Concrete | England (1824)

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Concrete placing by David Holt retrieved from https://www.panoramio.com/photo/98637478.

By Sam Medo

 

If people in an urban setting take ten seconds out of their busy day to look around at their surroundings, I am willing to bet that the majority of those people are not making notice of the single most used material in the world.  The single most widely used material in the word is Concrete.  This building material consisting of aggregate, water, and cement makes up a considerable portion of our planet’s landscape. Our daily lives are entangled in the concrete infrastructure, which we use for transportation, work, and everyday activities.  Cities across the world are made up of concrete, and in some of these concrete cites plant life is not seen for miles.  Concrete helps us to understand how human constructed earth has become, especially in the last couple centuries with the advancement of building technologies.  The continuous use and production of concrete are responsible for five percent of the annual anthropogenic global carbon dioxide production.  Concrete use and production is only going to increase in the upcoming years with the continued population growth, leading to more infrastructure.  Concrete helps us to conceptualize the Anthropocene because it represents the human creation of a material that lead to the human creation of environments.  Concrete also helps us to better understand the Capitalocene by illustrating the cheapening of nature and labor.

Bonding substances and concrete like building materials have been used for thousands of years however, concrete as we know it today, has been around since 1824.  In 1824, an English inventor named Joseph Aspdin invented portland cement, which is the main adhesive agent inmodern concrete.  Ever since this invention of portlant cement, concrete construction has soared in the past couple centuries. With population increase and urbanization on the rise, field and forest landscapes transitioned to human-created concrete jungles, where one may see nothing but concrete, asphalt, and steel for miles.  The renovations of past concrete buildings and the continuance of new concrete created infrastructure is inevitable with populations continuing to rise.  In Madison, Wisconsin alone, there are currently 28 active large scale construction jobs, and another 49 jobs still in the planning and design stage.  The global human population in 2010 was about 6.9 billion and it is predicted by the United Nations that the global population could be 10.6 billion by the mid-century.  To accommodate populations, in the fall of 2018, a 14-million dollar parking ramp was finished in Madison, which used thousands of cubic yards of concrete. The continuation of concrete infrastructure is inescapable because of this population increase. Concrete infrastructure is the definition of human-created environments.

Along with concrete infrastructure, the production of concrete is responsible for the human creation of environments.  The main ingredient in concrete is aggregate. This medium-course grained stone is mined throughout the world, in locations close to where concrete is produced.  The mining of aggregate transforms nature by exposing and “opening up” earth that previously has never been exposed.  Mexico’s urban population has increased from 28 to roughly 79 million since the 1970s and this increase in population has a direct correlation to the volume of concrete aggregates extracted from Mexico since the 1970s.  A case study was conducted in Mexico’s Perote Valley and results show that from between 1995 to 2006, aggregate mine surface area increased from181 hectares to 706 hectares.  Previously this land in the PeroteValley was primarily agricultural land, but with the demand for concrete aggregate, this land was transformed to mining land.  This transformation of land, lead to the migration of past farmers to cities in search of employment, adding to the urban population increase in Mexico.  It just goes in one big anthropocentric circle.  Population and urbanization increase leads to the need of concrete aggregate, whose mines transform nature, forcing farmers to add to the urban population increase, and to compensate for the population increase more concrete infrastructure is needed.

About 200 years ago Madison was the center of civilization for the Ho-Chunk people as well as other Native American tribes.  With the forced removal of the Ho-Chunk people and advancements in building technologies, Madison’s landscape was transformed by infrastructure.  In the same time period, similar events were happening all across the world.  In a 1952 advertisement for a concrete garage, it stated, “It will last a lifetime without attention.”   This concrete garage and other human-created concrete landscapes thousands of years down will appear to future archeologists as techno fossils.  Archeologists will discover different forms of concrete infrastructure in forms of bridges, parking ramps, buildings, and roads.  When discovering these concrete techno fossils, it will show future generations how technologically advanced today’s societies were with building technologies. However, it will also show them how that even with all of our technologies we could not create infrastructure out of materials that were more environmentally friendly than concrete.  All of this concrete infrastructure will prove to archeologists that money is more important to the human race than saving the environment. One of the main reasons why concrete is the single most used material on this planet is because it is so cheap, but that material has caused great damage to our planet via carbon dioxide emissions and the stripping of earth from mining.  Even will all these damages on earth caused by concrete, people still chose to use concrete as a primary building material because it is inexpensive.

Previously discussed in this class, Rai Patel and Jason Moore brought to our attention the Capitalocene and the seven cheap things that make up the Capitalocene. Concrete does a perfect job of describing some of those cheap things.  As previously stated concrete is the single most used material on the planet and it is produced very cheaply.  Nature is cheapened by the transformation of land by mining for concrete aggregate.  The capitalistic viewpoint of nature is only useful when it provides us with a commodity, and in this specific situation that commodity is aggregate used in concrete.  This stripping and uncovering of earth from aggregate mining cheapens earth and exploits it for a resource that we should find an alternative to. Expanding on that capitalistic viewpoint of nature and land, people believe that if there isn’t infrastructure to enable people to continue to act as player in the greater scheme of capitalism then that land is wasted.  What I am saying is that urban areas full of concrete infrastructure act as meccas for global capitalism and that concrete infrastructure is the byproduct of capitalism.  People drive on concrete bridges and roads to get to work in a concrete building, which allows them to make money to expand a company.  That growing company then builds a new concrete building, all the while concrete aggregate mining increases to handle the demand of the concrete.  Concrete is entangled in capitalism.

The whole idea behind the Capitalocene is cheapness and finding the cheapest way to produce a commodity. The cheapening of labor is one key component in production of concrete and the creation of concrete infrastructure, the preferred infrastructure type in this capitalistic world.  Going back to the case study in Perote Valley, when the farmers migrated to cities to look for work, many got jobs as general laborers in the urban construction industry, creating concrete infrastructure.  Farmers provided cheap labor because they were in need of a job, so they worked for very low wages.  It is ironic because these farmers were forced to migrate from their homes because of concrete aggregate mining, just to then work in construction to create concrete infrastructure.  With the cheapening of nature and labor come externalities, like pollution from aggregate mining, the production of concrete, and the construction of concrete infrastructure.

It seems that concrete will remain at the top of the leaderboard as the single most used material in the world for many years to come.  The infrastructure area of roads and buildings grew from 30.7 square kilometers to 126.4 square kilometers in Sarjah City of the United Arab Emirates from 1976 to 2016.  This is an increase of 69.9 percent, with respect to the total area and this percentage is only expected to increase with the continuous population growth.  The need for concrete infrastructure is only on the rise and this is result, leads to continued high demand for concrete aggregates.  The earth that we live on is only going to become more and more human-altered as years go on.  It is important to conceptualize how concrete is related to the Anthropocene because it represents the human creation of a material that leads to the human creation of environments, along with helping us to better understand the Capitalocene by illustrating the cheapening of nature and labor.

Work Cited

Al-Ruzouq, Rami, and Khaled Hamad, and Abdallah Shanableh, and Mohamad Khalil. “Infrastructure growth assessment of urban areas based on multi-temporal satellite images and linear features.” Annals of GIS, 23:3 (2017): 183-201. Accessed May 6, 2019. https://www-tandfonlinecom.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/doi/abs/10.1080/19475683.2017.1325935.

City of Madison, “Projects.” City of Madison Engineering. Accessed May 6, 2019. https://www.cityofmadison.com/engineering/projects.

City of Madison, “Contract Number: 7951.” Public Works Contracts. 2017. Accessed May 6, 2019. http://www.cityofmadison.com/business/pw/contracts/docAndSpecs.cfm?ContractNumber=7951.

Cleland, John. “World Population Growth; Past, Present and Future.” Environmental and Resource Economics, 55.4 (2013): 543-554. Accessed May 6, 2019. https://search-proquest com.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/docview/1427344569/fulltextPDF/96890D60C15F461FPQ/1?accountid=465

“Concrete.” In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2018. Accessed May 6, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/technology/concrete-building-material.

Crow, James M. “The Concrete Conundrum.” Chemistry World. 2008. Accessed May 6, 2019. https://www.chemistryworld.com/features/the-concrete-conundrum/3004823.article.

“Ernest Batley Concrete Garage.” 1952. Period Paper.https://www.periodpaper.com/products/1952-ad-ernest-batley-concrete-garage-car-automobile-construction-building-shed-220320-ytm5-023.

Fry, Matthew. “From Crops to Concrete: Urbanization, Deagriculturalization, and Construction Material Mining in Central Mexico.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers,101:6 (2011): 1285-1306. Accessed May 6, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1080/00045608.2011.584289.  

Patel, Raj, and Jason Moore. A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things: A guide to Capitalism, Nature, and the Future of the Planet. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2017.