Concrete: the material that defines our time


Centuries of human history were often named after the materials that our ancestors ruled at that time: stone, bronze or iron.

If future archaeologists do the same for us, what material could they choose to define the 21st century? Silicon? Plastic? Both are candidates who make the world for better and for worse. But if the decision is based solely on the scale, then there can only be one answer: We live in the age of concrete.

There are few man-made substances on earth that are so ubiquitous. Specifically, the philosopher-ecologist Timothy Morton calls a “hyperobject” – something that is so enormous and widespread that it cannot be fully viewed with our mental faculties. If one tries to picture the totality of the concrete in the world in the mind’s eye, one quickly realizes that this is impossible.

However, Emily Elhacham of the Weizmann Institute of Science and colleagues recently tried to try it out. Their goal was to better understand the influence of humanity during the Anthropocene by summarizing the weight of all inanimate, man-made objects on earth. As part of their calculations, they found that concrete makes up about half of all man-made things – the largest category of anthropogenic material. And if its growth continues, sometime around 2040 it will exceed the total weight of the earth’s biomass.

Try to imagine it The In the mind’s eye: A day is approaching when there will be a greater weight of concrete on earth than every single tree in every forest, every fish in every sea, every farm animal in every field and every person breathes, walks, lives just.

How is this scale to be understood? If we encounter a granite or limestone outcrop protruding from the surface, its presence may indicate a much deeper and larger bedrock below. We can take the same approach with a single concrete building, a single wall or a single concrete slab – each individual instance can only be viewed as the local appearance of a material with an invisible and unimaginable geological range.

In this edition of the BBC Future’s Anthropo-scene photo series, we have decided to view a selection of specific “outcrops”. Any visual example from around the world can help us understand the material – and our relationship with it – a little more clearly.


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