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Grappling with Growth by the Gigaton

Monday, June 23, 2014

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China has used more cement in the last three years than the United States used in the entire 20th century.

That jaw-dropping fact—and how it happened, and why it matters—are at the heart of Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization, a new book by historian Vaclav Smil, professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba.

China used 6.6 gigatons of cement from 2011 to 2013, while the United States used 4.5 gigatons of cement from 1901 to 2000, Smil reports, citing data from the U.S. Geological Survey and other sources.

And yet, though the number is huge, that statistical snapshot—of one material, in one country, in one three-year period—is just one indicator of the stunning rate of growth worldwide, and the materials needed to sustain that process.

Vaclav Smil via

Smil and others say it is a snapshot worth contemplating.

(For a remarkable picture China's growth in action, see this animation created by The Atlantic, showing Shanghai's development since 1987.)

Living in a Material World

Smil's book has captured the attention of Microsoft's Bill Gates, among others, for its attention to the typically-unsung world of steel, concrete and other materials; for its questioning of the trade-offs in material consumption; and for its implications for future development.

"The most important material in terms of sheer mass in our civilization is cement made into concrete," Smil says in a video about his book posted by Gates.

"To me, this is the most stunning number in the whole book, that the Chinese poured into their buildings and roads and highways, as much concrete in just three years as the United States in one century."

(Smil uses both cement and concrete fairly interchangeably.)

SUVs and Soda Cans

Smil challenges the notion that the world is "dematerializing" and conserving resources in the process. For example, he says that American cars were getting about 13 miles per gallon in 1972. Today, American cars get about 27.5 miles per gallon.

thegatesnotes via youtube

Vaclav Smil discusses how the world is using its concrete and steel, and why that matters.

But, Smil notes, the percentage of regular cars on the road has declined sharply, replaced by much heavier SUVs, vans, trucks and other large vehicles.

Factoring that in, the average U.S. vehicle weight has gone from 1.1 tons in 1972 to 1.7 tons now. "So as a result, there's no saving of anything, really," he says.

He makes the same case for a variety of materials. A soda can, for example, weighed 19 grams in 1980. In 2010, it weighed just 12 grams, he reports. However, the number of cans produced more than doubled in the intervening generation, from 42 billion to 97 billion.


Cars are lighter than a generation ago, but the popularity of SUVs and other large vehicles has increased the overall per-vehicle weight on the roads, says Smil.

In the end, Smil says, the world used 1.1 billion kg of aluminum to make cans in 2010, compared with 817 million kg in 1980.


Gates, who blogs about Smil's book in "Have You Hugged a Concrete Pillar Today?" notes that technical advances have made manufacturing of steel, cement and other major industrial products more efficient than ever.

On average, Gates says, "making a ton of steel today takes a third as much energy as it did in 1950, and produces 10 percent less carbon."

Still, Smil contends that China, India, the Middle East and Africa are following a size- and quantity-based U.S. and European development model that cannot be sustained.

"We are talking about the hundreds of millions of people who still are basically at the very beginning of that global material consumption rise," says Smil.

He calls instead for new model that promotes "quality and longevity" over "quantity and short lives."


Tagged categories: Cement; Concrete; Construction; Raw materials; Steel; Technology

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (6/23/2014, 8:43 AM)

Yes, we are often making items more efficiently and ending up increasing resource consumption in the process. This is most commonly called the Jevons Paradox: - if you make a resource cheaper, it often becomes more widely adopted/used, increasing consumption.

Comment from Jim Johnson, (6/23/2014, 11:01 AM)

I notice that in the comparisons stated above there seemed to be no inclusion of the amount of recycled materials. Be it soda cans or steel or other items, much of what we consume today is recycled materials. But beyond that, what is so wrong about resource consumption? I reside in the middle of a forest that grows over 500 million board feet of timber every year, yet only about 10 million board feet is allowed to be harvested. The remaining 490 million feet goes to waste, falls, rots, generates huge amounts of carbon, and fuels forest fires that kill 10's of thousands of animals and destroys the seed trees that parent regrowth. The same is true of natural gas and oil. We have enough in the earth for almost 1000 years of consumption, so what is wrong with utilizing the energy resources we have available?

Comment from peter gibson, (6/23/2014, 11:37 AM)

We must use the energy resources we have on hand, and dismantle this green energy feel good nonsense. Take wind energy... a real blight on Mother Earth.

Comment from Tony Rangus, (6/23/2014, 12:41 PM)

What is interesting, is that there is no mention of the amount of greenhouse gas (CO2) that is produced when making the constituents of concrete. Making cement generates significant amounts of CO2. Take a look at the articles promoting "Green Concrete" and the numbers showing CO2 generation. Where are the world environmentalists who regularly piss & moan about coal fired plants, tropical forest deforestation etc. Probably because China will give them a BIG rasberry.

Comment from David Johnson, (6/23/2014, 3:35 PM)

Stunning. I’ve been around for a while....I am stunned. I am reminded of a quote by General Eisenhower when he was asked how the inferior American Sherman tank defeated the superior Nazi Tiger tank. Eisenhower said "quantity has a quality of its own". The American fielded 10 Shermans to every Tiger. The Tiger would take out about 7 Shermans before they knocked the Tiger out. I wonder what its going to take to knock out a dragon?

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