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Book review: Seven Elements That Have Changed the World

Book review: Seven Elements That Have Changed the World

How iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium and silicon have affected history

Seven Elements That Have Changed the World
By John Browne
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Pages: 304
Price: Rs 499

France's invasion of the Ruhr in the early 1920s led to the remilitarisation of Germany, which spurred aggressive moves by Hitler and ultimately led to the Second World War. Coke-rich Ruhr was crucial for fuelling Europe's iron and steel industry.

Politics over control of oil, a hydrocarbon, has led to major wars, starting with the 1973 Yom Kippur War between the Arabs and Israel and later the Iran-Iraq war and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

The splitting of the uranium atom led to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in Japan.

These momentous events resulted in great global changes. At the base of such geopolitics and conflict are some elements whose impact on the course of world history cannot be undermined.

In his book Seven Elements That Have Changed the World, John Browne discusses how iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium and silicon "have stood out as having most powerfully changed the course of human history". Browne, who was Group Chief Executive at BP from 1995 to 2007, weaves his knowledge of the elements with inventions that happened around them and their impact on business, politics, society and the environment in a masterly manner. The book, dotted with anecdotes from his own life, his experiences at the workplace and his meetings with world leaders, makes for an enriching read.

Carbon formed the base of the energy source - coal - that helped spark the industrial revolution. Silver became an essential ingredient in photography allowing us to capture images of history. Silicon is "arguably the most world-changing of all... placing extraordinary computational and communication power in the hands of everyone". Using readily available sand, the human mind has created something that might one day exceed itself, Browne says.

Gold, Browne says, attracts most, often for no apparent reason. "Gold's allure is timeless and we continue to treat it with an almost religious reverence. No currency is tied to it and no trade is facilitated by it but still we want more of it." Indians would know a bit about this lure. But there is a flip side. "Humanity has committed the greatest acts of cruelty in the quest for ownership of gold. Over half a millennium this precious metal has inspired intense greed, madness and violence, driving people to plunder, kill and enslave."

The destructive power of the elements can be gauged from the effects of the atom bomb, or the carbon monoxide emissions that are causing climate change. Browne reminds that "we are not slaves of the elements, we are their masters".

He also makes an impassioned plea for the redistribution of wealth gained through the use of these elements. "In the face of growing inequality, philanthropy remains a vital mechanism for redistributing the wealth that individuals acquire through their use of the elements," he says.

Finally, here is an interesting aside. Guess who pioneered the concept of pension funds and was also was the first to practise corporate social responsibility? Browne says it was none other than the Indian global conglomerate, the House of Tata. "He (Jamsetji Tata) was the pioneer of pension funds, accident compensation and equal rights… A century before Western business had defined corporate social responsibility, enlightened self interest and triple bottom line, he had already got there. Tata knew that consideration of society must be integral to every aspect of operations."