Bill Gates reflects on the materials that make modern life possible, and their impact

Bill Gates is obviously a really smart dude, and his personal wealth is well documented. But ever since he left active duty at Microsoft, shifting his focus to what I would call entrepreneurial philanthropy through the foundation he and his wife lead, Gates has become a real inspiration for me.

One of my favorite characteristics of the post-Microsoft Bill Gates is his book recommendations. At his blog, Gates recently published his Best Books of 2014 list. A book that I found personally relevant on that list is Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization by Vaclav Smil.

Gates explores the book’s theme in a blog post that has possibly my favorite headline all year: Have You Hugged a Concrete Pillar Today? Here’s more:

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.

While Smil states that we probably won’t run out of raw materials any time soon, we are seeing massive depletion of certain materials. Perhaps more importantly than even access to the raw materials themselves is the environmental impact of extracting and producing certain materials:

I agree with Smil that humans have an amazing capacity for finding ways around scarcity by using materials more efficiently, recycling them, or finding substitutes. The big concern isn’t so much whether we will run out of anything—it’s the impact that extracting and using these materials is having on the planet. For example, the cement industry now accounts for about 5 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions. That’s one reason I think that developing affordable energy that produces zero carbon is one of the most important things we can do to lift people out of poverty.

Source: Gates Notes

The book is available here:

Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization


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