Friday, December 4, 2009


We hear the word "infrastructure" fairly frequently these days, often in combination with the word "crumbling".  It's a disturbing trend, so today I'd like to explore a little about the meaning of the term and some of its implications within society.

The prefix, "infra" means "below" or "beneath". My old dictionary from the 1970's also includes "inferior to" in the definition. We'll come back to that later. In its original sense, infrastructure refers to "an underlying base or supporting structure" – or – "the basic facilities, equipment, services and installations needed for the growth and functioning of a country, community or organization" (American Heritage Dictionary, New College Edition, 1976). The latter sense is heard most often in the media when referring to roads, railways, water and sewage systems and the newer network of cables, fiber-optics and wireless nodes that form the basis for modern communications.

The ancient Romans had a good grasp of the value of infrastructure. Several of the roads and aqueducts they built thousands of years ago survive to this day.  Every society since has put the gold of its wealthy and the toil of its poor into building and maintaining infrastructure.  At various times and under various stimuli, infrastructure-building will enjoy a heyday and great (or not-so-great) works will be constructed.  Sometimes it's to glorify a ruler or an ideal, sometimes to bulwark against a threat, other times, it serves to bolster a sagging economy.  In this country, we've seen more of the latter two cases than the former, though I think 'glorification' has probably produced more of the world's durable and aesthetically pleasing structures than has necessity.

Once the infrastructure has been created, there must be the will and the means to maintain it in working order, not just for a while but, effectively, forever.  This is much harder to do than to drum up the initiative create it in the fist place.  It seems to be part of human nature to not wish to think about the stuff that goes on below the surface — the water mains, the sewers, the cables, etc.  But rust and rot never take vacations so somebody has to be thinking about, and doing something about the hidden stuff day in and day out ad infinitum.  If at some point, however, we elect a 'fiscal lion' who hacks the budget of the maintenance department, or if hard economic times force the same decision, the inexorable progress of decay can go on unobserved for years.  The next thing you know, water mains are breaking and gas lines are exploding and the media begin talking about "crumbling infrastructure".  Again.

The foregoing is an example of great beginnings that stumble down to bad endings.  This is not the only scenario.  What happens if you begin by not thinking about infrastructure?

A Case Study

Mid-20th Century Baltimore, MD: a medium-sized East Coast city boasting close to a million residents.  Not a fancy place like New York or Boston but one possessing a great deal of local charm and a pretty good baseball team.  In 1968, everything changed.  When the news of Martin Luther King's assassination broke, people took their outrage and disappointment into the streets.  There were ten wrenching days of rioting and the city was locked down under martial law.  Fearing that the genie of racial violence was forever out of the bottle, both black and white citizens began streaming out of the city to the surrounding suburbs.  As housing stock was used up, pressure grew to expand the suburbs with new development and Baltimore's "urban sprawl" kicked into high gear.

Today, Baltimore's suburbs, coupled with those of neighboring Washington, D.C., have grown to an alarming extent (Baltimore-Washington Land-Use History).  Air pollution from cars has blossomed due to the greater commuting distances.  Run-off from parking lots and lawn herbicides has poisoned suburban streams.  Because the developers buy up farm land and forest tracts, we have seen significant losses of both arable land and wild habitat.  All of this is due to widespread disregard of all considerations except economic growth.  One consideration ignored is that of the infrastructure needed to support the burgeoning population.  Schools, roads, water and sewer systems have become over-burdened and require expensive retro-fitting to accommodate the new reality.  To quote the old bromide: they did not plan to fail, they failed to plan.

We are moved to ask, why is infrastructure given such short shrift?   A clue may lie in the meanings of "infra" mentioned above.  If infrastructure is perceived to be "beneath" our notice or "inferior to" other considerations, guess where the dollars and planning time are not going to go?  If you wish to stretch the point a bit: that which occurs beneath is dark and scary.  Best not to think about it.  Whatever the source of the short-sightedness, there seems to be little impetus to change matters.  In 1997 Maryland's then-governor Paris Glendenning championed a statute in state law that he dubbed the "Smart Growth Initiative".  It is supposed to mandate a more holistic approach to community development, specifically with respect to the infrastructure, but recent studies have shown that since its passage, the statute has been largely circumvented or ignored (Study Calls MD Smart Growth a Flop).

All the Myriad Pieces

There are other infrastructures besides the ones I've mentioned.  For example, there is the coastal warning infrastructure.  The earliest components of this system were lighthouses, recorded as far back as 660 B.C.E. on the coast of Egypt.  Foghorns and bells have also been around for ages.  These days, nearly every vessel carries a GPS device that does a much better job of letting the operator know when they are straying too close to the shoals.  Some folks have advocated for doing away with the old system of lights and horns since it's now hopelessly outclassed by technology.  But this technology depends on a system of satellites in orbit around the Earth, and each satellite costs millions of dollars to build and launch.  And let us not forget the vast amount of research, experimentation, manufacturing capability, etc. that had to precede the launch of even the first of these satellites.  In addition, GPS receivers are the end-product of sophisticated manufacturing techniques, each phase of which has its own infrastructure, right down to the batteries that power it.  If you consider what it would mean if there was a breakdown anywhere in this complex web, I'll bet you'd be just as happy to hear the mournful bray of a horn the next time you're rounding the Cape in a blind fog.

The key word is "web".  Every system we depend on is tied together in a vast interconnecting web-work of technology, of materials and parts, of human knowledge and perhaps most importantly, human cooperation.  Consider this last in terms of what can happen when a major industry or service is shut down during a strike.  Nearly everything in our lives is supported by largely unseen networks of people and machines.  Some of these are robust and resilient, others are tenuous and fragile.  It's good exercise to think about all of the systems that go into the vital functions of your life and conjecture what you'd do if those systems collapsed.  How does the food get to your supermarket and how will you eat if it doesn't?  When the electricity fails to come out of the little holes in your wall, what then?

What To Do When the World Ends

There is an apocalyptic vision that our entertainment media have been promoting for some decades.  It states: "something big will happen to kill off lots of people and those of us who are left will have to fend for ourselves".  The underlying idea is embedded in several religions and has such force that even people who don't subscribe to those religions strongly suspect that there's something disastrous lurking in our near future.  Over the course of my life, there have been a few times when this future seemed closer than others — the Cuban Missile Crisis and September 11th, for two — but more often, the likely nature of our doom is that the world won't end and we'll still have to pay the mortgage next month.  That said, contemplation of world-ending events is useful because it forces us to think more clearly about infrastructures.

Except in the case of a total annihilation of the human race, after "the end of the world", there will be people left.  Maybe even lots of them.  The shattering part of it for the survivors will be the sudden loss of many of the infrastructures that we take for granted — food, potable water, emergency medical services, etc.  Some people, of course, don't take these things for granted and have plans to cover their own and their family's survival in the case of disasters up to and including the end-of-the-world type.  They envision that they can become little islands of 'survivability', if you will, until things can be set back in order again.  Or, perhaps, forever, depending on how far-sighted they are (you can read more of my thoughts on this subject in: Resources).  To bring this into context: They envision surviving in the absence of infrastructure.

Perhaps it's a part of the American psyche to desire complete independence.  We're are fueled by images of rugged individualists — iconic characters portrayed by John Wayne or Clint Eastwood — and told that we can attain our dreams if we work hard and "think outside the box".  On the other hand, of course, we're constantly receiving signals that it's best to conform or face social ostracism, but that's a topic for another day.  In a post-apocalyptic world, that rugged individualism will probably get you through the first days or weeks and maybe even months, but sooner or later, it will be necessary to link up with other people and start cooperating with them.  You will need to start rebuilding your infrastructures.  These will doubtless be quite different from the accustomed systems but if they're well crafted, they should serve to sustain life, perhaps for a long time.

Before the world ends — if it is going to — it would be worthwhile to spend some time thinking about what a set of alternate infrastructures would look like.  They would need to be very local: neighborhood and small-town sized in terms of the number of people and/or geographical area.  There would need to be food production and distribution, medical and other emergency systems, some kind of militia to protect against aggressors and so forth.  It would, in fact, look a lot like the pre-industrial world.

Suppose, instead of waiting for the end of the world to create our new (yet old) infrastructures, that we begin working on them today.  Beginning now, let us craft ways to engage with our friends and neighbors to create networks of cooperation that are small and local and robust.  Many critical systems that serve us now are as delicate and specialized as the electronic navigation system I spoke of earlier.  Let's start thinking more in terms of lighthouses and horns.