From the Series: An Anthropogenic Table of Elements
Cement has a good claim to being the first Anthropocene element. Through the alchemy of cooking limestone, humans redirected rivers, leveled mountains, extended shorelines, transformed sea beds, produced new landmasses, and altered the planet’s atmospheres.1 Cementitious earthworks accelerated other anthropogenic environmental changes by expanding fossil fuel extraction and facilitating automobility. Urban construction has transformed weather patterns and intensified heat. Through cement, humans harnessed the ability to act at the speed of Earth.
Writing from the vantage point of Colombia, Michael Taussig (2004) links histories of cement and cocaine to reveal how both materials generate speed. Taussig traces his thinking back to the Roman architect Vitruvius, who noted that by harnessing the original four elements (air, earth, fire, and water) humans created something that was “like stone but malleable” (Taussig 2004, 161). As infrastructure’s infrastructure, cement became the cheap and flexible basis of modernity’s logistics, its aesthetics, and its speed.2
Cement’s capacity to generate Earth speed becomes visible when we trace the material’s origins and trajectories in specific places. For example, the second decade of the twentieth century was a crucial turning point in Thailand’s environmental history. In 1913, the Siam Cement Company was founded through partnerships between the Siamese monarchy and Danish industrialists. At roughly the same time, canal construction in Bangkok ceased, signaling the city’s reorientation from aquatic to terrestrial modes of existence.
The city’s shift from water to land was part of a larger spatial reorganization of the state’s economy and politics. Across the twentieth century, the country’s economy shifted from agrarian to industrial, its population moved from rural areas to cities, and its environment became increasingly commodified. Bangkok became the country’s political and economic center, with no other city coming close in terms of population, wealth, or influence. The environmental effects of this uneven development became wrapped up in the democratic aspirations among poor and provincial citizens, as struggles over resources, land, and rights undergirded contested claims to political belonging.
These transformations were linked in important ways to the production, distribution, and consumption of cement. The material was critical to the development of nationalist architectural styles in the early twentieth century (Chua 2014, 954). Beginning in the 1950s, rivers were reorganized through the construction of large hydroelectric dams. Although built in the name of industrial development, they were also critical parts of strategies to resettle uplands populations by reorganizing nature (Vandergeest and Peluso 1995). Around the same time, the U.S. military began making massive purchases of the material from Siam Cement to build new roads and military installations to facilitate its wars in Southeast Asia.
After the American withdrawal from Southeast Asia, urbanization and economic transformation further increased cement production. As capitalist modes of laboring expanded alongside urban modes of dwelling, Bangkok’s skyline filled with high-rise construction, both finished and unfinished. Houses previously constructed of timber with open ground floors, were replaced by houses on slab foundations with ground floors enclosed by concrete blocks, increasingly cooled by air conditioning. During the Thai economy’s boom times, from the mid-1980s until the Asian economic meltdown in 1997, the heat of the real estate market led to cement shortages. In the context of rapid urban growth, cement has also been politically useful as the urban poor have used it to solidify their claims of rights to the city (Elinoff 2016). By 2011, when Bangkok was hit by historic floods, the Chao Phraya river delta had become a patchwork of “amphibious infrastructures,” some of which sped the flow of water while others prevented the water from draining to the sea (Morita 2016). Activists blamed the complex interlacing of hard, soft, and aquatic landscapes for unevenly distributing the flood waters and intensifying the disaster. For many, the flood was a signal that the Anthropocene future had arrived.
What I want to emphasize in this truncated history is the way in which cement has been closely associated with an accelerating curve of entangled social, political, and environmental changes in Thailand. Although the country’s economic and political history have hardly been linear (Aulino et al. 2014), the rapid expansion of hardened environments has increased steadily over the last one hundred years. Cement did not determine these shifts, but attention to it compels us to consider what the material contributes to the historical processes driving environmental change. One way to answer that question is speed.
Archeologist Matt Edgeworth (2018) argues that the dawn of the Anthropocene might be most evident in the global presence of “the archaeosphere,” the active strata composed of urban infill, the foundations of old buildings, backfilled tunnels, drainage pipes, subsurface constructions, old streets, artifacts, trash, and other anthropogenic waste that now blankets the Earth. Formed, in part, by the detritus of our cemented landscape, the archaeosphere is not only the most obvious marker of this new epoch, but also reveals the varied means through which humans generated, organized, and sustained the sorts of speed necessary to produce that transformation in the first place. Yet as Edgeworth notes, the archaeosphere is not a passive backdrop upon which these transformations have taken place. Instead, it is reflective of “Earth at accelerating speed, incorporating more and more of the geosphere into its burgeoning mass, it actively shapes events and processes as well as passively recording them in the form of physical traces left behind in the ground” (Edgeworth 2018, 34).
The implications of the passive and active qualities of the archaeosphere are profound. If the catastrophic floods that inundated Bangkok in 2011 demonstrate how tracing cement’s histories might help us understand the complex origins of the city’s environmental present, then examining the material’s environmental present may enable us to understand its environmental future. By exploring the varied sites, practices, discourses, and political formulations that rely upon cement, we might better understand the sources of anthropogenic geological speed that continue to propel the planet toward its increasingly uncertain environmental futures.
1. Cement production now comprises anywhere from 5–10 percent of global carbon emissions.
2. Paul Virilio (2006, 29) reminds us that the street is a "producer of speed" of all sorts.
Aulino, Felicity, Eli Elinoff, Claudio Sopranzetti, and Ben Tausig. 2014. "Introduction: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand." Hot Spots series, Fieldsights, September 23.
Chua, Lawrence. 2014. “The City and the City: Race, Nationalism, and Architecture in Early Twentieth-Century Bangkok.” Journal of Urban History 40, no. 5: 933-958.
Edgeworth, Matt. 2018. “More than Just a Record: Active Ecological Effects of Archaeological Strata.” In Historical Archaeology and the Environment, edited by Marcos André de Souza and Diogo Menezes Costa, 19–40. Cham, Switzerland: Springer.
Elinoff, Eli. 2016. “A House is More than a House: Aesthetic Politics in a Northeastern Thai Railway Settlement.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 22, no. 3: 610–32.
Morita, Atsuro. 2016. “Infrastructuring Amphibious Space: The Interplay of Aquatic and Terrestrial Infrastructures in the Chao Phraya Delta in Thailand.” Science as Culture 25, no. 1: 117–40.
Taussig, Michael. 2004. My Cocaine Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Vandergeest, Peter, and Nancy Lee Peluso. 1995. “Territorialization and State Power in Thailand.” Theory and Society 24, no. 3: 385–426.
Virilio, Paul. 2006. Speed and Politics. Los Angeles: Semotext(e).