China used about 146 percent more concrete in three years than the U.S. has in the last century, a fact pointed out by philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in a blog post on the world's dematerialization.
Gates draws his figures on concrete consumption from "Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization," a book by historian Vaclav Smil. Concrete, according to Smil, is the most important man-made material.
From 2011 through 2013, China consumed approximately 6.6 gigatons of concrete. Meanwhile, the U.S. consumed about 4.5 gigatons of concrete from 1901 to 2000.
"Concrete is the foundation, literally, for the massive expansion of urban areas of the past several decades, which has been a big factor in cutting the rate of extreme poverty in half since 1990," stadtes Gates. "In 1950, the world made roughly as much steel as cement, a key ingredient in concrete; by 2010, steel production had grown by a factor of 8, but cement had gone up by a factor of 25."
To put that concrete consumption in perspective, take a look at this Gif of Shanghai's evolution since 1987:
While China has proven itself fertile ground for skyscrapers and superhighways, its consumption of paper is an anomaly. Paper, a material Gates ranks third behind steel and concrete, is being consumed at an increasing rate in China.
In the U.S. and Japan, paper consumption began to decline around the mid-'90s. But in China and the rest of the world, the trend continues in the opposite direction.
"I still think we'll see a paperless office someday, given the downward trend in the United States and elsewhere and the rise of ubiquitous computing," says Gates. "But Smil reminded me that the death of paper is a long way off."
Though China is gorging itself on paper and concrete, it appears its appetite for metal has slowed. As late as 2012, China accounted for about 43.1 percent of copper - that was five times the amount of copper consumed by the U.S.
While the figures on China's demand for commodities may be stunning to some, Gates' post takes a broader look at how the world is consuming raw materials. The world finds ways to produce products more efficiently, but does so to inevitably consume more.
"The big concern isn't so much whether we will run out of anything -- it's the impact that extracting and using these materials is having on the planet," says Gates, adding later: "I'm also surprised that the oceans get so little attention compared with other environmental problems, and I think they deserve more."