Over the last half-century we have undergone a massive transition from a rural to an urban society, a trend that is accelerating…a societal phenomenon taxing our ability to provide new water delivery and discharge systems and overwhelming those already in existence. I’ve listened to estimates for the repair, replacement, and upgrade of our existing water infrastructure between now and mid-century ranging from $15 trillion to $30 trillion…figures, mind you, predicated on fighting a rear-guard action. Road repairs, right-of-way demands, and new highway construction could add another 50% to the total. It’s one thing to muster your courage enough to ask where such amounts of money might come from, but quite another to question our society’s ability to actually mobilize itself to utilize such an investment. In short, even if we could find the funds, could we actually deploy them in a meaningful way? I think not.
It still seems like only yesterday our nation reeled in the wake of well-planned, organized, and coordinated terrorist attacks designed to inflict the maximum number of human casualties and capture the undivided attention of the entire world. While we were indeed fortunate that the casualty figures from the strikes fell short of their potential, there is no doubt that the terrorists achieved their overall political aims. Moreover, these attacks lay bare the vulnerability of much of our critical infrastructure … water conveyance and electrical power systems at the leading edge.
Now, after nearly a decade of digesting the lessons of those attacks and devoting an enormous amount of our national treasure to ensure our ability to respond to disasters of all sorts under the banner of “Homeland Security,” we watched in impotent amazement the colossal disconnect between the planners and those responsible for putting the plans into action. Without discounting the superb actions of some in response to a continuing succession of natural disasters, it’s a mistake to feel that we are much closer to coming to grips with many of the risks than we were on September 11, 2001.
Putting the Pieces Together
Along with Grading & Excavation Contractor, we publish five infrastructure-related publications—MSW Management, Erosion Control, Water Efficiency, Stormwater, and Distributed Energy—for professional audiences, a situation that makes us acutely aware of the common denominators and barriers that exist among their subjects.
You may find it a stretch to believe that such disparate areas as water handling, transportation infrastructure, waste handling, and energy resource management have much in common, but I’d like to suggest that the factors affecting them at the deepest level are strikingly similar.
The areas of command and control, once in the hands of predominantly local interests, have gravitated inexorably to higher and more remote levels of centralization, a situation not well suited to the demands and changes taking place in our society.
A while ago I was halfway watching an episode of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series—recently remastered with modern and incredibly spectacular graphics—when I found myself stunned into full attention by something I had missed when the series was first aired three decades ago. Sagan posed the seemingly innocuous question, “Why the Greeks?” Why had it fallen to a cluster of disjointed tribes, peripheral to the major civilizations of the time, to develop and raise to unprecedented heights essential features of governance, science, and the arts that we revere today? Why not the mighty and exalted Persians, Egyptians, Mayans, or Chinese? Why? Because their centralized authority with its ”institutionalized thinking” was able to resist new ideas. And even the Greeks, Sagan noted with sadness, fell victim to institutionalization of thought.
I remember clearly the moment it came to me that the difference between the old world and the new lay in the focus of our primary institutions…theirs sought stability while ours placed value in change.
This difference, I believed (and still do), gave us an enormous advantage in allowing us to tap the energy and creativity of a very large part of our citizens and in so doing ride the crest of change rather than flounder in its backwaters. But it seems we’ve allowed this vision to dim over the past several decades to the point that we have yielded to the comfort of Maginot Line security rather than pushing forward into the future on the basis of goals. This kind of thinking is as bankrupt to us today as it was to the French 55 years ago.
Options: How Many Are Enough?
I’m an options zealot, a character anomaly that was pounded into the depths of my soul by some rather hairy experiences during my fighter pilot career. The issue there is that the minute you walk out on the flightline, you’re seeing that fine list of options you gave yourself in the briefing room begin to go down in flames. By the time you’ve made allowance for the thin stream of hydraulic fluid oozing from beneath the engine bay and the fact that last pilot noted in his signoff that he had problems with the stability augmentation system, you’re already inventing work-arounds for things that have yet to happen.
Then once you’re airborne, incredible things begin to happen for which no training manual, flight instructor, or gee-whiz Hollywood extravaganza could begin to prepare you. As even a totally routine flight progresses, you watch your dwindling options tick away with the same inexorable certainty as digits on a down-timer, or more to the case in point, the fuel-remaining digitizer. You play constant games of “What do I do if, ” and even when things go to absolute worms—when you sense that you’ve entered the cavernous maw of certain death, you keep on coming up with options. “Try this….push that…hmmm, how about flipping this switch?” until you’re back in charge…or not.
So what does that have to do with the situation we find ourselves in today? Quite a lot if you look beyond the obvious and focus on the situation in which our nation—with its centralized, fragile, and terribly vulnerable transportation, energy, and water conveyance infrastructures—finds itself today.
Is the Sky Falling?
No…but can we survive the severe disruption in any of these vital systems? I guess it depends on what you mean by survive, but to me the answer is no.
We need now to step back and take a long-range look at the challenges we’re facing, just what it is we want, and perhaps even more compellingly what we’re willing to accept 10, 20, 50 years down the line. We may not like some of the casualties that this will bring, but only then will we be able to take actions necessary to the survival of our most important values. What might these actions be? It’s up to us to bring the message of the seriousness of the situation home to our planners and decisionmakers.
“Hey, I move dirt,” you say, “who’ll listen to me?” Well if not you, who? Who’s in a better position to help define the problems and suggest the solutions? Certainly not some 25-year-old government staffer with a degree in urban planning, whose chief talents and interests lie in Twittering with his peers.
As I agonized through the situation and its possibilities, I saw as chief among our most pressing vulnerabilities our reliance on centralized systems staffed by neophytes with little or no real-world understanding of the processes involved. Even more ominous is the strength of our complacency in the face of incontrovertible evidence that much of our critical infrastructure is antiquated…no longer relevant to the purposes for which they were initially designed . We may “see” it, but we have yet to “get” it.
Because of our marvelous technologies, we have been able to distance ourselves from what for many others in the world are the realities of day-to-day existence, and in doing so we have constructed for ourselves in many respects a house of cards through which we run the danger of becoming not a second- or third-world country, but something far worse—a nation whose basic coping skills have atrophied through lack of use.
We are not likely to voluntarily renounce the technologies implicit in our present lifestyle and return to a more bucolic existence, but we may find ourselves without a choice if we don’t recognize the pressing need for reform in how we meet the demands of a future far different from those of the past. Infrastructure overhaul is not just about meeting isolated events, but part of a broader approach to a national crisis sorely in need of options—as many as we can get.