PART’s Perspective: Colonial-Capitalist Concrete Crumbles
Everything That Has A Beginning, Has An End
by Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action-Los Angeles/People Against Racist Terror (ARA-LA/PART)
A study of previous efforts to carry out a fundamental and thorough economic, political and social transformation in the interest of human survival, freedom and dignity teaches us that such efforts, in order to succeed, must be based on facing reality, on a concrete analysis of concrete conditions, as well as a loving, caring commitment to and understanding of the psychological and emotional state and needs of the human beings who make up the society needing change and the elements within that society seeking to change it, or to resist that change.
What can we learn from the concrete analysis of the concrete involved in the recent tragic loss of life in the condominium tower collapse in Miami? Concrete, which is omnipresent in the urban structures and paving, the continent spanning bridges and highways, and the gulag of prisons of contemporary US society, is an amalgam, far less durable than the stone it was meant to emulate. It erodes and disintegrates much faster than any naturally created rock or stone. And not just in Miami, where it is subject to the corrosive effects of heat, moisture and salt air — all increasing above normal ranges because of planetary heating. Everything made of concrete starts falling apart as soon as it is built. What’s more, the main ingredient used to make concrete — sand — is in increasingly short supply.
According to a recent report on CNBC, “Sand is the primary substance used in the construction of roads, bridges, high-speed trains and even land regeneration projects. Sand, gravel and rock crushed together are melted down to make the glass used in every window, computer screen and smart phone. Even the production of silicon chips uses sand. Yet, the world is facing a shortage — and climate scientists say it constitutes one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st century.ˮ Pascal Peduzzi, head of the United Nations Emvironmental Program’s Global Resource Information Database in Geneva told the press, “We just think that sand is everywhere. We never thought we would run out of sand, but it is starting in some places. It is about anticipating what can happen in the next decade or so because if we don’t look forward, if we don’t anticipate, we will have massive problems about sand supply but also about land planning.”
Given the criminal nature of capitalist production generally, it is unsurprising that much of the sand already being used is obtained illegally through environmentally destructive theft. Desert sand is unusable for construction purposes in either asphalt or concrete; it is too smooth and round. Beach sand requires too much processing to remove oceanic salt, which rapidly corrodes and weakens the steel rebar reinforcement supports inside the concrete, making them brittle. The best sand for construction purposes is angular, irregularly-shaped fresh water sand from river beds — and vast quantities are needed not just for new construction, but to replace the aging stock of concrete in existing roads, bridges, prisons and other construction projects. This demand has been met by unlicensed and unregulated dark-of-night dredging that has resulted in the documented undermining of bridges in New York State, and more widely, according to construction expert Oldemar Meneses, in “erosion in rivers and coastlines, and changes in the water’s pH levels. It also threatens marine fisheries, biodiversity and the availability of fresh water. When digging sand, the mud from the riverbed mixes with the water, which hinders animals’ food supply.” He adds that as natural sand is exploited without concern for the wider environmental impacts, “it has become a major global sustainability challenge.”
This unsustainable exploitation of a natural resource for construction doesn’t even take into account its use as feed stock for glass and computer chips. In other words, the office tower skyscrapers of glass and steel, and the computer networks that fill them, along with the massive server farms that make Google and Amazon possible, are built on sand, fully as much as the crumbling condominiums of Miami Beach, and equally as threatening to human life and planetary survival. This is both literally true and an apt metaphor for the nature of settler colonial capitalist imperialism — it is a system based on insurmountable and irreconcilable internal contradictions, built on a lie and an illusion of so-called white supremacy and on the self-destructive basis of exploitation and privatization of nature, poisoning the very soil, seas, stone and air vital to survival. But the long history of failed efforts to overcome this system make it clear that efforts to do so without critically and self-critically addressing white supremacy, internalized and institutionalized racism and settler colonial identification with the empire and the oppressor, are also built on sand and doomed to failure. Only a deeply anti-racist and anti-colonial analysis and commitment, based on a close examination of reality, can overturn this system and replace it with one more suitable to planetary and human survival.
Diagonally across the content from the terrible toll in the Miami collapse is the deadly heat spike in the Pacific Northwest, another product of human hubris and the destructive environmental impacts of capitalist industrial operations and practices. Temperatures of 116 degrees Fahrenheit in Portland OR are unprecedented in recorded history, and are not just the result of a transient weather anomaly, the so-called “heat dome” over much of the western US, but of the global heating caused by runaway carbon gases, CO2 and methane, being spilled into the atmosphere by fossil fuel combustion, agricultural and animal husbandry practices, and the intentional and wild-fired caused deforestation, which are all accelerating.
It was a truism, when I was growing up in NY that “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” Weather reports in NY always gave the wind-chill factor in the winter, when high winds made low temps feel colder, and the THI – temperature-humidity index – in the summer, when dampness made the high temperatures feel more unbearable. But Matthew Lewis, writing on twitter, @mateosfo, informs us that the interrelationship between heat and humidity is real, and poses threats, not just to concrete structures, but to human survival on the immediate short term individual scale. He writes: “We need to start talking about heat, human survivability/habitability, and climate change. Key term to know: The wet bulb temperature: the temperature + relative humidity at which water stops evaporating off a “wet” thermometer bulb. If the air is sufficiently humid (saturated with water vapor), evaporation will no longer cool the bulb, and it gets continuously hotter. This matters for humans, because our bodies regulate heat via evaporation: sweat glands carry heat from body to the skin surface, where it evaporates, dissipating heat into the air. As long as you stay hydrated (and take salts), you can stay cool at high temps. Dry air has essentially infinite capacity to absorb moisture, so, humans can survive in very high temps if the air is dry – though when you get up into the high 120’s and above, you’ll start seeing hyperthermia death among children, the elderly, and infirm. Wet bulb takes a minute to grok because it’s not about heat, per se. It’s about the absorptive capacity of air. A wet bulb temperature in the mid-80s F can, and does, kill humans. Heat waves in the EU & Russia in 2003 and 2010 killed over a hundred thousand people at ~ 82 F. If sweat won’t evaporate, our body temp rises, continuously. And when body temp hits ~108, we’re dead. For a vulnerable person in wet bulb temp, this takes much less than an hour. Up until the last ~ 40 years, wet bulb temperatures were extremely rare on this planet. But now we’re seeing multiple wet bulb temperatures per year in multiple locations. By mid-century, parts of the Southeastern U.S will see weeks of wet bulbs every year. This is quite bad. Thousands of people will die on each of those days. This is an active area of climate science and resilience study: https://research.noaa.gov/article/ArtMID/587/ArticleID/2621/Dangerous-humid-heat-extremes-occurring-decades-before-expected. Many of the places humans currently live on the planet are on their way to being functionally uninhabitable by humans.”
The intersecting and mutually-reinforcing feedback loops of the artificial over-abundance of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere also include rising sea levels, more intense storm surges, and higher coastal humidity, that are eroding beaches, requiring replacement sand and the construction of sea-walls to protect private homes and other infrastructure. Yet another factor we have written about repeatedly is ocean acidification, the absorption of CO2 by the seas that creates carbonic acid and changes the pH of seawater, destroying the phytoplankton at the base of the marine food chain, and bleaching and destroying the coral reefs that provide habitat for an enormous variety of marine life. Simultaneously, run-off from capitalist agricultural pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers create deadly algae blooms and anoxic dead zones in coastal waters fatal to other marine life and human seafood sources. Meanwhile the capitalist parties in the US squabble over how to finance infrastructure repairs without even beginning to examine the nature of the construction or the threats to it. Even the most progressive policy solutions, such as the so-called Green New Deal, fail to really examine, let alone solve, the underlying problems of land theft, resource depletion and toxic impacts on the environment of the so-called American Way of Life.
In addition to an analysis of the objective material realities of this system, we need to understand the subjective factors in human consciousness and the emotions of the people who in our relationships and individual and collective activity make up this and other societies, and cumulatively the impact of human life on the planet. Like water acted on by gravity, or electrons reacting to a difference in charge, humans tend to seek the path of least resistance. Yet more resistance, consciously generated by humans, is what is needed to overcome the pressures and threats imposed on us. How do we marshal that resistance? By using other aspects of human nature, such as the need and desire for affinity, for collaboration, that has evolved along with life, from unicellular microbes to sentient, socially-conscious communicators with a grasp of history and the capacity to shape it, along with our physical environment. We must use that capacity to overcome despair and defeatism. Fear can paralyze, fear can stimulate hate and aggression, but fear is also a well-evolved survival mechanism that can identify danger and stimulate timely collective action, calculated risk-taking that produces strategies and tactics for overcoming threats and problems.
Caring, nurturing and educating are also part of human nature, evolved for the survival of a life form with a long gestation and maturation period and few if any inbred and instinctive behaviors. Humans crave and need connection. Humans are curious, investigative creatures with the power of imagination and the capacity of self-sacrificing love. And as Che Guevara told us, at the risk of embarrassment (also a notably human characteristic), true revolutionaries are guided by great feelings of love. So our path forward must be shaped by both a clear-eyed recognition of the enormous threats posed by the settler colonial capitalist world system we live in, and an aspirational vision of the kind of world we want and need to make, a sense of what we are for that will motivate and enable us to make a break with the identification with the oppressor and of the mental chains that keep us confined and exploited.
Steven Biko of the Black Consciousness Movement in Azania/South Africa under apartheid/colonialism said, “The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the minds of the oppressed.” We must use our hearts to free our minds, and our asses will follow. The poet Richard Lovelace said, in another context in 1649, “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” In this carceral society, in which many of the people reading this are locked in concrete dungeons behind steel bars, and many millions of potential readers more are trapped by our own backward thinking into accepting the idea that competition, hierarchy and exploitation are the natural order of things, it behooves us to remember the reality with which this essay began — that concrete is porous and crumbling.
No empire lasts forever, least of all one built on a lie. The power of the people is greater than the man’s fatally flawed technology.