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Living in the Artificial World
Science and industry are eradicating the border between the manmade and the natural
The journalist Ed Conway has a talent for bottom-up economics. He is one of the few reporters who stays focused on the material reality behind “the economy,” that sacred mythology of modern societies. How to explain the UK’s persistent problems with supply-side inflation? Conway churns out a viral Twitter thread about cucumbers.
I was eagerly awaiting Conway’s new book, Material World: A Substantial Story of Our Past and Future, and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve already written about the book elsewhere, but the subject is too interesting to leave it at that. Conway offers a behind-the-scenes tour of global capitalism, showing where our most important raw materials come from and how they end up in the objects we see around us.
The artefacts that crop up in the first section, about sand, include a necklace belonging to Tutankhamen, binoculars, frying pans, missile nose cones, concrete buildings and fibre-optic data cables. That’s before we follow the journey of a silicon atom from a Spanish mine to a computer chip in your smartphone, via Germany, Oregon, Taiwan and China. The later sections, on salt, iron, copper and oil, involve a similarly baffling collection of places and things.
The phrase “supply chains” doesn’t normally elicit excitement, but follow them far enough and you’ll find even the most mundane products are linked with some very strange settings. Chuquicamata, the vast copper mine in Chile, is deep enough to swallow the world’s tallest buildings; enormous trucks, each carrying 400 tonnes of rock, voyage for an hour just to reach the surface. Pollution from the mine has forced the nearby town of Chuqui to be abandoned, but it remains eerily preserved in the dry conditions of the Atacama desert.
Still, we shouldn't imagine our transformation of nature is something that happens elsewhere, in distant, otherworldly places. As I read this book, I kept thinking it could have had a different title: Artificial World. It seems there is scarcely an aspect of our physical reality that has not been tampered with or rearranged by human hands.
Of course the world that human beings inhabit has always been artificial to some degree, because we are creatures of artifice. We breed plants and animals for agriculture; we build structures for shelter; we fashion tools to better manipulate our environment. But we still imagine that many things in the human world maintain a residual connection to nature, whether it be fresh-picked fruit or timber harvested from trees.
The world is more manmade than it appears. The vast majority of crops and feed for livestock are grown with nitrogen fertilisers, and these in turn are produced from natural gas that is pumped out of the ground. As Conway puts it, the things we eat “are made of fossil fuels.” Soap and drinking water do not seem like complex artificial products, but the former uses caustic soda, and the latter chlorine gas, both made by something called the chloralkali process. As such, they share key ingredients with anti-depressants and PVC plastic.
If something looks simple and “natural,” chances are it is actually tangled up in our industrial and commercial activities. Even Europe’s tourist beaches, where you might be pitching an umbrella this summer, are often composed of sand mined from the North African coastline.
Increasingly, our world is engineered at a microscopic scale. No one would mistake digital technology for something natural, but nor do we appreciate how much it depends on our ability to manipulate the material fabric of nature. Internet data travels around the globe in the form of light bouncing along hair-thin strands of glass. In order to make semiconductors, silicon has to be purified to a grade of ten billion atoms for each non-silicon atom.
Such precision is generally the domain of machines; people are disappearing altogether from many advanced industrial settings. Strangely though, even the terrifyingly big operations, like digging and blasting tonnes of rock out of mountainsides, reflect a similar degree of scientific optimisation. The reason we cannot wean ourselves off bulk materials like steel, copper, plastic and lithium is that they have unique properties at the molecular level.
What is most unsettling about all this is the realisation that we can’t make a fresh start, that it’s futile to even ask what humanity’s relationship with nature should be. The problems created by our economic activities are such that the most plausible answers will always involve more technological intervention, more artifice, to tide us over for another generation.
Consider an example. Modern intensive farming takes a big toll on the environment, but even allowing for how much we waste, feeding the world with more traditional methods would require most of the land on the planet. Hence the amazingly efficient “controlled environment agriculture” – essentially the factory production of crops – is in some ways the eco-friendly option. The catch is that it requires a lot of energy, which means carbon emissions. Unless of course we can generate an abundance of renewable energy, but that in turn means building solar cells, wind turbines and nuclear plants on an epic scale.
And so the dance goes on, with every technocratic solution creating a new technocratic problem. A similar story can be told about many other industries that cause ecological destruction.
In other words, humanity is trapped in its role of managing the planet in ever more comprehensive and totalising ways. The question is whether it can do this and still think of itself as anything more than a collection of molecules and chemical processes.
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