Concrete is everywhere. It's also terrible for the planet

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Image: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

In an episode of the animated children's show Peppa Pig, Daddy Pig finds a misplaced library book called The Wonderful World of Concrete. Peppa insists he read it to the kids, so Daddy Pig indulges her, with a disclaimer: "It's not much of a story." He begins: "Concrete is a construction material composed of sand, water and chemical admixtures." At which point everyone falls fast asleep.

Intuitively, this is what a book on concrete should do.

But Mary Soderstrom's Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future does tell a big story. The book is among the latest additions to a non-fiction genre that use everyday things or concepts as windows into our history and contemporary lives. Think Marjorie Shaffer's Pepper: A History of the World's Most Influential Spice or Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Gene: An Intimate History. At their best, such books use their particular window to reveal a new world, or at least the world through new eyes. At their worst, they give loads of facts unmoored from a coherent vision.

I place Concrete somewhere in between: not soporific like Daddy Pig's Wonderful World of Concrete, not mind-expanding like Charles Seife’s Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea.

Alternately illuminating and exasperating, the book traces the history of a material so ubiquitous that most of us take it for granted. Concrete is responsible for the most fundamental structures of our modern world, from roads and highrise buildings to large-scale irrigation projects and hydroelectric dams. Its production and use contribute to crises from the local level of the home to the global climate system. Its manufacture is a major source of carbon emissions, and the changes it brings to landscapes can cause profound ecological and social damage.

If the purpose of books of this kind is to reveal the richness concealed in everything things -- a worthy goal for any writer -- then Concrete does the job nicely. Having read it, I now think about concrete differently -- not as mere background, not just the ground I so often stand on, but something dynamic and inextricable, for good and ill, from our ways of life. The book is packed with juicy tidbits: the Pantheon in Rome, built around 125 CE, has the largest unreinforced concrete dome on Earth; the forests on the Island of Montreal were cleared not for agriculture but to extract lime for cement; "between 2011 and 2013 China used more concrete than the United States had in the twentieth century."

More profoundly, the book offers a major shift in the way we should think of concrete. Before reading it, I would have said concrete is a symptom of our modern attitudes toward building, home, travel and the environment; now I'd say concrete might also, and more accurately, be seen as material on which these attitudes are built. The computer I type on now is powered by electricity, which requires concrete for dams (hydro), production from meltdowns and radiation (nuclear) and smokestacks (gas and coal). Concrete is not just the foundation of our homes: it is the foundation of our housing and city planning, our transportation systems, our food and water systems -- all wonderful things that bring about equally frightening ecological costs. A world without concrete is unimaginable, it turns out, though how many of us would have thought of it that way? For this insight alone I think Concrete would be worth reading.

But the reading is a frustrating experience, largely due to the book's structure. The book is organized into thematic chapters that tell the story of concrete: Earth, Fire, Water and Air. These correspond, roughly, to the geological materials that go into concrete; the heat and water needed to produce it, as well as the heat it gives off as it cures and the water it moves in aqueducts and stores behind dams; and the atmosphere its production fills with carbon and, more metaphorically, the dreams that it allows architects and planners to realize. This structure, however, means that the book flits from place to place, across history, from molecular components to global shipping routes, from personal experience to scientific research. Great non-fiction can accommodate such variety, but Concrete struggles with the task.

A symptom of this struggle: time and again in the book's first half, Soderstrom mentions something only to say it will be discussed later; in the second half she shifts to noting that a given topic was discussed earlier. "As we'll see in Chapter 5" or "as we saw in Chapter 2" form the twin refrains of the book. Similarly, Soderstrom repeatedly mentions her visit to the McInnis Cement plant on Quebec's Gaspé peninsula, the primary focus of Chapter 1. It's a good framing device for Concrete's broader concerns, but it unaccountably returns again and again long after that introductory function has been served.

These overworked connections and the maddening play of deferrable and callback call into question how Soderstrom chose to organize her material. Despite the intuitive appeal of an organization based on Earth, Fire, Water and Air, the result feels messy, often repetitive. Instead of cementing the fruits of her ample research, her approach ends up as a crumbling aggregate of technical details, historical anecdote and autobiographical reflection. A more linear approach might have worked better, perhaps a series of chapters moving from the chemistry up to the global effects of concrete.

A more serious problem with Soderstrom's approach lies in her equivocal negotiation of the good and the bad of concrete. Soderstrom often seems too concerned with giving concrete a fair trial, and so every ill is counterweighted with a benefit. After devoting pages to concrete's substantial contribution to global carbon emissions, for example, Soderstrom offers a counterpoint:

In a paper published in Nature Climate Change in June 2018, a group of economists predicted that by 2035 a rapid transition to clean energy could lead to a major crisis for countries whose raison d'être is producing hydrocarbons. The bursting of this "carbon bubble" would have severe consequences for countries such as Canada and Russia…. Quite possibly this crisis would lead to a drop in construction, and therefore to a lower demand for cement and concrete. 

These are serious economic issues, of course, but do they change the calculus on moving away from oil and gas? Now, I'm not saying Soderstrom is against "a rapid transition to clean energy," but the way she organizes her material creates a dubious and, for me, infuriating equivalence between incommensurable costs and benefits. It may be journalistic neutrality, but I wondered about the appropriateness of such a stance, given how clearly she outlines the global impacts of the concrete industry. The facts don't warrant such even-handedness.

Striking the right balance was, Soderstrom admits, a struggle that "haunted" her as she wrote the book. I would have liked to see more of this struggle; its relative absence from the narrative that runs through the book effectively depoliticizes the profound moral, societal and scientific challenges that concrete puts before us. For whatever reason, Soderstrom seems at pains to avoid taking a stand, allowing the challenges to stand as "a thorny question," "an open question," a "big" question. "How to reconcile despoiling this verdant landscape to make the material essential to the world as we know it," she wonders, and "how to somehow mitigate its impacts on the planet, and protect whatever future we have left?" "Somehow mitigate," a bland phrase, is oddly out of sync with the urgency of "protect[ing] whatever future we have left." Mitigation suggests limiting damage, but it is clear from the book that concrete, like oil, is so fundamental to our way of life that mitigation is not enough.

It is obvious that the necessary changes are radical, structural ones. There are hints through Concrete that such change might be in sight, in the form of scientific innovation. We get passing comments on the possibilities of "green concrete," notably concrete that absorbs rather than releases CO2, but for whatever reason these intriguing considerations have little part to play in the book.

In the end, I wondered if Soderstrom might not have preferred to write something more like The Wonders of Concrete. It is when she shifts from the social and ecological problems to the artistic and social wonders of concrete that her prose shines and her reasons for writing the book are clear. Her more figurative approach to concrete as the, well, concrete embodiment of our dreams and ambitions is passionate and for that reason infectious. Descriptions of Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67, Oscar Niemeyer's buildings in Brasilia, the Grande Arche in Paris and the Golden Dream Bay in Qinhuangdao: these are where Concrete finds its way. I would have preferred to see Soderstrom focus more on the artistry of concrete, leaving politics in the background, than try covering both so equivocally.

Image: Nick Fewings/Unsplash

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