Ever-increasing demand

By |  June 18, 2014

In his personal blog, The Gates Notes, Microsoft founder Bill Gates cites some incredible statistics. Perhaps the most amazing is that China has used more cement (much more) in the last three years than the United States used in the entire 20th century. Yes, you read that right. Almost every road in this nation was built in the 1900s, as well as most of the buildings, homes, infrastructure, etc., yet China surpassed our cement consumption in just three years. This statistic and more are from the book, “Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization,” by Gates’ favorite author, historian Vaclav Smil.

Gates points out that as more people join the global middle class, they will need more materials, such as concrete for roads and runways and steel to make cars and refrigerators.

“There’s no end in sight to the rising demand for more materials,” Gates says. “Even though the richest countries are leveling off, many other countries are catching up.” He cites Smil’s argument that if the poorest 80 percent of the planet reaches a living standard that is just a third of what people in rich countries enjoy, the world should expect to continue using more materials for generations to come.

Smil, says Gates, also points out that new innovations down the road could “cut our need for cement by 65 percent.” But at the rate China and other developing nations are using materials, that is likely a long way off.

Paying for it

While material demand across much of the globe continues to grow, the funding source for much of that material is in jeopardy here in America. The Highway Trust Fund is nearly depleted, and despite concerted efforts by industry associations to push through a multi-year highway bill, election-year politics may be too big of a hurdle to overcome.

Thirty-one national associations and more than 400 people from the aggregates, construction and transportation industries descended on Washington, D.C., recently as part of the 2014 Transportation Construction Coalition Fly-In. The group of producers, contractors, manufacturers and association representatives lobbied Congress to fix the Highway Trust Fund and provide a long-term, well-funded transportation bill. We salute those who took the time to participate in the Fly-In, and you can read more about it here.

However, in his Innovation Briefs blog, Ken Orski writes that hopes for a long-term transportation bill are fading. He says most observers agree with the several senators who suggest “a short-term bill extending the current transportation program (MAP-21) into next year and funded with a relatively modest general-funds appropriation is probably the most one can expect from this deeply divided Congress whose attention is singularly focused on the upcoming November election.”

Let’s hope Congress surprises us.

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