Our Future Is (Literally) Crumbling Before Our Eyes

The sorts of predicaments the world faces -- ranging from over $200 trillion in debt, to our unsustainable addiction to fossil fuels, to our over-stressed ecosystems -- all require that we get deadly serious about confronting them ASAP, and make difficult decisions and trade-offs.

However, our global leaders always seem to opt to kick the can down the road if at all possible. Short-term thinking and near-term priorities dependably get precedence over doing the right thing for the future. Tomorrow’s generations are thrown under the bus by selfishly motivated actors today.

As I’ve put forth over and over again: we’re simply not going to make it unless we get much more serious about our efforts than we have been to date. Yes, it’s a wonderful thing that Elon Musk is building sexy electric cars; but even a single minute spent with a pencil, paper and the aggregate energy statistics on transportation will reveal that there’s an enormous gap between where we currently are and where we need to be.

Most will never spend that minute; which is why I continue to do what I do.

For example, many people wave their arms lazily at the statistics for wind-generated electricity and never bother to ask if its current growth rates can be sustained. Or wonder just how tremendously massive the scale of the effort will need to be to meet any realistic sustainability goals.

In a prior companion piece to this article, I quoted a study which determined that to simply meet the wind power goal put forth in the recent Paris accord, the world would have to massively upshift from installing 37 wind towers per day currently to more than 1,300 per day by 2028.

Can we do that? Maybe. But not without a maniacal commitment to making it happen. And that’s the thing: the world is instead hoping that somehow ‘the market’ will deliver sufficient wind power in time. Given the state of the global financial system -- with its more than $200 trillion(!) in debt -- is that really something we want to leave to hope?

But leaving the economic and political issues of that challenge aside, I’d like us to focus on the more practical issues of the energy investment required to build out a new energy infrastructure, not to mention the longevity and durability of the components we'd be installing.

I’ve always found this time-lapse video of a single wind tower installation mesmerizing. The skill on display is amazing: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84BeVq2Jm88

Here’s a brief summary for those of you too busy to watch this construction process right now: Diesel, diesel, diesel, reinforced concrete, diesel, petroleum, diesel.  That is, installing a wind tower like this requires a huge amount of fossil fuels to accomplish. 

To focus in further, watch from the 45-second mark to one minute.  What you’ll see there is 96,000 pounds of reinforcing steel, and 53 cement trucks used to pour the windmill's base.

Which brings us to an overlooked and very important part of the story: reinforced concrete. If the pyramids are a lasting testimony to the durability and long-term thinking of the ancient Egyptians, then reinforced concrete will be modern society’s opposite statement. A legacy of short-term thinking and a disposable mindset.

This article does a wonderful job of laying out what I mean:

The problem with reinforced concrete

June 17, 2016

By itself, concrete is a very durable construction material. The magnificent Pantheon in Rome, the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, is in excellent condition after nearly 1,900 years.

And yet many concrete structures from last century – bridges, highways and buildings – are crumbling. Many concrete structures built this century will be obsolete before its end.

Given the survival of ancient structures, this may seem curious. The critical difference is the modern use of steel reinforcement, known as rebar, concealed within the concrete. Steel is made mainly of iron, and one of iron’s unalterable properties is that it rusts. This ruins the durability of concrete structures in ways that are difficult to detect and costly to repair.

While repair may be justified to preserve the architectural legacy of iconic 20th-century buildings, such as those designed by reinforced concrete users like Frank Lloyd Wright, it is questionable whether this will be affordable or desirable for the vast majority of structures. The writer Robert Courland, in his book Concrete Planet, estimates that repair and rebuilding costs of concrete infrastructure, just in the United States, will be in the trillions of dollars – to be paid by future generations.

Steel reinforcement was a dramatic innovation of the 19th century. The steel bars add strength, allowing the creation of long, cantilevered structures and thinner, less-supported slabs. It speeds up construction times, because less concrete is required to pour such slabs.

These qualities, pushed by assertive and sometimes duplicitous promotion by the concrete industry in the early 20th century, led to its massive popularity.

Reinforced concrete competes against more durable building technologies, like steel frame or traditional bricks and mortar. Around the world, it has replaced environmentally sensitive, low-carbon options like mud brick and rammed earth – historical practices that may also be more durable.

Early 20th-century engineers thought reinforced concrete structures would last a very long time – perhaps 1,000 years. In reality, their life span is more like 50-100 years, and sometimes less.

Building codes and policies generally require buildings to survive for several decades, but deterioration can begin in as little as 10 years.

(Source)

The main issue is simple: putting in steel reinforcing bars lowers the cost and weight of installing reinforced concrete, but at the severe expense of reducing the lifespan of that concrete -- from millennia to perhaps a hundred years, and sometimes far less.

Steel corrodes (rusts). When it does, it expands and leads to something you’ve seen but perhaps not recognized: concrete cancer.

(Source)

In every single reinforced concrete structure, silently behind the smooth exterior, the concrete is breaking itself apart due to the corroding steel inside.

Dust To Dust

What all this means is that literally everything you see today that’s made of concrete will need to be replaced within a hundred years of its installation.  Every bridge, every building, every roadway…all of them.

They’re just rotting away from the inside, silently and relentlessly.  When the rot progresses far enough, it leads to something called ‘spalling’, which is when the surface of the concrete crumbles away to reveal the rusted steel beneath.

Once you notice this, you’ll see it everywhere: 

Of course, it’s true that anything you build will erode over time and require maintenance and care to provide longevity. The problem with reinforced concrete is that it’s extremely difficult to remedy once it’s poured because the affected parts are inside and hard to access.

So it’s nearly universally true that everything poured from concrete over the past century, as well as most of what is still being poured today, is fated to have a very short, very disposable lifespan.

Why This Matters

So let’s travel forward just a few short years into the future. There we find hundreds of trillions of dollars more of global debt, even greater sums of unfunded liabilities, much more expensive fossil fuels (as explained in this recent podcast with Art Berman) -- all competing with a crumbling concrete-built environment that will have to be torn down and replaced.

Where the article above concludes that trillions of dollars will need to be be spent just in the US alone to replace its concrete infrastructure, that number will be at least an order of magnitude higher for the entire globe.

And we don’t get much incremental benefit for the cost of replacing a crumbing piece of infrastructure. When you tear down a bridge and replace it you still have one bridge performing the services of one bridge. Sure, you occupy a number of people in the construction and manufacturing trades for a while, but you don’t get any added value beyond that. It’s not the same as putting in a new bridge at a new location to open up a new geographic area for greater economic activity.

You just get your bridge replaced.  One for one: an economically neutral exchange that costs a lot of money.

My larger question here is this: Can all the competing future demands even allow all of the current concrete infrastructure to simply be replaced, let alone expanded?

What if there’s not enough energy for that task, plus the demands of feeding and sheltering and defending ourselves?

It's my strong belief that we’ll regret the short-term mentality that led us to trade durability for lower cost. Furthermore, I contend that competing future demands will prevent us from replacing all of our decaying infrastructure with similar copies.

Either they won’t be replaced at all because we cannot afford to do so (see: Detroit) or we'll have to bite the bullet and begin installing truly durable structures that won’t simply tear themselves apart from the inside in a few short decades. Which will likely be a lot more expensive to build.

Conclusion

Hopefully I’ve opened your eyes to the folly of building our society atop a foundation with an expiration date.

Reinforced concrete structures are crumbling all around us, something that's immediately obvious once you begin to look for it for yourself. In most cases, it isn't poor construction practices that are to blame, but simple chemistry and the decision to use steel as a reinforcing agent. The very best construction company in the world will still see their efforts end in ‘concrete cancer’ sooner or later.

There are some newer ways of slowing or mitigating this effect, but those aren't always used. In my observation, more often than not they're simply not deployed.  Steel is laid down, usually with rust already showing upon it, and then the concrete is poured over it. And that’s that.

This disposable mindset is rooted in the false assumption that we’ll always have abundant surplus energy to use. Wasteful practices are not a problem if you always have access to abundant surplus energy. Otherwise, as in the case we're finding ourselves in, they bring tragedy.

Perhaps that tragedy will be many years in the future. But its inevitability is assured.

If we were thinking about all of this clearly, we’d not be pouring wind tower bases using reinforced concrete. Instead, we'd build pads that would be durable for centuries, because presumably we’re investing in wind power for the very, very long haul.

In the end, isn’t there something terribly ironic about making a future-betting ‘investment’ in wind upon a base of reinforced concrete that is, by definition, destined for a short, disposable life?

That alone says much about just how un-serious we really are. And how out of integrity our actions are with the very premise of sustainability.

~ Chris Martenson

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/our-future-is-literally-crumbling-before-our-eyes/

Good article, this! Its coming full circle - everything around us has, in some form or the other, become redundant and seems to be crumbling. I wish there were scientific mathematically backed solutions/formulae for fixing the banking and financial sectors. New ways are also around the corner but the transition phase is going to make life tough for a whole generation.

The creative juices have been surging through the body recently. It is very hard to resist the temptation to build  even knowing that a permanent dwelling will attract a penalty in rates and taxes.
But how to convince the petit Bureaucrats at the council chambers that a reinforced concrete raft slab is not the only way to go? They have so little exposure to any alternative constriction methods. 

It is obvious to me that I should build with massive Pisé walls. (Ramed earth.)

The art of the bureaucrat is to make the possible impossible. 
 

In the next town over (Greenfield MA) they recently put in a new high school.  The hue and cry from the parents and teachers was that it was long past time for a new building.
After all, the 'old' one was built in late 1960's!!

Everyone just accepted that as a perfectly good argument and moved on.

As far as I know, nobody ever mentioned that a building with a 40-50 year life span (essentially a disposable building) was unacceptable.  Nobody proposed spending even more on this go round to build something that would last longer.  Everyone is accepting of the fact that 'buildings just fall apart' and need to be regularly replaced.

Nobody has traveled to Europe, apparently, and seen buildings from the 1200's still in daily use.

At $66 million dollars I would have wanted to see a new high school go in that would last until the year 2816.  Virtually nobody else thinks like that at the moment.

The extraordinary mistake being made here is the squandering of current available energy and resources to build things that will need to be replaced in 2066.  Life will be very different then, and it's a pretty solid bet that energy resources will be vastly more expensive and difficult to come by.

I remain confused as to why this is such a hard concept to get across.

Here's a partial list of things that will be in competition with that eventually decrepit high school for attention:

Chris provides a very prescient outlining of the future we face as our infrastructure and buildings crumble to dust. I submit that this is as much an outcome of our perverse economic models as our shortsightedness, as we always put short term profits in front of long term sustainability.
Assuming an anemic 1.4% growth rate for the next 50 years would mean that we should have to double the infrastructure buildout, reinforced concrete use in this case, during that time. This is the all too familiar exponential growth function. We will have to use more concrete in the next 50 years than we have used in all of time beforehand. That in itself is problematic given all of the energy, capital and resource issues that we face but at least it holds the possibility of a true economic return on investment.

However, as laid out by Chris, we will have to replace all of existing structures during the next 50 years (or less) because it is rapidly decaying around us. That means, to truly have the expected ´growth´ in our infrastructure we will need to build twice as much of it as would be anticipated for that 1.4% annual expansion to happen. In other words we would need to build pour twice as much reinforced concrete in the next 50 years as has been in history to date. Can we do that? If not, the true growth is going to suffer even as we pour more and more concrete.

The perversion is that our gold standard GDP metrics cannot tell the difference between building new infrastructure and replacing decaying roads, bridges and buildings. Any idiot can see the difference in benefit between having two bridges and paying for the same one twice but our economic metrics can´t. It is just consumption and more is better.

This is the physical manifestation of declining returns on investments. The Romans used to invest in a new road or bridge and voila, they had ´more´ infrastructure to add to their empire and growing economy. Heck, their roads are still in use today! They paid more per mile up front but once in place they effectively had permanent infrastructure. We have done things on the cheap and now have to pay twice as much to build a new mile of road or just as much every year to maintain the roads we have. This is great job/profit security for a few industries but a catastrophic miscalculation for a nation. Making matters worse is that we have not been doing the upkeep on the infrastructure we have for decades so we are going to be increasingly hard put just to maintain what we have in place. There will be precious little left for ´new´ expansion.

 

 

At one level, I could wish to unknown how short the lifespan of reinforced concrete is.
I travel mostly by car these days.  Having a metal knee, flying requires me to submit to unreasonably invasive search procedures by the TSA.  While the search procedures themselves are perhaps not unacceptable to me, what it says about my true "freedom" I find unacceptable.  I despise the "Patriot Act" with every breath I take.  "Land of the Free?"  If you believe that, I've got a steel reinforced concrete bridge I'd like to sell you.

Anyway, I travel mostly by car these days.  If I travel any direction but North from where I live, I get to see vast complexes of wind turbines and we are only getting started.  I have to say that a few of them are not all that offensive to look at.  However, the number in place has already exceeded the "esthetic barrier."  They have already become an eyesore overall and, as I said, we are barely getting started.

 

Ok, that's enough reality for one morning, at least before I'm fully caffeinated.  I believe I'll close this browser down and digitally kill a few aliens for a while.

Chris,
I don't think the comparison you make between the 13rd century and now is accurate.

Back then, the issue of money was as acute as it is today (May be more since they did not invent money printing at the time). So, the decision based on cost was as true as it is today. The few building techniques options that were available at the time were almost binary: good vs. no good. It happens that the good was really good, and the bad really bad. Today, thanks to technology, we have much more options. Ranging from the really good to the really bad and an infinity of qualities in between.

Back then they choose the best comprimise between quality and cost (I can't imagine a king not considering cost for a cathedral that could bust its state budget). Exactly what we do today. The difference is that today the crossing point between good enough and cost is much lower than in the 13rd century (or another time).

Their good job was very lengthy to complete. Just see how long it took to build one cathedral: 100 years? 150 years? 200 years?

In conclusion, it is hard to compare these two times because of very different conditions even if decision making was following the same logic. Today we have more options to lower cost and get good enough quality for those who decide (50 years is usually longer than their professional life expectancy).

Otherwise, I agree with the article. When I was in Paris I lived in a building built in the 1700s (Flagged as an historical building). It isn't a fancy building. With good maintenance, it is still standing today, in good shape (no bowing walls, perfect staircase, etc…) and relatively comfortable (Insulation is not at its best) regarding Parisian winters and summers

                 

One more point: Here in Quebec they use green-painted rebar for highways. I guess this is a coating designed to prevent (or delay) rust. No idea for how long… Concrete highways last longer than asphalt.

60 years ago, the Champlain bridge (Crossing the St-Lawrence river in Montreal) cost 60 millions CAD. It is now at end of life mostly for its concrete part. The new one will cost between 3.5B and 5B thanks to inflation, corruption, heavier processes and regulations. Will it last 10 times longer? (I take in account doubling cost very 20 years). US is certainly facing the same increase in cost.

Regards

JM

Hi JM,
The green on the rebar is an epoxy coating intended to prevent rust. It adds some cost and unless perfectly installed without nicks and so on, will also break down. When the bar is cut, the ends are seldom covered either.

Additionally, building codes are now such that it is very difficult to use concrete without rebar in that you would need to make your concrete design so that all elements of the concrete were always in compression. The steel is intended to resist the tensile forces within a structure.

Coop

It is not like the technology is not available. See www.basalt-rebar.com 
No worries about nicks, uncoated ends; higher tensile strength and stronger than steel, same coefficient of expansion as concrete, no rust, etc.  

Hi Coop,
Thanks for the details.

In conclusion, since these prefabricated rebars are transported by truck in piles (shake, shake, shake), then dragged all over the construction site (scratch, scratch, scratch) before their final place (aahhh, finally…), the coating could be so damaged that its real protection is not what's expected. On top of that considering the immense temperature swings between winter and summer (In Quebec, of course), the epoxy will eventually unstick from the steel and the concrete (different thermal expansions for different materials), unless it is not too hard and brittle.

Well, not perfect, but may be still better than just plain steel.

This pdf shows a different alternative. On the long run we will see which one is better.

 

Hmm.  I guess those accountants aren't so stupid after all.  Here I was, imagining that depreciating the structure over 27.5 years was a big scam that just enabled me to take a big, fat, undeserved deduction every year.  What could go wrong with concrete?  Now come to find out…that depreciated structure may very well need a complete rebuild after 40-50 years.  Holy crap.
Sigh.  Just once, I'd like things to be actually better than we expected them to be.

Maybe I'll go back and look at gold prices.

There.  That makes me feel better.

 

I have a friend from Germany who bemoans the look of 200+ year old houses with solar panels–whole towns worth, not just a few here and there and then every hill top seeing one of the spinning bird snatchers to generate more electricity…  If 'x' amount of diesel is used to build Germany's 25 year life span infrastructure and the USA is mainly building new bridges and schools to use our share of currently cheap diesel, then who is going to have cheap electricity to power their 'old' school in 20 years?  Gail Tverberg jumps into the middle of this dilemma with her excellent article on the Physics of Energy and the Economy https://ourfiniteworld.com/2016/02/08/the-physics-of-energy-and-the-economy/
Bottom line, the economy is energy flows.

So what is the best way to 'spend' our stored sunlight (diesel)?  More schools and bridges to maintain in a world that won't be needing them so much in 25 years, or a shot in the arm for our electrical generation for 25 years, or how about a third option not on most people's radar–build a building with human and animal energy that will last for 500 years.  Anybody out there willing to run the EROEI on the above energy investments?  It's too many apples and oranges for my calculator, but in the broad sweep of the three I would want to land somewhere between #2 and #3 options, not #1

I, however, don't speak German and with family connections here in the USA will plan to ride out the malinvestments and the consequent unecessary hardships, AND hopefully being able to prepare the others I love to be resilient enough to ride the roller coaster down and not jump off too soon in the descent.

On a more practical note, I daily drive my Prius down an alley that is poorly maintained (at 5 mph) and wonder how long I could drive this 'green' car on poorly maintained highways.  I'm thinking that the next vehicle will need to be more offroad–like a mountain bike!

Just another example of modern day stimulus programs.  They work so well since early 1990's.

it looks to me like pictures 1 and 9 are identical; they are splice girder bridges on artistic piers perhaps?
Picture 6 is a segmental bridge. I’m thinking maybe that one is a Figg Engineering project.
Picture 3 looks like it might be a double-tee concrete parking deck on a steel frame.
The last picture looks like it is possibly a precast hollow core apartment project.
A lot of these may last longer than 100 years. Some may only last 30. A lot of factors determine how fast they will wear out. If a high-chromium steel is used in the bridge – Virginia, for example, has shifted to entirely MMFX – the bridge well may be much slower to degrade. Sometimes the steel is stainless, as for some Navy projects, but that is only good in oxidizing environments. Stainles can corrode away in months in an anoxic saline environment.
Other factors also come into play: the chloride content of the grout has a lot to do with the rate of rusting. The alkaline pH can cause faster rusting. If I remember correctly, the American Concrete Institute has a yard full of samples of various mix designs, specifically to determine what decays and what doesn’t. Armed with that knowledge, bridges can and do get constructed to last longer. Prestressing the bridge (such as is done for the splice girders or double-tees) and post-tensioning the bridge (as for the segmentl AND the splice girder) can increase the lifespan. The prestressing will last longer; the bost-tensioning can be replaced without replacing the whole bridge.
Likewise, the exposure to elements helps determine longevity. If a building structure is protected from the elements, it is unlikely to decay as fast as an exposed bridge.
So by now, most bridges (and I would expect, buildings) come with a design life. Thus, the states can sculpt their budget layout, to make sure that costs don’t hit it all at once.

Interesting basalt rebar DRS. 
If we combine that with bio-cement and 3D printing we will have cheap, long lasting buildings. 

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sporosarcina_pasteurii

And then we could use genetic engineering to create Monster bamboo and live in that. The next house could be growing from seed right outside. . Natural phosphorescent walls with parasitic fruits growing inside.

That really would save on housework, cooking, shopping and farming.

Barring the giggles. 

Incredulity is not an argument. 
 

I am wondering if the same concerns hold true for residential home construction with Insulated Concrete Forms? Is more care taken with the steel reinforcement when involved in residential construction? I have heard this method of building touted as a very durable and long-lasting way of building, so I am wondering how it compares with commercial construction.

Hi Yagasjai,

I have been designing and constructing ICF buildings since 2003 and have about 35 structures completed. Most are solar homes with radiant heating placed in a raised concrete pan deck floor system. The under floor space (sometimes called a crawl space) is used for cooling.

I have often stated that I think the lifespan of a home constructed in this fashion would be about 1000 years assuming that the roof is maintained. My personal (belief) is that structural concrete placed within an insulated covering and sheltered from direct contact by water (such as a bridge) will last a very long time. I often have used the Pantheon as an example of the longest continually occupied structure in the world. (I am sure there are others less well known)

But a significant issue is whether the concrete is designed in compression only (such as the Pantheon) or whether it is being used in tension as well. Modern design procedures and building codes all assume that the concrete is being used to resolve compression and tension loads.

Concrete is great in compression and lousy in tension. Steel is the reverse. Combining them allows for a lot of creativity in their use. The risk is described by Chris in his article and the big take away is the difficulty in making repairs which is usually called demolition.

Many bridges could be designed as concrete arch structures which are in compression. They look very nice and are more expensive to construct … and will last much longer. They can also be made of stone such as the Romans engineered.

I have long been considering ICF, more specifically the USS-Panel.com system. My feeling about it is that a foam-surrounded concrete house is still subject to every kind of attack, whereas a foam-centered system may last longer.
The shotcrete system also seems reasonable to me for application… but maybe I’m wrong; maybe it’s weaker or more pervious. Do you have any opinion on that?
What kind of system do you prefer?
And in what part of the country do you operate? I’m in the Hampton Roads Va area.
My one other takeaway is that I think I may have a way to embed prestressed concrete in the whole system, or maybe even make a 3-dimensionally pretressed; I’ve tried it out once, partially failing and partially succeeding. I think I know what to do to completely succeed.

A good intuitive feel for the energy used to make steel can be seen here.
https://youtu.be/mRA6RY2o9Lg