Over the last half-century we have undergone a massive transition from a rural to an urban society…a phenomenon threatening to overwhelm our already fragile infrastructural base. For the repair, replacement, and upgrade of our existing water infrastructure between now and mid-century, I’ve heard estimates that range from $15 trillion to $30 trillion…figures, mind you, predicated on fighting a rear-guard action. Road repairs, right-of-way demands, new highway construction, and a host of other transportation and communications demands 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? What do you think?
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. Yet 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’ve 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.
Piecing It 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 between and among their focus areas. 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 ill-suited to the demands and changes taking place in our society. This trend is accelerating, removing the ability and incentives from the hands best suited to the tasks…yours and others on the front lines of infrastructure restoration and development.
Can we survive the severe disruption in any of our vital infrastructure systems? I guess it depends on what you mean by survive, but to me the answer is no. 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 World or Third World country, but something far worse-a nation whose basic coping skills have atrophied through lack of use.
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, or 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 for the survival of our most important values. What might these actions be? In some cases, upgrade and repair may be sufficient, but in many the best course may be to accept the “stranded investment” penalties and start with clean sheets of paper. Regardless, it’s up to us to bring the message of the seriousness of the situation home to our planners and decision makers.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 and champions-as many as we can get.