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Infrastructure: Priorities and painful decisions

When cheap energy reigned, we built acres of infrastructure throughout the United States, without giving too much thought to the energy, materials, and money that we would need to maintain and operate these constructions. Now, we have come to completely depend on these systems, most of which did not exist in their current form one hundred years ago:

- Roads, highways and bridges,

- Water and sewage systems,

- Housing and buildings (schools, hospitals),

- Electric grid and power plants,

- Landfills and hazardous waste disposal systems,

- Dams and canals,

- Public transit (including subways, buses and railways),

- Internet and communications, and

- Energy extraction, processing, and delivery systems.

The crumbling of this legacy of infrastructure is one of the many day-to-day living problems that we face over the next fifty to a hundred years. Unlike our natural systems, which can regenerate themselves (if not destroyed completely), and which are self-perpetuating and self-healing, our built infrastructure requires regular maintenance and investment. Maintenance depends on a base of knowledgeable personnel with access to information about the systems, affordable materials and energy, factories that produce needed parts, and regular investment to fix what's broken or decaying.

Some systems are more critical than others. The failure of some key systems might almost immediately cause chaos, death or disease. Other systems are less critical, but provide important support to the overall structure. Some could probably be replaced by more local, low-energy, distributed systems. And some, while causing severe inconvenience and a need for work-arounds, can be done without.

Most of our systems have interlocking dependencies; that is, that the electrical grid needs a well-maintained set of roads to get to the substations and transformers, the water & sewage systems need electricity, and all systems need the energy infrastructure to continue to find, extract, process and deliver oil and coal. Therefore failure in one infrastructural system could potentially result in cascading failures throughout the other systems.

Things break. Water lines crack, electric lines snap, and potholes appear magically overnight. Infrastructure is especially vulnerable in severe weather and during natural disasters, but also from lack of regular maintenance and from accidents, and of course from willful malfeasance. We currently have the capacity to come in after a disaster, clean up, and repair the damage. Will we be able to do so when everything costs twice as much and when state, municipal and corporate revenues have been cut in half? Will we be able to when we discover that the factories that manufacture the key gadget that connects point A to point B are bankrupt?

World geography is filled with artifacts of civilizations and empires that collapsed or could no longer maintain their structures. Some, like the Roman aquaducts, still exist today. Others are occasionally unearthed by enthusiastic archeologists beneath layers of dirt and history.

Unfortunately, we may already be close to a crisis, at least according to the American Society for Civil Engineers, which in 2009 gave our national infrastructure (composed of 15 systems) a grade of "D." According to them, we have a maintenance deficit of $2.2 trillion dollars over the next five years. Even in the best of times, we failed to maintain our infrastructure, instead choosing to pursue expansion and growth. Where will we come up with this money as governments go into a tailspin and they can no longer issue bonds for infrastructure projects?

At first, problems with our infrastructure might appear as delays or isolated problems. Broken water mains will stay broken, sewage backups will stay backed up. Power outages after ice storms will stretch from days to weeks to...months? Roads in certain areas will decay as potholes grow larger and deeper. Bridges in rural areas may be closed indefinitely, and traffic rerouted via another bridge, two hours away. Some schools may be abandoned as they become increasingly unsafe for habitation or when gas is too expensive to fuel their buses. These types of issues may not be recognized by the general public as the beginning of infrastructural collapse.

Later, as budgets contract further, poorer, rural and outlying areas may no longer get services. Certain areas, even entire towns, may never recover power after a major disaster like a hurricane or earthquake. As the price of asphalt and concrete escalates, roads may not get repaired after floods wash away roads, and overpasses crash to the ground. Some smaller, isolated cities may be virtually cut off from the rest of the world.

Certain areas will be better off than others:

- Systems that have been built with resilience in mind, with fewer critical points-of-failure, that have been well-maintained, and built with high-quality, long-lasting materials, should last longer.

- Systems with lower maintenance costs and that use parts and/or fuel that can be sourced locally or cheaply should be easier to perpetuate.

- Systems that are able to operate manually, with distributed skills and knowledge, in the face of power blackouts or communication problems, should provide more continuous service.

- Systems that are flexible, which can be altered or reconfigured to adapt to changing conditions, should be able to function longer.

-And systems in areas that are able to bear the costs of rising prices (toll roads, taxes, fees, utility bills), may be able to stay in operation longer as well.

But delayed maintenance and lack of repairs may finally bring infrastructure in many areas to it's knees. This might be only an inconvenience for some people, and for others it may require an exodus to the bigger, well-funded cities or smaller, yet resilient, towns. But eventually, unless we take corrective action, we will start seeing larger scale disasters as infrastructural systems reach their tipping (or cracking) points.

What large-scale disasters might we see and what would their consequences be? The collapse of key bridges or canals could effectively cut off traffic to certain areas. Dam failures could affect a whole range of systems from the elimination of hydroelectric power, flooding of large areas, or even problems with nuclear power plants that rely on constant water supplies. And if maintenance on nuclear power plants or energy refineries is delayed beyond repair, we could see horrible repercussions. We need to avoid these negative consequences as much as possible, even if making the necessary adjustments in our investments and economic psychology are uncomfortable (to say the least).

Some of these predictions may not happen until far off in the future, after budgets have become so constrained that cities cannot recover after disasters, and federal aid is no longer so readily available. Some well-built systems will take forever to crumble. Others are only a tipping point away.

This is reality. With a future of decreasing energy supplies, we will have less and less available to maintain the systems that support our globalized, high-energy, consumer lifestyle, on top of the resources we need to meet our daily needs. We will need to decide where to spend our money, our materials, our energy, and our manpower. How will we prioritize? Will it be haphazardly, fixing whatever is broken, patching things together until the point that resources are no longer available? Will we only maintain systems in the places of the rich and powerful?

I would suggest that as part of our powering-down and transition projects, we include the following activities:

- Acknowledge and quantify the amounts of energy, materials, and knowledge that we need to maintain our current infrastructural systems,

- Identify key points of weakness, and system dependencies,

- Create realistic projections for maintenance costs and available budget, taking into account reductions of key inputs such as energy, oil, water, etc;

- Prioritize systems in order of necessity (health and safety) as well as potential for disaster,

- Re-design maintenance of key systems to reduce expense and ecological impact, while increasing longevity and flexibility,

- Find ways to re-organize as many systems as possible in cheaper, and more sustainable, resilient, and localized ways, and

- Find ways to mothball or power down systems that will no longer be cost and material-efficient to maintain and/or which could create harm if left to disintegrate on their own - if left to reach the point(s) of no return while still in operation.

Accomplishing this list of activities is a tall order, to say the least, especially as it first requires a recognition that we may not have a future of infinite progress and growth, and secondly requires a proactive approach. Proactive approaches aren't the hallmark of cities, states and nations that are already in a state of emergency and reaching fiscal breaking points. Regardless of how likely it is that we will implement this program, we need our officials to recognize that what are currently considered drastic measures may eventually become the only safe and sane options left. Otherwise, we will wait too late to salvage our most critical pieces of civilization while wasting our money and resources on maintaining the un-maintainable.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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