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Book review: Seven Elements That Have Changed the World, by John Browne

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm

Seven Elements That Have Changed the World
by John Browne
Weidenfeld & Nicolson

It's hard to throw a rock without hitting an object that has changed the world in someone's eyes. Hunt through bookshops and there you will find titles on all manner of purportedly world-changing items: maps, bags, equations, dresses, eruptions, diagrams, shoes, tea cosies, the banana and cod.

They might all be justified. Just as any experience changes the brain, so any product or resource can be said to have changed the world, given a broad enough definition of what it means to change. Perhaps somewhere in the world a publisher may be mulling a book proposal on the global impact of party balloons, paperclips or marshmallows.

But John Browne is on promising ground when he seizes on seven elements for his contribution to the pile. The number is essentially arbitrary, although he admits he can't think of an eighth element that compares in global impact to iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium or silicon.

From the off it is clear greed is a theme. The Spanish conquistadors rampaged through 16th-century Muisca and Inca territories in search of gold, slaughtering native communities along the way. When Gonzalo Pizarro arrived at a village in search of El Dorado's city of gold, locals who weren't helpful were tortured, impaled or burned alive.

The allure of gold lay in its lustre, its refusal to tarnish, and its readiness to be worked. A single gram can be extruded into a wire more than 2km long or beat into a one-square metre sheet. On walking into the Museo del Oro in Bogotá, Browne is strangely entranced by the exquisite objects on display. "There is something calming, even comforting, about being bathed in the glow of gold," he writes.

The conquistadors were no less brutal in their search for silver, but at least this time their quest was based on more than myth. Hacking into the slopes of the 5km-high Cerro de Potosí across the Chaco Boreal in South America, they found spectacular, rich veins of silver. Nearby the mountain a city grew up which made slaves of millions to exploit the resource.

It was not just precious metals that exposed the greed of the powerful. In the chapter on iron, Andrew Carnegie, one of America's most famous industrialists, slashed steel workers' pay. Tensions led to a strike that ended with the workers' union defeated. In the chapter on carbon, John D. Rockefeller mistreated his workforce and was underhanded in crushing opposition to his Standard Oil Company. Both men later gave away great portions of their wealth, no doubt for the good of others, but guilt and a desire to be immortalised were surely factors too.

What should be clear by now is that Seven Elements is not a chemistry book, but an engaging history of how the use of natural resources has underpinned dramatic industrial development. For the best part, Browne is more than convincing. The writing is tight, the historic lessons important.

From iron came better warships. From steel came skyscrapers. Gold transformed currencies, and silver gave us the photographic image, a particular passion of Browne's. Fissionable uranium brought us the bomb and nuclear energy. The weakest chapter is on a strong material: titanium. Without it there would be no Blackbird spyplane from the cold war era and tennis clothes would look less white. Would that matter? Not as much as the loss of silicon, without which modern technology is unthinkable.

This is a memoir too. Browne was chief executive of British Petroleum from 1995 to 2007 and he laces the text with tales from his professional life as one of Britain's foremost business leaders.

At the end of the book, Browne returns to the problem of greed. Something must be done to prevent the excesses of the past, which have so often taken their toll on company employees. The answer, he says, is to legislate well, to put a harness on greed and make it serve the needs of humanity. "The seven elements have always inspired greed," he writes. "Their utility and power appeal to the self-interest in all of us." How true that is.

Guardian News & Media