Sunday, March 14, 2010


What is infrastructure? Infrastructure is the essential, physical organizing framework meant to facilitate the smooth, day-to-day operation of society. It includes transit, waterworks, sewers and waste disposal, communications, the physical layout of the community and more. It is both a facilitator in helping the society function but also, often unintentionally, serves to limit and misdirect the manner of that operation and, most importantly, development and growth. The defensive walls constructed around the cities of Europe proved very valuable in protecting those cities from attack by enemies wielding swords and spears but they have also imposed frustrating limitations on the growth and development of those cities in modern times.

The American automobile industry, in order to improve its sales and profitability, bought up and shut down long-established and efficient public transit systems across the nation. They succeeded in having the interstate highway systems implemented, setting the nation on the road to being dominated by suburbs, of course devoid of public transit. They killed the city centre and left it to rot as retail rushed out to the suburbs where the customers now lived.

Many communities, trying to overcome the domination of the automobile, are finding that the needed added investment in effective public transit, and the infrastructure to support it, is generally greater than the public coffers can handle, definitely greater than the car-culture taxpayers are willing to support, that they are stuck with the private automobile being the driving force behind infrastructure choices. In my youth a saw the implementation of public water and sewer systems in my hometown, an expensive proposition that required years of special tax levies to pay and disrupted traffic and commerce in the town for years. The benefits were great enough - did you ever have to use an outhouse during a cold snap in the middle of February? - that the taxpayers were willing to absorb the special tax levies.

Man is not the only species that builds communal infrastructure. Among the others which do are; ants, termites, bees, beavers, groundhogs, prairie dogs, rabbits, and corral. Other species, however, do so instinctively. Man does so by intellectual choice. If anything, our instincts which were formed as early primates would mitigate against our creation of infrastructure. In fact, man is the only primate that does create infrastructure. This suggests that our tendency to create infrastructure was not a slow, evolutionary development but grew out of our developed methods of seeking security in numbers, of banding together and forming tribes.

Infrastructure and organized society have gone hand in hand from the beginning. It is critical in both modern and less developed societies. The infrastructure involved may be very, very different but equally critical. Infrastructure was critical to Greek society, the Romans (the Romans had a consistent town plan that they used in the development of most of their communities), the Aztecs and Mayans, and all other organized societies through history.

The one very important factor they all have in common is without constant maintenance the infrastructure soon begins to break down. And the society begins to break down with it. As it deteriorates the infrastructure that was critical in building the society becomes a dangerous liability. The critical dependence of society on its infrastructure was strongly highlighted in a report "Cumbria flooding exposes UK’s vulnerability to infrastructure failure". The report claims, "We are often only hours away from social collapse if our critical infrastructure were to fail totally.... The failure of a single piece of infrastructure, such as a bridge, not only causes difficulties in reaching basic commodities and services, but also leads to the failure of other connected infrastructure networks such as electricity, gas, telephone lines, waste and water supply."

All components of our infrastructure have a designed life span, either implied or explicit. Bridges and dams, for example, are generally designed for a life span of fifty years. Many commercial buildings may have a designed lifespan of thirty years or less. To achieve the designed life span, of course, the designer and builder of the infrastructure assume it will be properly maintained according to the instructions supplied. A large petrochemical plant I was involved in as a systems analyst, for example, had a large "chart room" where the thousands of drawings, blueprints and maintenance manuals and logs for the plant and all of its components were kept, maintained and constantly referenced by maintenance staff and engineers.

Designed life span is all too often viewed, by those assuming responsibility for it, to be somewhat like many view the "best before" label on the food they buy, a guideline, a ploy to sell more product. They will take their chances and keep their fingers crossed. Many dams and bridges with a designed life span of fifty years are still heavily in use a hundred years and more after construction, many without appropriate and needed levels of maintenance. Many bridges built for an anticipated traffic load of "x" are still in operation after twice their designed life span with traffic loads of 3-4 or even 10 times more than the design criteria. Many large dams still operating more than a hundred years after construction have lost over half of their reservoir capacity from silting and are in constant danger of over-topping during a heavy rainfall or from erosion-induced land and mud slides. Many community water and sewer systems are well over a hundred years old, some more than two hundred years old, with an annual burden of water main breaks running into the hundreds, some in the thousands (Toronto has an estimated 11,000 water main breaks a year). In most of these communities the extensive suburban development around those communities is being connected to the same antiquated water and sewer systems placing tremendous added load pressures on those systems every year and burdening those suburbs with a water and sewer system already past its designed life span when they connect to it.

Infrastructure maintenance requires, of course, an army of specially-trained maintenance staff and an abundance of specialized equipment and facilities. In most cases, however, maintenance is short-changed, most often due to politically-imposed budget constraints. According to the report "Infrastructure Failure in America", "America's infrastructure is aging.... Now, with ever rising costs and reduced funding/taxes for public projects, compromises and trade-offs are made and only the things in worst shape are attended to. Evidence of this is all over the place - power grid problems and blackouts, the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, the steam pipe explosion in New York, the levee breach in New Orleans. Unfortunately the blame falls on the agency responsible for infrastructure upkeep. Very rarely are the fingers pointed in the direction of politicians or government officials who make the money decisions and choose what gets funded." This is further highlighted in the report "Metropolitan Infrastructure Sustainability Study". This study found that "Funding emerged as the number one issue facing cities today. When asked to name their most serious infrastructure challenge, without prompting, three in five cities (59%*) said obtaining infrastructure funding was a key challenge. Some 42 percent* said funding gaps were creating challenges for maintaining or improving aging infrastructure. Cities are more likely to name funding for maintenance or retro-fitting of existing infrastructure, rather than funding for new infrastructure, as a critical challenge." Another report, "Infrastructure Investment Deficit" points out that "Recent research from various associations in Canada shows that there is a growing infrastructure investment deficit occurring in many sectors. This results in deteriorating infrastructure and escalating costs since the longer roads and buildings remain in a state of disrepair, the higher the costs to refurbish or replace."

This tendency to defer infrastructure maintenance is done under the assumption that the deficit can be made up later, and the hope that there will not be a disastrous infrastructure failure before then. But with peak oil fast approaching - or already here depending on which model you adhere to - this assumption that deferred maintenance can be caught up is very likely to result in a string of those disastrous failures that infrastructure and maintenance managers have for years been hoping against.

And yet even today massive investments continue to be made in new and upgraded infrastructure designed for operation in and dependent on a high-energy, high-tech world. A quick check of Google for "infrastructure investment" will net you literally millions of articles on projects for new and upgraded infrastructure.

But what if those choices were no longer available? What if the cost of maintenance and replacement mushrooms to 10-20 or more times current levels? What if the materials and parts needed to undertake that maintenance are no longer available? What if the specialized equipment and the transport to get equipment and maintenance personnel to the problem are no longer available? What if the heavy equipment to dig, build, move is no longer available? What if all of the fuel and energy to power all of that equipment is no longer available? This will be increasingly the case as we move deeper into the post peak era.

These are the true costs of peak oil. It's not about the cost of gasoline for the family car, not being to afford that driving vacation to Florida, the rising costs of food and other goods because of increasing transportation fuel costs. Those will be, or already are, the first warning signs that peak oil is upon us. But increasing costs will soon give way to scarcity and the depth of that scarcity will increase a little more each year. At first many poor nations will be priced out of the hydrocarbon fuel market. Soon, however, any level of government without the right to print money, even in rich countries, will start to wrestle with a growing disparity between income, which is primarily from taxation, and costs. Many of the American states, in fact, and many more communities, are already struggling hopelessly to balance their budgets. They soldier on, like the funding-deprived infrastructure maintenance staffs, in the belief that the deficit will be made up "when things return to normal." They fail to recognize the current situation as the new normal, the only slightly painful edge to a new reality that will not be corrected..... ever.

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