Is concrete "the most destructive material on Earth"?

3 gorges dam
© Getty Images/ That's a mighty big carbon sink

Concrete Week at the Guardian produces some hard truths.

The Guardian is going to keep me very busy in the next few days; it is Concrete Week, which "celebrates the aesthetic and social achievements of concrete, while investigating its innumerable harms, to learn what we can all do today to bring about a less grey world." This is going to be bigger than Shark Week as they start with the innumerable harms, with Jonathan Watts' article Concrete: the most destructive material on Earth. The first paragraph is scary:

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, the global building industry will have poured more than 19,000 bathtubs of concrete. By the time you are halfway through this article, the volume would fill the Albert Hall and spill out into Hyde Park. In a day it would be almost the size of China’s Three Gorges Dam. In a single year, there is enough to patio over every hill, dale, nook and cranny in England.

It gets worse. We are complaining a lot about plastic, but there are only 8 billion tonnes of it since it was invented; that much concrete is made every two years. We have often complained here about the Carbon Dioxide emitted by concrete, but Watts covers all the ancillary issues that don't get noticed as much (although I am proud to say that we have covered most of them on TreeHugger).

There is silicosis from breathing concrete dust.

There are the killer trucks delivering concrete through cities.

There is the sand mining that is "catastrophic – destroying so many of the world’s beaches and river courses that this form of mining is now increasingly run by organised crime gangs and associated with murderous violence."

But a very interesting byproduct of concrete is how it affects politics.

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.

SNC Lavalin© Guillaume Lavallée/AFP/Getty Images

Watts goes on to talk about Japan, but one need look no farther than Canada, where the government is consumed right now with the SNC-Lavalin scandal, in which there are questions of whether Prime Minister Trudeau tried to protect the nation's largest international pourer of concrete. It could bring down the government.

Watts concludes with a quote from Phil Purnell, a professor of materials and structures at Leeds University, who makes a case for concrete: “The raw materials are virtually limitless and it will be in demand for as long as we build roads, bridges and anything else that needs a foundation.”

But the raw materials are not limitless; we are running out of sand and fresh water. We have to rethink our need for more concrete roads and more underground parking garages and more tall concrete buildings. We have to stop using so much of the stuff.

Is concrete "the most destructive material on Earth"?
Concrete Week at the Guardian produces some hard truths.

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