Tag Archives: Vaclaw Smil

Making Modern World : Materials and Dematerialization


By Vaclav Smil  (2013)

Makingmodernworld Over the course  of time, the modern world has become dependent on  unprecedented flows of materials. Now even the most efficient production processes and recycling may not be enough to result in dematerialization rate.

I am still at the beginning of the book. I think it is a little dry though it does start to explore the history of how organisms use materials.

The use of materials fall into 5 major categories :

1) Rarest to inconsequential category : use collected natural materials as tools. Chimpanzees use blades of grass or twigs to collect termites or small stones and they use stone anvils to crack open nuts.

2) Use of secreted materials to build protective / prey catching structures. Spider silk is one of the most remarkable secreted material, with a tensile strength similar to that of good quality steel.


3) Removal of biomass and man made materials to create remarkably designed structures example from beaver dams to intricate nests. Leafcutter ants (genus Atta) harvest leaves, drag them underground into nests to cultivate fungus. Beavers are active harvesters of wood used to build their dams. Birds’ nests offer the most varied and sometimes spectacular examples of construction using natural materials.


4) Removal and repositioning of soils  and clays (termite mounds, intricate rodent burrow) Some bower birds of Australia and New Guinea attract females using colorful natural objects such as shells, berries, leaves and flowers, but also discarded bits of plastic, metal or glass. Termites are the greatest aggregate movers and users of soils in subtropical and tropical environments as they construct often impressively tall and voluminous mounds that not only shelter the massive colonies, but also provide induced ventilation driven by pressure differences.


5) Extraction of minerals from water, mostly to build ecoskeleton example corals, phytoplankton.  The largest use of natural materials are the marine biomineralizers that are able to secrete the inorganic compounds they produce from chemicals absorbed from water. Great Barrier Reef may be the world’s largest structured built by largest animals.