On the history and future of the world’s most used and most destructive material
Concrete is the most widely used man-made material in the world, and after water, the most widely used resource. From urbanization to mobility to CO-2 emissions - concrete buildings and infrastructures form the often invisible but essential basis of the modern way of life. Over the last century, this fossil material has displaced the use of bioeconomic materials such as wood or clay (the old bioeconomy), and it is the key driver of the earth-historical development that the anthropogenic mass of the world created by human beings outgrows the global biomass of all living matter. At the same time, due to high emissions in the production process (globally 8% of CO2 emissions), resource hunger for scarce sand, and other social-ecological problems the material has been dubbed “the most destructive material on Earth” (Guardian 2019). Since the material is extremely difficult if not impossible to decarbonize, there are good reasons that only a reduction in the demand for concrete can be truly sustainable. This paper analyzes the development and growth of concrete use from a degrowth perspective and sketches ways forwards. Based on historical analysis, business history, and the application of the framework of political ecology, the paper presents trends for the development of cement production, concrete use, carbon emissions, and industry strategies for dealing with the climate crisis and links them to analyses of fossil materials and capitalist growth. And the paper contrasts these with a degrowth approach to concrete. It argues that such a material focus enables applying degrowth theory concretely, making a strong case for the need for material degrowth, and proposing alternative futures beyond techno-fixes that include social as well as technological exnovations and innovations.