Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Explaining U.S. infrastructure and how now is the time for a new New Deal

In my day job, I communicate about flashy topics like driverless vehicles, supply chains, e-bikes and e-scooters, and the psychology of how people think (or don't) about how they get around.

I also spend time trying to understand things like how culverts impact geology, more sustainable pavements, and how "accessible floating bus stops" can be safer for blind people or others with disabilities. These are parts of our highly complicated infrastructure network that allow us to get from point A to point B without batting an eyelid. But should anyone else want to try to figure out how this highly complex puzzle fits together, Deb Chachra's new book - How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World - is as good of a place to start as any.

In fact, many people should want to understand infrastructure better, whether it's transportation-related or how we get our water or electricity, because President Joe Biden's Inflation Reduction Act is starting to funnel more money into the industry than has been done at any time since FDR's New Deal to combat the Great Depression nearly 100 years ago. Much of the future of the U.S. workforce will depend on how much a wider net of people knows how the system works.

Chachra is a materials science professor at Olin College in Massachusetts and is a great communicator about tough topics. She details how we drive or take transit on a highly integrated system, turn on lights from a complex grid, cook dinner with gas, and drink water from separate grids that might be bringing the materials from somewhere close but more likely quite far away.

The Washington Post's book review notes, "As Chachra explains, you are living in the lap of luxury without realizing it. The great gift of our infrastructure is that it gives us agency over our lives, liberating us from everyday drudgery."

This luxury, on the other hand, turns into a political liability in that we don't honor or consider "essential" our utility workers in the same ways that we do our firefighters and police officers, which leads us to forget and neglect these systems in ways that can result in catostrophic events like bridge collapses and river breaches.

Chachra says we need to think big, like they have done in Wales with a place called Electric Mountain, where, inside a beautiful, seemingly unperturbed mountain water flows down inside and is then sucked back up in a perpetual renewable energy turbine system generating power to nearby communities. She argues that these kinds of projects can be done both sustainably and humanely, unlike her example of Niagra Falls, which saw the U.S. governement using eminent domain to flood the land of the Tuscarora Nation.

She writes that this system of displacing apparently less powerful people in the name of progress for those living in higher and varying degrees of luxury has got to stop. Part of this could be accomplished by making electric grids much more local and not tied to the national grid, and also using the source (water, wind, solar, geothermal) that makes the most sense for their own situations.

The other major change needed that she writes about is the need to take profit motives out of the infrastructure equation. The systems need to be resilient to the many growing threats presented by increasingly regular natural disasters. That, over profits, needs to be the focus of the massive investment about to hopefully create a whole new revised infrastructure system for the country.

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