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Concrete: Civilisational Dependence and an Environmental Disaster

Just over a decade ago, the wild was easily accessible.


A 1953 aerial image capturing the San Fernando Valley during a period of significant construction growth.
A 1953 aerial image capturing the San Fernando Valley during a period of significant construction growth. (Photo: USC Libraries / Corbis via Getty Images / Los Angeles Times)

Living in India’s National Capital Region, one is used to having an overwhelming number of parks in certain residential areas. Many houses, especially in the NCR city of Gurgaon, are often adjacent to a small patch of greenery with trees and a few swings. I remember spending a portion of my evenings in the park in front of my house, observing the minute elements of nature. The grass was unkempt, shrubs formed miniature ecosystems, trees had branches sprawling in every direction, while the fauna thrived. Hordes of insects and a variety of birds exposed the unintentionally well-preserved, diverse pockets of nature in such urban areas.


Today, one enters such a park by walking past a well-secured gate blemished with fluorescent paints, treading on concrete promenades with strict playing areas with little exposed grass carefully bifurcated. Shrubs now shaped into resembling modernist structures, and the diversity of the flora diminished into hosting selective types per aesthetical choices. The diversity of creatures ceased to exist, with common city birds resting on lonely trees. Such parks now boast more cemented and paved areas than natural surfaces.


These pockets of nature happen to resemble the state of the larger, degrading environment.


The material responsible for such a rapid scale of urbanisation is concrete. So much so that a 2019 Guardian report revealed that after water, concrete had become the most widely used substance on the planet. Becoming a symbol for development, concrete progressed as the foundation of humankind’s perception of modernity and civilization, silently but visibly destroying the planet.


Concrete is the one element that binds most of the urbanised world— becoming a key feature of physical spaces, touching almost every sector, from housing, healthcare, and education, to transportation, defence, and government. Concrete more or less affects almost all facets of modern life, allowing us to attempt at colonising nature.


Urban areas worldwide have a significant clustering of concrete structures.
Urban areas worldwide have a significant clustering of concrete structures. (Photo: Flickr)

Something as basic as mental health too, is a victim of concrete. It is a known fact that individuals living in urban areas have far more factors affecting their mental well-being, compared to those living in greener and more open spaces. With a number of prominent agents affecting mental health, concrete, and cemented spaces, are important ones. Published in 2004 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, a study of 4 million Swedes reveals that migration from rural to urban settings has severe and detrimental effects on one’s mental health. I too, recall the relief and comfort afforded to my parents when visiting Santiniketan in my childhood, a significantly greener university-town, where I am originally from, compared to Gurgaon. Also now becoming a playground for relentless concrete generation, frequently erecting cement walls and structures have become a common sight in Santiniketan.


This helps us understand the need for urban green spaces, which have been a critical component of public health and environmental justice. Research by Wolch, Byrne, and Newell (2014) emphasises the challenge of creating "just green enough" cities that prioritise equitable access to green spaces for all residents. As the concrete jungle expands, the loss of natural environments and the decline in biodiversity have resulted in detrimental effects on human and environmental well-being.


Studies have shown that individuals living in concrete-dominated urban areas experience higher levels of stress and reduced psychological well-being compared to those in greener and more open spaces (Wolch et al., 2014). This disparity in access to nature exacerbates existing social inequalities, as marginalised communities often face limited opportunities to engage with green spaces, further compromising their health and quality of life.


While concrete is to blame for laying the foundation for this, it is true that the use, or even the evolution, of concrete as such, was crucial for all humankind. Concrete has allowed for the creation of safe and sanitary spaces for individuals across the world to live and work in. One cannot imagine life today without contact with a concrete surface. One of the primary reasons for its usage is its durability and longevity. Withstanding harsh environments and terrains, concrete made living easier and cheaper. For many, this takes precedence over the sustainability of biodiversity and the health of the environment.


The Palace of Assembly designed by Corbusier in the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh
The Palace of Assembly designed by Corbusier in the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh. (Photo: Dezeen)

Concrete usage boomed in the 20th century, allowing for cheaper alternatives to rebuild sections of the world ravaged by wars and conflict. The persistent construction of cities, dams, recreational spaces, and basic human-made structures are all a testimony of concrete’s ubiquity. This period also saw iconic creations by architecture’s key figures, from Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier, to Zaha Hadid and other notable architects. Concrete was everywhere.


This attachment to concrete, however, is not new. As mentioned before, the very foundations of modern infrastructure are built on concrete. The earliest recorded use of concrete can be traced back to ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians and the Romans. The Egyptians used a primitive form of concrete to build the pyramids—a mixture of mud and straw with water— which primarily acted as a binding agent.


However, it was the Romans who developed a more advanced form of concrete, calling it opus caementicium. Mostly made by mixing lime, volcanic ash and water, concrete was used to build many of the Roman Empire's most impressive structures, including aqueducts, bridges, and the Colosseum. The use of concrete allowed the Romans to build larger and more complex structures than ever before.


Seemingly, concrete not only allowed humankind to create structures and forms unheard of while making it accessible, but it closely tied itself to cultures and became an integral part of societies. In South Asia, one can find unique, ancient water-harvesting stepwells in arid regions where rainfall is scarce, particularly in the Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat.


Chand Baori in Rajasthan
Chand Baori in Rajasthan. (Photo: Travel + Leisure)

These wells were constructed using a combination of stone and brick, as well as concrete made from lime, sand, and jaggery, which is a type of unrefined cane sugar. Here, the jaggery acts as a binder, allowing the concrete to set and harden.


In addition to their functional purpose, stepwells were also important cultural and social spaces. They often featured intricate carvings and sculptures, and many were decorated with brightly coloured tiles and mosaics. The wells were important gathering places for local communities, who would come together to perform rituals and ceremonies.


Modern usage and creation of concrete though, is far more dangerous. There is a reason why when Delhi’s pollution goes up, one of the first (yet late) actions taken by the government in response is the shutting down of all construction sites in the city. Interestingly, in comparison to other “evil” and destructive elements, concrete maintained protection under a seemingly contradictory greenness. When scaled against the perceptive harm caused by the likes of oil and gas, nuclear power, and plastic, concrete did not hold debates in the greater public discourse, with some recent activation of conversation.


Despite its omnipresence and significant influence on urban landscapes, concrete remains somewhat obscured in the broader environmental discourse when compared to other impactful elements. The intricacies of concrete's environmental ramifications, spanning its considerable carbon footprint, involvement in habitat destruction, and contribution to the urban heat island effect, have not yet garnered widespread attention. It is particularly striking that amidst the urgency surrounding critical issues such as plastic pollution, the ecological implications of concrete have only recently begun to receive more thoughtful exploration.


When it comes to the environment, or even one’s well-being, there is no middle ground when discussing concrete. Apart from the mammoth CO2 emissions concrete production is responsible for, and the large amounts of energy it consumes, lime and sand required to make concrete decimate natural habitats – from mountains and rivers to lakes, beaches and such, the result is pure destruction.


The extraction of essential components like lime and sand, vital ingredients in the cement-making process, inflicts severe damage on natural habitats. The quest for these raw materials leads to the devastation of diverse ecosystems, spanning mountains, rivers, lakes, and beaches. Sand mining, in particular, has emerged as a pressing concern, as the insatiable demand for this resource contributes to the erosion of coastlines and the disruption of aquatic ecosystems. The excavation of sand from riverbeds alters the natural flow dynamics, impacting aquatic life and exacerbating the vulnerability of these fragile environments. In essence, the seemingly innocuous act of sourcing materials for concrete production becomes a catalyst for widespread environmental destruction, creating a ripple effect that jeopardises the delicate balance of diverse ecosystems.


Sand mining in the Yamuna river. (Photo: Mongabay)
Sand mining in the Yamuna river. (Photo: Mongabay)

With this, the cement industry alone contributes nearly 8% to global CO2 emissions, with over 4 billion tonnes of cement being produced globally. Concrete, the building material, is generally made using the mixing of cement, water, sand, and rock. This process of mixing materials to make concrete, in contrast, produces less emissions. The production of cement is what primarily contributes to the 8% of concrete’s global emissions. The entire process, in addition, fuels economies and furthers wealth disparity in various regions of the world.


In his book Arme de construction massive du capitalisme (Concrete: Capitalism’s Weapon of Mass Construction), Anselm Jappe discusses how concrete, in addition to its vulgar wealth-generating qualities, has created a cycle of constant economic activity and a loop of never-ending destruction and construction. Modern buildings, as a result of reinforcing concrete with steel, produce an approximate life expectancy of around fifty years. Such a form of planned obsolescence mandates the regular demolition of structures, replacing them with new ones, all while creating employment, boosting incomes, and fuelling economies.


As Jappe argues, this structural system of constant replacement is not beneficial for public finance, or the environment. It simply serves the whims of the top one per cent, satisfying the “fetish of growth year after year”.


Governments have been known to favour the profits of a few over the future health of communities and the world at large. With the pervasiveness of lobbyists and wealth-promising groups, environmentally disastrous projects have been sanctioned, across the world, since the problem began. One such issue exists along the Mekong River in Asia....






 

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