My first book project, A World Cast in Concrete: How the US Built Its Empire, is the first social and cultural history of concrete—the most consumed material on earth after water. I argue that concrete is critical for understanding not only the design of our built environments, but also the emergence of American technical expertise on the global scale and its environmental consequences. The narrative takes off in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, a little-known region in the shadows of New York City and Philadelphia, that gave rise to the cement industry in the late nineteenth century. My close readings of geological surveys and Thomas Edison’s atlases explain how early industrialists employed racial categories to identify, document, and extract limestone. The industry then expanded into the American South, where local labor standards, shaped by vestiges of slavery, transformed manufacturing and motivated businessmen to push production to the Global South. There, cement industrialists embraced warfare and logistics to first distribute their material to build wartime infrastructure and eventually to move the polluting portions of the manufacturing process overseas. The Vietnam War was especially noteworthy as it taught American businessmen that political instability could be beneficial for the efficiency and profitability of the concrete industry. The fourth chapter examines the concrete industry’s final frontier—the outer space. By unpacking NASA and other scientific groups’ efforts to construct cement plants and concrete habitats on Mars and the moon, I elucidate what is at stake in maintaining this material regime.

In addition to illuminating an entirely overlooked historical narrative, the project offers a theoretical framework for understanding how knowledge is developed, institutionalized, and commodified. I ask how scientists employed racial categories to identify and extract limestone; why visceral knowledge about material quality was embodied in some workers but not in others; what role the state played in promoting building standards that privileged cementitious materials; and how this knowledge was ultimately commodified to transplant environmental pollution to the Global South.

A World Cast in Concrete contributes to several established and burgeoning fields of study. Most immediately, it calls for urban and architectural historians to complicate their thinking about concrete as not merely an aesthetic medium, but a technology that enabled the exploitation of environmental, animal, and human bodies. The project also contributes to the growing field of critical infrastructure studies by offering a new materialist approach to how infrastructure shapes social and political power. For scholars of science and technology, the book's focus on culture and labor highlights that concrete’s ascendency was as much a cultural as a technological phenomenon. And, finally, for historians of capitalism, A World Cast in Concrete introduces an entirely overlooked material for unpacking how racial capitalism not only shapes policy and markets, but literally constructs our built environments.