world (and a bit of our history and some glimpses into the future) told through the eyes of the materials we couldn't do without. It's a bit of economics, a bit of geology, a bit of politics, material science and a lot of on-the-ground reporting from all over the world. The IMF was the larger and more contentious of the two projects and this is where the Americans under Harry Dexter White differed most sharply with John Maynard Keynes and the British. White and the Americans—with the world’s most powerful economy under their feet—kept control over the process of developing the IMF while Keynes was delegated less controversial role of bringing forth the World Bank. Full of colorful characters and fascinating connections, Material World shows how the seemingly simplest materials—from sand to salt to iron—require unbelievably complex refining and processing before arriving at their final form. With absorbing storytelling, Conway shows why we should not take the material world for granted. Fascinating and insightful, this book has changed the way I see the material world.” —Chris Miller, author of Chip War At its core, The Summit relates the stormy relationship between two towering personalities, John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White. Representing the UK, Keynes was the world’s most famous economist and a certified celebrity to boot. He is still widely regarded as the most important economist of the 20th Century. White, little known to the public before Bretton Woods and not much more so afterwards, was his counterpart heading up the US delegation on behalf of the Treasury. Together, these two men managed against all odds to put in place the world’s first global economic system in the waning days of World War II — a system whose surviving remnants include the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The mechanisms negotiated at the Bretton Woods Conference in New Hampshire in 1944 never truly worked as Keynes and White intended, but they did help accomplish the overarching goal of the conference: to maintain world economic stability up until Richard Nixon upended the system in 1973 by taking the US off the gold standard.

But what everyone has always assumed to be a dry economic conference was in fact replete with drama. The delegates spent half the time at each other's throats and the other half drinking in the hotel bar. The Russians nearly capsized the entire project. The French threatened to walk out, repeatedly. All the while war in Europe raged on. He also tells us about the global interdependence related to extraction, processing, reprocessing and manufacturing from all this stuff, and the fragility and interconnectedness of supply lines. This is a good companion piece to the more geo-political books by Tim Marshall. The book also offers a sobering look at the consequences of our consumption patterns, which is a topic of increasing concern in today's world. It encourages readers to contemplate the sustainability of our lifestyles and the need for responsible resource management.

A stunning book that will transform the way you think about economics and life. Brilliantly written -- Matthew Syed, author of REBEL IDEAS The other issue was that Britain felt it needed to retain the sovereign decision on how much it might devalue sterling in the future to help British industry regain competitiveness in the postwar world. One can see that the Americans were correct in not letting these British concerns overly shape the design of the new IMF; broad international goals could not be subverted by parochial British interests. Churchill in particularly still clung to the hope that Britain would be able to keep and sustain its vast empire after the war—but literally Britain’s own sterling debts to the empire argued for breakup. Sharing the below from another review because it was accurate and I felt similarly. High level, this was an interesting story of pre, during, and post-summit international monetary/economics. Monetary systems have evolved over time, from true gold standards, to the pseudo standard of BW (US linked to gold, other currencies linked to US), to true floating currencies. The book didn't go into great detail on this, but perhaps if the US hadn't spent so much in Vietnam (bad decisions) or instituted such significant social programs under Kennedy and Johnson (some good, some bad), the gold standard wouldn't have been problematic for the US, and BW may have survived because Nixon wouldn't have had to close the gold window. History is always interesting. The other nugget detailed at length in the book but not mentioned in the other review is about how the World Bank and IMF were both born out of BW, and how Keynes and White let the charge on their formation and intentions, even if those intentions changed from what those institutions ultimately became. Overall, an interesting read. I may have liked a bit more detail on why the currency/monetary systems needed to change over time, but the personality driven narrative was a good way to keep interest for the reader.

Shot throughout the book is the issue of the climate and environmental emergency and the urgent question of the survival of our global interconnected civilization, or even human life in general. The author is generally optimistic about the future capacity of humanity to innovate and adapt but is clear that given our huge indebtedness to fossil fuels for the civilisation we have created, and the enormous amount of raw materials we extract from the earth currently, the challenge is truly massive. These are the six most crucial substances in human history. They took us from the Dark Ages to the present day. They power our computers and phones, build our homes and offices, and create life-saving medicines. But most of us take them completely for granted.Ed Conway is a great thinker… Material World is an engrossing study of the basic substances on which we all depend. Anyone who cares about the resources which built our world and where mankind is heading must read this vital book.” —Adam Boulton, Times Radio This is a surprisingly easy read, despite the book having so much factual information, statistics, depressing stories about mining, and pessimistic prognostications! The author has researched extensively and seems to know what he's talking about; and has travelled extensively to the world's various mines, lakes, refineries, ports, experimental labs etc to give vivid first-hand descriptions of the gargantuan scale of human activity that has led us to our present position. Each section of the book covers one of the six materials regarded (by the author) as the most important in this development, starting with sand, and ending with lithium. You get to know about different types of sand, how it is used and transported around the world, including quite a detailed account of the journey quartzite makes from being blasted out of the ground near Santiago de Compostela, Spain, to being purified to 99.99999999% purity silicon at Burghausen in Germany to becoming crystal boules at Portland, Oregon to being cut into wafers at Tainan, Taiwan and then, using 100-million dollar machines made by the Dutch company ASML, actually making the 'chips' used in electronic devices worldwide. I am, as you read these very words, working away at a new book. It's going to be called Material World and I am quite honestly fizzing with excitement about it. The delegates to the summit were 730 representing 44 countries. But among the delegates, two economics bigwigs stood out. They are John Maynard Keynes of Britain and the American Harry Dexter White.

The fiber-optic cables that weave the World Wide Web, the copper veins of our electric grids, the silicon chips and lithium batteries that power our phones and though it can feel like we now live in a weightless world of information—what Ed Conway calls “the ethereal world”—our twenty-first-century lives are still very much rooted in the material. Edmund Conway's "Material World" is a compelling and thought-provoking examination of the fundamental raw materials that underpin our modern civilization. In a world where the supply and demand for resources are critical to global economies, this book sheds light on the importance of six key materials: concrete, steel, oil, gold, food, and water. The biography of an element or material is now a familiar format – the story of sand is told in Vince Beiser’s The World in a Grain, while Mark Kurlansky has made a career of single-noun titles including Salt – and other authors (such as Bill Bryson in At Home) have recounted the secret histories of quotidian objects. Like Bryson, Conway delights in facts – did you know that most of London’s concrete is made with sand from the lost country of Doggerland? Did you know there are four tonnes of steel for everyone in the world? – but what distinguishes Material World is his access. Although he is very well informed, this is not a remote, academic analysis: he has been to the salt mines beneath the North Sea, the mineral railway of the Atacama Desert, the Chilean town being swallowed by the world’s demand for copper, and as a TV journalist (Conway is the economics editor of Sky News) he conveys a vivid sense of these places. Keynes, of course, came to the summit with unparalleled intellectual credentials. He was, after all, the author of two widely influential economic books: The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money and The Economic Consequences of the Peace. But Keynes dominant intellectual force at the conference did not stop him from losing many of the crucial political battles to his American counterpart, Harry Dexter White.But Keynes and White rarely agree on any of the key provisions. And the battle between Keynes and White provides much of the colour in the book. “They were the odd couple of international economics,” wrote Ed Conway. “The pair would shout at each other in meetings, bully each other in an attempt to get their way and, afterwards, abuse their rival to their friends.”

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