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Book review – The Rare Metals War: The Dark Side of Clean Energy and Digital Technologies

7-minute read

Normally the sight of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines fills me with hope, but I have my doubts after reading this book. Many politicians, business leaders, and environmental organisations argue that we need to invest in renewables to transition away from fossil fuels and the accompanying carbon dioxide emissions. What is rarely mentioned is that these technologies require the mining of rare metals: chemical elements such as rhenium, lithium, antimony, neodymium, tantalum, and many others that most people have barely heard of. In The Rare Metals War, French investigative journalist Guillaume Pitron sounds the alarm, showing both the environmental impact and China’s chokehold on the market.

I read this book in tandem with David S. Abraham’s slightly older The Elements of Power which I had been meaning to read for ages. Thus, this is the second of a two-part review dealing with these little-known elements that have silently come to dominate our lives.

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Book review – The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age

7-minute read

Tantalum, tellurium, indium, niobium, germanium, dysprosium, rhenium, yttrium, neodymium, titanium, lithium, tungsten, cobalt. These are but some of the many chemical elements that are collectively known as rare metals. You will probably recognize only a few of them, but trace quantities are in products and structures all around you, making things stronger, faster, and lighter. They are used to make smartphones, laptops, and fibre-optic cables; but also cars, airplanes, and military weapon systems; and even photovoltaic panels and wind turbines. We live in the Rare Metal Age, writes natural resources strategist David S. Abraham here.

I have been meaning to read this book for ages. With the recent publication of Guillaume Pitron’s The Rare Metals War, now is the right time. Thus, this is the first of a two-part review dealing with these little-known elements that have silently come to dominate our lives.

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Book review – The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis

8-minute read

This review is a case of one book leading to another. When I read Carl Benedikt Frey’s The Technology Trap, one argument he raised as to why the Industrial Revolution arrived as late as it did, was the resistance to innovation by guilds. But beyond certain vague and probably romantic notions, what do I really know about medieval guilds? And thus I found myself sitting down with The European Guilds, a hefty 645-page book by economic historian Sheilagh Ogilvie, published in The Princeton Economic History of the Western World series. This meticulously argued book crushes the idea that guilds served the common good. Instead, argues Ogilvie, through their profiteering they held Europe in an economic stranglehold that lasted for centuries.

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Book review – Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity

7-minute read

I will happily shoehorn a Monty Python reference into any conversation, but in this case historian Walter Scheidel beat me to it. What did the Roman Empire ever do for us? It fell and never returned – and with it, it paved the way for modernity. That, in one sentence, is the bold idea Scheidel puts forth here. And rather than ask why Rome fell, he has far more interesting questions for you. Why did nothing like it arise ever again in Europe? Why did it arise in the first place? And how did this influence the way Europe came to dominate the world much later? Escape from Rome is a brilliantly subversive book that offers a refreshingly novel look at how Europe got to where it is now.

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Book review – Earth Wars: The Battle for Global Resources

7-minute read

When it comes to environmental issues, certain topics steal the limelight, with climate change, deforestation, and biodiversity loss being prominent examples. However, humans have only so much time and energy available, meaning that other, potentially more pressing problems might not get the attention they deserve. Resource depletion, specifically all the materials we dig up from the Earth’s crust, has always struck me as one of them. It is easy to underestimate just how thoroughly dependent modern civilization is on a vast range of very basic substances. As we continue to extract these at ever-accelerating rates, competition and conflict seem inevitable. Guessing by the title of this book, Australian business journalist Geoff Hiscock seems to think so too. Yet this book was not quite what I was expecting.

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Book review – Cataclysms: An Environmental History of Humanity

6-minute read

What is the price of humanity’s progress? The cover of this book, featuring a dusty landscape of tree stumps, leaves little to the imagination. In the eyes of French journalist and historian Laurent Testot it has been nothing short of cataclysmic. Originally published in French in 2017, The University of Chicago Press published the English translation at the tail-end of 2020.

Early on, Testot makes clear that environmental history as a discipline can take several forms: studying both the impact of humans on the environment, and of the environment on human affairs, as well as putting nature in a historical context. Testot does all of this in this ambitious book as he charts the exploits of Monkey – his metaphor for humanity – through seven revolutions and three million years.

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Book review – Rivers of Power: How a Natural Force Raised Kingdoms, Destroyed Civilizations, and Shapes Our World

7-minute read

There is a vast, arterial power humming all around us, hiding in plain sight” (p. 320). With these words, geographer Laurence C. Smith concludes his engaging and impressive book on the environmental history of rivers. Touching on a multitude of topics, some of which I did not even know I cared about, I found my jaw dropping more than once.

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Book review – The Journeys of Trees: A Story about Forests, People, and the Future

6-minute read

We tend to think of forests as static. Trees, after all, do not move. But that is a perspective foisted upon us by our limbed existence. Science reporter Zach St. George unmasks this illusion in plain terms: when trees die or new ones sprout, the forest has moved a bit. “The migration of a forest is just many trees sprouting in the same direction.” (p. 2)

There is no shortage of books on trees, but this sounded like such an unusual take on the subject that I was utterly stoked when I learned of The Journeys of Trees. A journalist who delves into the palaeontological record to consider the slow-motion of movement of forests over deep time? Get in here!

The Journeys of Trees
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Book review – The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation

8-minute read

The robot apocalypse has become a well-worn trope that will elicit laughter more than concern. But there is a far more direct threat from artificial intelligence or AI: economic disruption. Technology can and has taken jobs away from humans. I first started taking this idea more seriously after watching CGP Grey’s short documentary Human Needs Not Apply. If you enjoyed that video, this book is the must-read follow-up. Economist and historian Carl Benedikt Frey provides a soundly argued and clearly written book on the history of technological revolutions and what lessons these hold for future job security.

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Book review – Tree Story: The History of the World Written in Rings

7-minute read

To figure out how old a tree is, all you have to do is count its rings, and some truly ancient trees grace the pages of this book. But, as tree-ring researcher Valerie Trouet shows, that is the least fascinating thing you can derive from wood. Revealing the inner workings of the academic field formally known as dendrochronology, Tree Story is an immersive jaunt through archaeology, palaeoclimatology, and environmental history. A beautifully written and designed book, it highlights the importance and usefulness of tree rings in reconstructing past climate and linking it to human history.

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