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.

I got to thinking about all this after reading Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, by my favorite author, the historian Vaclav Smil. Not only did I learn some mind-blowing facts, but I also gained a new appreciation for all the materials that make modern life possible.

This isn’t just idle curiosity. It might seem mundane, but the issue of materials—how much…

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