Monday, February 11, 2008

Our Dangerous Infrastructure II

The real purpose of war - perhaps unintended benefit would be better phrasing - is to destroy aging infrastructure and produce a justification for spending the massive amounts of money required to rebuild or replace it. This is the intent behind war reparation payments, the victor paying for the reconstruction for the vanquished.

Under peacetime conditions governments and industry seem reluctant to commit the necessary funds and resources needed to properly maintain or replace aging infrastructure. In Europe and Asia the emphasis has been on maintaining old, well-built infrastructure. In America and the neo-west the emphasis has been on controlled demolition and replacement. Europe and Asia build infrastructure to last in perpetuity. In the neo-west we build with a designed life-span, usually not more than fifty years, then try to see how far beyond that lifespan we can go.

Most of the modern world as we know it, visible and invisible, has been built since the conclusion of WWII. Europe, like a phoenix, rose from the ashes of that war and integrated the massive amount of new replacement infrastructure with those bits of the old that had evaded the bombs. Japan and much of southeast Asia had to do the same. But North America - and Australia for that matter - has not had a war to purge it of its aging infrastructure in well over a century. Like Europe, new has been integrated with the old, though that old is much less old than European old.

The core of the unseen and taken-for-granted infrastructure underlying all North American cities large and small, however, is well over a century old and has long exceeded its designed lifespan. Even the shiny new suburbs with their modern infrastructure are tied to and equally dependent on the century-plus old infrastructure at the core of the cities they surround and to which their infrastructure is integrated, e.g. integrated water systems, electrical systems, telephone systems, transportation systems, and more.

Despite the fact infrastructure maintenance is consistently underfunded and maintenance is woefully inadequate - the prefered strategy is most often being to wait until it breaks down because the emergency created makes it easier to justify the extraordinary funds needed to fix or replace it - prodigious amounts are, nonetheless, spent on that maintenance. And that cost rises with each passing year, as does the gap between maintenance required and maintenance performed.

Underappreciated in all of this is that maintenance and upkeep of the massive infrastructure on which our society is built requires equally massive amounts of highly specialized technology and equipment for its maintenance. And therein lies my primary concern and the reason I keep returning to the issue of infrastructure in this blog. As we approach, arrive at and pass peak oil this issue will become increasingly important. Our undermaintained infrastructure, the vast bulk of which has been built in the sixty years since the end of World War II with a designed lifespan generally of fifty years, will be entering a period of terminal decay at the same time as the energy resources of the world, on which their maintenance depends, enter a period of terminal decline. The technology required to maintain that infrastructure will be increasingly unusable as it too decays and as replacement parts or replacement technology are increasingly unavailable. Much of this equipment is specifically designed, engineered and built as a one-off to satisfy the needs of a particular piece of infrastructure. The infrastructure which underpins our society which has always been a societal asset will increasingly become a massive and dangerous social liability.

Our communities, most particularly our cities, are seriously unnatural environments. In order for such large numbers of people, or any species, to live packed together at such close quarters in one place requires all manner of judiciously maintained infrastructure to prevent those places becoming health and environmental death traps. There are very few species that naturally live together in one place in large numbers, and even fewer in the numbers that human communities reach. Ants, bees, termites, corral and bats are a few that come to mind. Ants, bees and termites have worker classes whose job it is to keep the community - the bee hive or the ant hill or termite mound - clean and maintained. Bats live at the top of caves while their waste is dropped to the bottom of the caves where it is used by countless insects and micro-organisms. And corral rely on various species of fish and other marine organisms and the movement of ocean currents to clean away their refuse. Most animals living together in large numbers live in herds that are constantly on the move from one place to another, never staying in one place long enough for their waste to become a problem for the herd. But the safe maintenance of the living environment for community-based species is an ongoing battle for all of them and requires that their communities be frequently abandoned and new communities started. I would very much doubt that we could find an anthill or termite mound or beehive that has been a continuous site of occupation for thousands or even hundreds of years.

The greater the amount of infrastructure there is on which a community relies the greater is the reluctance to abandon it. The more you have, the more you have invested, the more there is to lose in doing so. And for we humans, the longer a community exists the greater the intangibles, such as history and the arts, that are also lost in abandoning the community. The longer we stay in one place the more reluctant we are to move on. Nowhere, it seems, is that moreso than with our cities. Our attachment and commitment to our cities, in fact, is far stronger it seems than our sense of nationalism and patriotism, both of which must be artificially reinforced. Our sense of kinship and belonging with our community seems far more natural, almost tribal by comparison.

This is going to be a serious social conundrum as we slide down the back side of Hubbert's Peak. Those cities, at least the large ones of over a half million population, are simply not going to be sustainable or supportable in a post-peak world. They exist in a virtual vacuum critically dependent on the outlying areas that surround them for their very survival. They will ultimately have to be abandoned but there will exist a passionate reluctance to do so. Serious time and critical resources will be wasted trying to make them survivable and sustainable. There will be powerful voices that remind us of the strong and long-surviving city states of the past like Athens, Rome, Chichen Itza and Machu Pichu. But there is no comparison between them and our fragile, technology-dependent cities of today. As their massive infrastructure decays and becomes increasingly dangerous, that hanging-on will become increasingly dangerous as well.

Even those great city states of the past were abandoned, some many times over the course of history. They also generally relied, it must be remembered, on a significant slave population who, like the workers in the ant colony and bee hive, were responsble for maintaining with brute force the infrastructure of those city states. To expect to take a modern day New York or London or Los Angeles or Tokyo back to the type of city state that existed in the past is folly in the extreme. It simply is not possible, even with slave labour. Our modern cities require armies of highly trained, technically proficient workers to keep them maintained. It can't be done with shovels and hammers. Just as the equipment and technology required to do the maintenance will become unusable because it can't be maintained or replaced, so too will the knowledge base for doing the maintenance begin to disappear as the institutions for training that army of maintenance specialists disappear. One way or another all of that infrastructure will ultimately simply be left to decay.

But what happens as it does? Dams burst. Bridges collapse. Glass fronted steel towers rain down showers of glass shards. Elevators plummet to the sub-basement. Tunnels flood or collapse. Sewers break and release toxins into surrounding soil. Water systems break and cause serious flooding before they eventually stop working all together. Concrete reinforced shorelines break down and weakened soil begins to wash away. Elevated highways collapse. And on and on. When our infrastructure begins to break down for the last time it will not be an "oh well" event. Each of those individual breakdowns will potentially be catastrophic events. The breach of a single dam on any of our rivers is very likely to cause cascade failures of every other weakened, under-maintained dam downstream from the original collapse. Any community in the way will be defenseless.

We do not know exactly when peak oil will be, or if it has already happened. We do not know how rapid the decline in global energy supplies will be on the other side of that peak. But we do know we have a global society based on expansion of the money supply through credit as the underpinning to an economic paradigm of perpetual growth. And we can reasonably surmise that when the global energy supplies go into decline so too will that global economy for industrial growth will stop. When it does it is very likely that the current luke-warm commitment to infrastructure maintenance will all but totally disappear as cost-cutting becomes the primary tool for attempted survival. The rate of decay of that already over-aged infrastructure will accelerate dramatically and there will no longer be the funds, the resources, the commitment, the energy nor the technology to upgrade it or replace it.

And yet our politicians continue to base our short-term and long-term plans on more growth, more new infrastructure, always more. They continue to operate as though our society as it exists can and will go on forever, or at least until they are out of office and it becomes someone else's problem. We cannot and must not allow them to keep leading us further down that path.

We cannot enter this future in such a way that that infrastructure will simply be left to decay. Any infrastructure than can not be maintained in a post-oil, post-technological age must be decommissioned before that age is thrust upon us. We don't need more dams. We need to be decommissioning those that already exist. We don't need more highways, more skyscrapers, more bridges, more of everything. We need to seriously evaluate the maintainability of every piece of infrastructure once we pass peak oil and if it is deemed unmaintainable once we enter that age it must be disposed of now, while we still have the funds, the energy, and the technology to do so.

Infrastructure and infrastructure maintenance are invisible issues to most of society. They are not at all sexy, certainly not the type of stuff that election platforms are built on. We must, however, somehow force them to become just that. We must demand of our politicians a vision and a platform that deals with the reality of peak oil and global energy decline. And that vision and platform must incorporate a strong component of how our aging infrastructure will be dealth with once they are elected. If we do not demand this of our politicians then we are condoning their taking us on a sleepwalk into a very dangerous future of terminal infrastructure decay. I don't want to see that for our children. They deserve better from us.