Spruce Pine, N.C., is not nearly as famous as Asheville, an epicenter of haute hill culture about an hour’s drive away. But if you were hoping to fill your Instagram feed with Blue Ridge sunsets and bespoke cocktails, be sure to thank the “obscure Appalachian backwater,” as Wired once called Spruce Pine, whose two mines produce the world’s largest supply of an exceptionally pure quartz needed to manufacture the semiconductors in our smartphones.
“Here’s something scary,” a mining expert tells the science writer Ed Conway, in MATERIAL WORLD: The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization (Knopf, 502 pp., $35), his lively new book about the extraction and manufacture of the materials (salt, sand, lithium, iron, copper and oil) without which modern life would be impossible. “If you flew over the two mines in Spruce Pine with a crop duster loaded with a very particular powder, you could end the world’s production of semiconductors and solar panels within six months.”
Everywhere, Conway sees the tragic ironies of progress. Discoursing on the enormous greenhouse gas emissions used to produce cement, he points out that, decades ago, Soviet scientists invented a more sustainable form of the material that uses industrial byproducts. This alkali-activated cement was used for construction in Mariupol, the Ukrainian city largely destroyed by Russian forces last year. Thus, “one of the best clues we have about how to mass-produce this magical material without causing such damage to the planet,” Conway writes, was turned to dust.
Deb Chachra’s HOW INFRASTRUCTURE WORKS: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World (Riverhead, 308 pp., $29) treads similar ground, but more clumsily. A professor at the Olin College of Engineering who teaches about the intersection of technology and culture, Chachra would seem to be perfectly equipped to act as our Virgil through the built environment — highways and sewer pipes, electrical substations, bridges, those weird poles that recently sprouted like alien superweeds around New York — constructed out of the materials Conway describes. And there are plenty of opportunities for “Infrastructure Week” jokes, too.
Instead, Chachra traffics in vaguely optimistic bromides: “Functional infrastructure is resilient infrastructure,” she writes in a typical pronouncement. “Networks are inherently collective, not individual.” Well, yes: That’s what makes them networks. I kept waiting for Chachra to take a deep dive, but she insistently stays on the surface.
She does perceptively note that to “capitalism, sustainability always looks like underutilization,” but doesn’t give this important issue the treatment it deserves. To the contrary, she has a tendency to slip into a techno-optimism that looks increasingly unwarranted: “Access to abundant energy with no fuel costs will make it possible to build out a technological world that’s modeled on the natural one, a world where reuse of matter is the default,” she writes, describing a post-carbon future that recent debates over wind farms and solar arrays suggest will not enjoy an easy or imminent birth.
I was particularly disturbed by her assertion that “responding to climate change is not about making sacrifice.” While one hopes that she is justified in believing that we “are not doomed to a dystopian future of failing systems,” that prediction will only be realized if we swear off some of the material comforts that we have come to expect as our birthright. The answer cannot lie with transnational corporations whose solutions involve little more than clever rebranding or gestural philanthropy.
So how did we get here, a genius species courting its own demise? Our fraught ingenuity is the subject of Roma Agrawal’s NUTS & BOLTS: Seven Small Inventions That Changed the World (in a Big Way) (Norton, 258 pp., $29.99), which devotes chapters to feats of engineering (nails, lenses, springs, strings, pumps, magnets and wheels) that, she argues, form “the basis of the modern world.” I commend anyone brave enough to describe can openers as “interesting little tools.” She is fascinated by nails, too, and gifted enough a writer to make that fascination infectious.
Along the way, Agrawal engages in illuminating historical asides on figures like the aviator Polina Gelman, the only Jewish woman to be honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union during World War II, and Josephine Cochrane, who invented the first dishwasher.
Less auspicious is Agrawal’s tendency to slip in progressive homilies that, beyond their narrative discordance, detract from the overall credibility of the project.
In a chapter about lenses, for example, she describes how the camera was “used in many countries by colonizers to exert power over the colonized.” This is true, and rather obviously so, but does it belong here? I had a similar question at the conclusion of an instructive section that capably explained the workings of the breast pump, a device that has been a lifesaver to many families. That passage also succumbs to didactics: “It’s important to remember that it’s not necessary to be a cis woman or to have been pregnant to breastfeed or to benefit from using a breast pump,” Agrawal writes, later adding that “it’s vital that the needs of all types of breastfeeding parents are incorporated into the design.”
It is indeed important to consider the rights and needs of transgender people in many areas of modern life, especially in our age of rising intolerance, but consigning the community to a few virtue-signaling lines seems cheap and cynical. For that matter, the science of gender transition is immensely complex and in some respects unsettled, never more so than when it comes to pregnancy. A science writer should, at least, acknowledge those complexities — especially when writing a book devoted to the very complexity of our world.
Like Conway, Agrawal deals frankly with the challenges of a thoroughly technologized society. “The greater the complexity in the design and materials of an object,” she writes, “the harder it is to separate them out again, meaning they often end up in the landfill.” The pure quartz extracted from the mines of Spruce Pine and turned into crucial smartphone components will, after a couple of years of dutiful neuron-decaying service, end up in an electronics dump in India or Ghana. There, children will pick through the trash, risking their own health in an effort to once more extract the materials that power our world. And we will call it progress.