It was Marine Lt. Col Evans Carlson who inserted the term “Gung Ho” into the lives and efforts of his unit, the Second Marine Raider Battalion, early in World War II. Its basis, Carlson told his men, was the ethical injunction to work together in harmony to achieve a mutual goal, a concept worth your consideration when working with your peers.
Look around at your own community and ask yourself what systems are held together with baling wire and duct tape. Chances are your MSW system is relatively free of such make-do fixes, and even if things turn to worms, you can probably find the means for getting the trash off the curb and out of sight without declaring an all-out emergency. But can you say the same about your water conveyance systems? Your electrical grid? Your streets, roads, and highways…systems that have evolved and will take generations to repair? How would you like to be on the hook for a sewerage system that was built 80 years ago, designed to handle 1/10 the load it has today? Make your heart miss a beat or two? Maybe you get the feeling you’re not so bad off by comparison? If you do, don’t get complacent.
If you look at what’s being done to deal with deteriorating or inadequate infrastructure in the face of ever-increasing demands of urbanization-or more to the point, suburbanization-you may begin to suspect that not only is the task faced by many of our communities a daunting one, but also that a patch-paint-and-pray approach may be leading us into a dead-end situation.
Why Bother Me With Someone Else’s Problems?
Unless you control the printing press that doles out the money it takes to run your -department, it is your problem, because you’re up against the needs of your peers, who more than likely are up to their eyeballs in infrastructure woes. To make matters worse for you, MSW is a stealth business, partly because you do a good job in keeping it out of the public eye, but also because its major expenditures are for operations rather than for capital items. In fact, about the only times you come to the public’s notice is when you get hit by a strike, want to build or -expand a facility, or (wash my mouth out with lye soap) ask for a rate increase.
After all, what’s the value of all of your good work when one of community’s critical services-electric, gas, transportation, water, sewer-goes belly up? Do you think that when there’s raw sewage coursing through your storm drains your citizenry is going to worry about recycling programs, or whether you can save millions of dollars over the next decade by upgrading your current refuse fleet? I doubt it.
Over the last half-century we have undergone a transition from a rural to an urban society, a trend that is accelerating, taxing our ability to provide new services, and overwhelming many of 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 range 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 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? Here again I think not, but perhaps that might be a good place to begin our search for solutions.
If we’re willing to recognize that the finger-in-the-dike approach to upkeep will not hold our overdue infrastructure needs in check, much less solve them, we’ve taken the first step in freeing ourselves from the kind of institutional thinking that has allowed us to reach our present situation.Yes, our immediate responsibilities involve a myriad aspect of waste management, but above that lays the mandate in conjunction with our peers to serve the public welfare. Now is the time for us to forge alliances in order to make sure essential programs aren’t overwhelmed by crises in someone else’s bailiwick. But even those fall short of the real point. What is needed is the determination to rise above politics in order to provide our elected officials with both the strategies, and courage to address the real rather than “correct” issues of our times. This will take all the character and leadership we can muster if, for those who follow, we are to leave a standard of living at least as good as the one we inherited. And, that being the case, when do we get started?