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The infrastructure of the future

As I watched the Italian countryside whisk by me from my train seat, the engineer announced that we were now traveling at 300 kph (186 mph). To most Americans such high-speed passenger trains might seem like marvelous new technology when, in fact, they have long been commonplace in Europe.

But, it is the view of the countryside that ought to interest those who are thinking about the infrastructure of the future. For here in the rolling landscape of this mountainous country, small farms carpet the hills with alternating olive groves, grape vines, lemon trees, vegetable gardens, grain fields and pasture populated with pigs, cattle and sheep.

The dictates of this landscape--too hilly for large-scale row crop farming--have combined with the Italian insistence on good, pure food to produce an agriculture that seems scaled to survive our energy-challenged future. For in such a future everything including food will have to be sourced closer to home. Physics and economics will make it so. The declining availability of liquid fuels is destined to drive up dramatically the cost of shipping food. And, that means that small, family-run farms may become a common sight again in places where they have been largely extinguished such as North America.

Even as the so-called "local food" movement gains momentum in the United States, the word "local" in front of "food" would, for most Italians, seem redundant. (The global food network is making some inroads, of course; but Italians are fighting back, for example, with "Italian Meat Only" signs in corner groceries and delicatessens.) Small farms are the backbone of this highly diversified agricultural system. One guide explained that in the United States there are perhaps a dozen varieties of wine grapes grown. In France, he claimed, there are about 45. In Italy, almost 300. The hills and valleys along the winding coast create a large number of microclimates making Italy friendly to many varieties not just of grapes, but of other fruits and vegetables as well.

Some will complain that the European agricultural subsidy system has allowed these "uneconomic" farms to remain. But in the years to come, these farms will probably return to being economically profitable as well as absolutely necessary. Europeans will be glad that they suffered through so many good meals and paid taxes to support the farms where the food was raised. For at that point others around the world may be scrambling to reorganize their agriculture along similar lines.

There are also many other aspects of Italian life that make the country seem better prepared than most for an energy-constrained future. Besides the high-speed trains which run on electricity, there are electric trams in the major cities; an extensive and heavily used bus system; a limited but useful subway in Rome; and, of course, a plethora of tiny automobiles, the most faddish of which is now the Smart Car. Then, there are the myriad motor scooters which swerve constantly through traffic, scooters which every Italian under age 45 knows how to ride. And, of course, there is that most underrated form of transportation which is in broad use in Italy, namely, walking.

No wonder then that the Italians are some of the most parsimonious users of energy in the world. Of course, their overall heating bills are much smaller than those who live in Denmark or Iceland. On the other hand, few Italians bother with air conditioning even in the hottest months of the year. Nor do they think that automatic clothes dryers are a necessity as any casual survey of city balconies will tell you.

As one awakens in Italy's smaller towns, it's not unusual to hear something which seems to have nearly disappeared from the American outdoors: the sound of sweeping. Surely some Italians, especially commercial establishments, could afford the petroleum-powered blowers which so dominate the American urban landscape. But, perhaps Italians just value their quiet. (I found Italy, even Rome, to be surprisingly quiet, much to my delight.)

The news on the energy front is not all good, of course. One might think that with all those mountains, Italy would be flush with hydroelectric power. Alas, much of its electricity, some 82 percent, is generated using fossil fuels including about 25 percent from oil. That's changing with a move away from oil and toward natural gas. Natural gas will, of course, eventually prove to have limits as well. But, Italy has a huge potential for solar and geothermal which the government is now trying to tap.

Perhaps more worrisome is the large workforce serving tourists, especially in the southern half of the country. Italy today receives the fifth largest number of tourists of any country and is considered by some to be the world's top tourism "brand". Unfortunately, declining energy availability and the resulting high energy prices will likely translate into less tourism, severely curtailing over time an industry that currently represents about 5 percent of the Italian economy.

Still, it should be no surprise that the Italian government continues to plan for perpetual growth. The most visible recent sign is the concern about a long-term labor shortage which the new center-left government wishes to address by encouraging immigration. In fact, one of our Italian guides remarked that there are now many jobs "which Italians won't do." But perhaps the real problem--if it can be called that--is the famously low Italian birthrate of about 1.3 children per woman--far below the replacement rate of about 2.1. If that rate remains unchanged, the number of ethnic Italians in Italy will decline greatly over the next century.

All this presupposes, of course, that the ever-expanding supplies of energy needed for continual growth will remain available not only to Italy, but to the world into which Italy sells its fashionable clothes, cars, wine and leather goods. In the short run, the Italian government will likely be right about the need for more labor. In the long run, however, the odds appear to be against them.

But Italians are exceedingly adaptable as their millennia-long habitation of the Italian peninsula demonstrates. And, two minor, but surprising developments make it clear that they remain as adaptable as ever. Not long ago the government passed a ban on smoking in public places including restaurants and bars as well as a helmet law for riders of motor scooters. To everyone's surprise, the Italians obeyed.

One Italian journalist noted that while his countrymen don't like rules, they do know what's in their own best interests. There's hope in that and in the fact that the Italian infrastructure may just be one the best adapted for the energy-constrained future into which we are now heading.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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