Ever wondered why concrete is poured all over our planet, even for mega projects of questionable value?
I encourage all of you to read this brilliant article “Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth” in the UK Guardian.
The Guardian goes through what kind of impact the excessive concrete has on the ecology:
- If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world with up to 2.8bn tonnes, surpassed only by China and the US.
- … concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet. Our built environment is, in these terms, outgrowing the natural one.
- Half of concrete’s CO2 emissions are created during the manufacture of clinker, the most-energy intensive part of the cement-making process.
- Concrete is a thirsty behemoth, sucking up almost a 10th of the world’s industrial water use. This often strains supplies for drinking and irrigation,
- It also worsens the problem of silicosis and other respiratory diseases.
- even the acquisition of sand can be catastrophic – destroying so many of the world’s beaches and river courses
- The biodiversity crisis – which many scientists believe to be as much of a threat as climate chaos – is driven primarily by the conversion of wilderness to agriculture, industrial estates and residential blocks.
Then these few paras are worth reflecting on:
The politics of concrete are less divisive, but more corrosive. The main problem here is inertia. Once this material binds politicians, bureaucrats and construction companies, the resulting nexus is almost impossible to budge. Party leaders need the donations and kickbacks from building firms to get elected, state planners need more projects to maintain economic growth, and construction bosses need more contracts to keep money rolling in, staff employed and political influence high. Hence the self-perpetuating political enthusiasm for environmentally and socially dubious infrastructure projects and cement-fests like the Olympics, the World Cup and international exhibitions.
Here the article talks about diminishing returns:
But there is only so much concrete you can usefully lay without ruining the environment. The ever-diminishing returns were made apparent in the 1990s, when even the most creative politicians struggled to justify the government’s stimulus spending packages. This was a period of extraordinarily expensive bridges to sparsely inhabited regions, multi-lane roads between tiny rural communities, cementing over the few remaining natural riverbanks, and pouring ever greater volumes of concrete into the sea walls that were supposed to protect 40% of the Japanese coastline.
This bit mentions the cementing of riverbanks and hillsides:
In his book Dogs and Demons, the author and longtime Japanese resident Alex Kerr laments the cementing over of riverbanks and hillsides in the name of flood and mudslide prevention. Runaway government-subsidised construction projects, he told an interviewer, “have wreaked untold damage on mountains, rivers, streams, lakes, wetlands, everywhere — and it goes on at a heightened pace. That is the reality of modern Japan, and the numbers are staggering.”
Perhaps it starts with our obsession in measuring economic performance by using GDP:
GDP is how governments assess their weight in the world. And nothing bulks up a country like concrete.
That is true of all countries at some stage. During their early stages of development, heavyweight construction projects are beneficial like a boxer putting on muscle. But for already mature economies, it is harmful like an aged athlete pumping ever stronger steroids to ever less effect.
Dig a hole in the ground and then fill it?
During the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, Keynesian economic advisers told the Japanese government the best way to stimulate GDP growth was to dig a hole in the ground and fill it. Preferably with cement. The bigger the hole, the better. This meant profits and jobs.
A final note:
According to the watchdog group Transparency International, construction is the world’s dirtiest business, far more prone to graft than mining, real estate, energy or the arms market. No country is immune, but in recent years, Brazil has revealed most clearly the jawdropping scale of bribery in the industry.
As elsewhere, the craze for concrete in South America’s biggest nation started benignly enough as a means of social development, then morphed into an economic necessity, and finally metastasised into a tool for political expediency and individual greed.
All excerpts above from the Guardian article. Do read the whole article.