Sunday’s power outage in Lawrence is one more reminder among many that America’s basic infrastructure — roads, bridges, sewers, the electrical grid — are all getting old. As anyone over the age of 50 will tell you, as you get older things start to break down, and constant maintenance and replacement become necessary. What’s true for the human body is equally true for the wonders of 20th century engineering (and, in some case, 19th century).
The lessons to be learned from our increasing utilities failures are very much the same as lessons to be learned from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. All around the world we depend upon aging systems and structures that are beginning to fall apart.
If one looks at the basic technologies upon which our daily lives depend, it is clear that many are quite old. Much of the Interstate highway system was built more than half a century ago. The electrical grid, from the huge power transmission lines to the conduits that run underground, overground, and in many of our houses, are of equal or greater age.
A few years ago I read a fascinating book about how long it would take for our built environment to crumble and disappear without human presence. The answer was, for the most part, shockingly short. The destructive powers of weather, corrosion, and age are well known to civil engineers, but most of us take our basic services for granted. When we flip the light switch we expect the lights to go on. When we turn a tap we expect water to flow. When we go onto the highway, we expect the roads to be passable. But this requires a huge human effort and a massive financial investment.
In the current economy, with gasoline around $4 a gallon, few people are willing to talk about the need for infrastructure replacement. As we cut back on education and essential human services, infrastructure replacement and repair is not a popular subject. And yet we continue to expect everything to work and work properly and consistently.
I think that many Americans are in a state of denial about the terrible condition of our infrastructure. Instead of mobilizing to repair and replace we simply deny the problem. We grumble at the folks in charge of infrastructure, government, utilities, private corporations, and yet we do not recognize the impending crisis, a crisis which worsens day by day.
In spite of our economic woes, it is time that common sense prevails. America’s states and municipalities, along with the federal government, need to survey our infrastructure and find ways to finance its repair and replacement. Otherwise, at some point, the lights are going to go out and stay out.