Ed Driscoll

Destruction Leads To A Very Rough Road

Californication spreads: a common cliche heard here is that the state government spends plenty of taxpayer money on welfare programs, but little on infrastructure. Which is why California has some of the busiest roads in the nation, in the worst shape.

In Tech Central Station, Vaclav Smil writes that the rest of the nation is heading that way as well:

An ancient dam about to collapse in Massachusetts; levees breached in Louisiana; a blackout blanketing millions of people across the country’s most populous Northeastern region; repeated media references to the shrinking number of crude oil refineries; detours forced by collapsing bridges; ubiquitous flight delays. All of these are assorted tips of the Brobdingnagian iceberg of America’s aging, crumbling, strained and poorly maintained infrastructure. Studying its massive dilapidation is a depressing endeavor; writing about it is not the media’s favorite choice — how can sewers, garbage dumps or bridges compete with witless celebrities or DC gossip?; mobilizing the needed investment for its upkeep is a thankless task (after all, legislators are voting for outlays that may be buried underground or located out of sight of 99.99% of people) — and the job is never done.

And so the management of the country’s immense infrastructure becomes repeatedly a victim of postponements, procrastination, corner cutting and outright neglect. Yet virtually everything that matters — a country’s economic performance, myriads of daily chores of a civilized society, basic personal satisfaction and safety, and (perhaps most importantly) a nation’s long-term security — depends on well-maintained, appropriately repaired, and periodically renewed infrastructures.

In its broadest definition this fundamental category includes the dense city networks of roads, bridges, tunnels, subways, water and sewer pipes, above- and below-ground electricity lines and telecommunication links. Urban landscapes are dotted with schools, recreation facilities, fire, transformer and water pumping stations, and contain wastewater treatment plants, railway and bus stops, airports and, when situated along rivers or coast, passenger and container and industrial ports. Outside the cities there are far-flung webs of interstate highways, railways, high-voltage transmission lines, crude oil, natural gas and chemical product pipelines and numerous electricity-generating plants, refineries, dams, reservoirs, levees, canals, shipping channels, water breaks, garbage dumps and sites for the disposal of toxic wastes.

Some of North America’s vast infrastructure is relatively new, and much of it was originally well built and hence it has been smoothly functioning (out of sight and out of mind) for decades. But many infrastructures — above all water mains, sewers, numerous bridges and dams, roads, railway and subway tunnels — are truly archaic and they have been serving decades beyond their original life expectation and thousands of them are, literally, on the verge of collapse. Moreover, with so much of the nation’s infrastructure built during the New Deal years of the 1930s, during the war years and during the decades of vigorous pre-1973 economic expansion, the number of badly aged structures will be increasing rapidly, often exponentially. For example, in 2004 Oklahoma had 135 bridges older than 80 years, but by 2015 that total could surpass 800.

The East Coast blackout in 2003, the 3000 killed in France that summer due to the heat, and the rolling blackouts in the years prior in California should have been wake-up calls, but obviously weren’t. Smil writes, “The enormity of the problem calls for a grand strategy: I wish I could say that there will be no shortage of bold initiatives to bring it about”.

In the quote above, Smil mentions 1973 as a bit of a cut-off date. One reason why infrastructures have stagnated of course, is the anti-modernism of the environmental left, which began early in that decade. Also in TCS, Henry I. Miller writes of the challenges to America’s resilience:

In both the private and public sectors, resilience is crucial. The buggy-whip manufacturers had to adapt to supplying automobile components to Henry Ford’s assembly line, or die; and the federal government achieved an historic success in World War II’s Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs that ended the war.

In many realms, resilience is in short supply these days, however, and there is plenty of blame to go around. Politicians — federal, state and local — tend to be short-term thinkers, their purview often limited to the next election. Moreover, many of them are just not very smart, and they’re particularly challenged in science and logic. The harsh truth is that there is little correlation between electability and problem-solving.

The nation as a whole would have been far more resilient to Katrina, had we located oil refineries in other parts of the country and markedly broadened our energy mix by constructing additional nuclear power plants. However, these efforts have been blocked by failures of both government and non-governmental lobbying groups. Nuclear energy has become the third rail of politics, and irresponsible radical environmentalists have prevented the construction of a single new oil refinery or nuclear power plant for decades. (And witness the seemingly endless acrimony over the creation of the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.)

These activists detest the oil and coal-mining companies, they abhor nuclear power, and now they’re even complaining about wind turbines killing birds — so what do they approve of? Not long ago, a Greenpeace activist who knocked on the door of my home tried to convince me that the answer to our energy needs was to grow vast quantities of hemp. Hemp? I threatened to set the dog on her.

Mindless, anti-technology activism — whether in NGOs or government — is inimical to resilience. It jeopardizes our survival as individuals and our success as a society.