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The Last Straw

Please give shelter to me and my spouse.
Someone left the gate open – the louse!
See, we built out of straw,
(For it now is the law)
And the cows have just eaten our house.

You know that show on TV – the one where some well-groomed and fashionable guy follows the building antics of earnest eco-friendly hipster couples as they build houses out of cow shit, straw, lime and mud, while hinting to us deplorable viewers, living in our unsustainable houses of bricks and mortar, concrete, timber and steel, that we are condemning planet Earth to a slow and agonizing death. And the variation on the theme, where they are rescuing some decrepit old industrial building, church, water tower or some such wreck that has three intact bricks and a few half-rotten sticks of timber left in its sorry carcass? Yep that’s the one – it’s about sustainable and therefore virtuous building methods – at least that’s what the host, and the builders (well the couple who supervise the rather bemused actual builders) say with monotonous regularity, but you know what? They never explain exactly how this “sustainable” building is going to save the Earth. It’s all very strange – after all, as their pile gradually rises, or as that aforementioned existing (well actually hardly existing at all) building is torn down and but for those few bricks and rotten bits of timber is completely rebuilt, millions of tons of concrete is being poured all over the world and there are skyscrapers going up everywhere, and they are not built out of cow shit and straw (well I hope not!). I may be missing something, but to me it’s a bit like what’s happening with our power generation here in Australia – we’re shutting down our few coal-fired power stations to reduce emissions, and relying on unreliable “green” power while the Indians and Chinese are building hundreds of coal-fired power stations and burning our coal! Ah! Emotion triumphs over logic once again! But I digress – for some reason the left (for that’s the club the above-mentioned people obviously belong to) has got a bee in its collective bonnet about concrete and steel, but concrete in particular. According to them it’s not “sustainable” to build with the stuff – what do they mean? Have any of them been to Rome? The Romans invented concrete! Have they seen the Pantheon dome? Yes, a lot of concrete is still there, 1600 years after the fall of their empire, and there would have been a lot more to see had not a bunch of hairy and concrete-ignorant Germans known as the Goths sacked the city and no doubt knocked a lot of it down. With a little bit of maintenance the Colosseum would have been standing now in all its glory and fully intact. It takes energy to make concrete and steel, but it takes energy to make cow shit and straw and lime and mud as well. As far as I know no one has done the sums, but I suspect, all things taken into account, there’s not much difference. The materials for the making of concrete are, in practical terms, inexhaustible. For something or some practice to be “sustainable” it must be able to remain intact for a long period, to continue, to endure – my money is on concrete, not cow shit and straw.