Thursday, March 8, 2012

There's Infrastructure, Then There's Infrastructure

Doomsday Without the Lipstick

Not with a roar, but with a whimper.
No one has to venture very far at all to see the latest cinematic version of "natural" calamity, in every instance more dramatic and visual than the last.  However, such creations have a common quality -- each one is "packaged up" to fit nicely in a conveniently short form which can be translated into a television special, a few dramatic "fear kernels" for use in the latest political argument or, perhaps, a miniseries suited for water fountain discussion the following morning.

As usual, we humans have repeatedly demonstrated our appetite to "remove the teeth" from frightening things then slowly inoculate ourselves from too much continuing terror.  Although we find no specifics, we can assume that the residents of Herculaneum may have watched dramas of brave Romans surviving the volcanic tantrums of Vesuvius or even jokes -- perhaps sarcastic exaggerations -- of the mountain's killing power.

Catastrophe-wise, we do ourselves a disservice when we indulge the comfortable presumption that only very quick calamities need be considered so grave.  Slower ones, although less dramatic, are the long term events which bend population curves astonishingly downward and end chapters in well organized history texts.

The title of this posting is all about infrastructure, and, in fact, we've heard this theme in our recent politics.  In this case, however, MeanMesa urges visitors to consider a "division in scope."  There's infrastructure, and then there's infrastructure.

Cars, Planes and Trains

We can make a list of cultural edifices which have been constructed to meet the continually growing "demands" of modern society, demands for convenience, necessity, efficiency and, occasionally, for whim or art.  Of course our list begins with the "low hanging fruit" of cross country rail networks, transportation hubs, commercial jet traffic, clean, modern harbors and the like.

In moments of more careful reflection, other sorts of things are added, things such as sewer systems, storm drains, water works and levees.  Those thoughts may migrate further to hydroelectric dams, petroleum production fields and refineries, vast agricultural assets and food distribution networks.  The list continues to increase as we continue to add all manner of our favorite things.

The political questions about infrastructure have to do with borrowing and spending, increases in employment and demand - supply questions for the economy.  The salient issue, that is, the "burning question of the day,"  settles on needed repairs, government debt, social efficiency and so on.  The civil engineers offered up a bit of cannon fodder for the "debate" with a $2 Tn price tag to bring all these things "up to date."

If we, as a nation, were to undertake all these "repairs and up dates," at the end of such a process we would have re-established the basic infrastructure our engineers considered necessary to compensate for expected "wear and tear" expected simply as a result of aging along with some additional capacity needed to accommodate increases in need or demand.  

Many projects would amount to reinforcing, resurfacing, replacing and even re-routing projects already built long ago, while others would respond to "new requirements" made necessary by having more sewage for systems originally built for less sewage, more traffic on roads which were originally built for less traffic, higher levees for floods which used to have lower flood levels, sturdier overpasses to replace those which were built for smaller earthquakes, and so on.

However, there really is a "bigger picture."

Once all these efforts were completed, the infrastructure would have been returned to a state based on traditional and expected natural conditions which had developed, in the case of this country, over a couple of centuries of a fairly stable and steady environment.  We can now begin to see that the infrastructure we actually need is one which corresponds to what will be the environmental challenges of a future of changed conditions.

A "future" which has always previously been presumed to be a comfortably "distant future,"  now becomes a "future" with a new immediacy no longer fitting so well with the old, "distant future" idea or time table.

The infrastructure challenges we may fervently wish to embrace are defined by a restoration of conditions we have had before -- with a little here and there added to meet our growth since then.  But this proposition has a couple of very troubling flaws.  

First, we can restore the infrastructure, but we cannot restore the environment which dictated the parameters of its original design.  Second, our resources are not infinite. We will almost certainly run out of money if we build $2 Tn dollars worth of the wrong infrastructure, that is, projects which respond to previous environments which have fundamentally changed since the old designs made sense.

 A Not So Reassuring Ancient and Recent History

Climate change has already either caused the outright collapse of some serious civilizations in the past or, at least, played the role of "the straw that broke the camel's back."  

Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (image source)

Mayan City, Chichen Itza, Mexico (image source)
But could climate change "break the camel's back" of our modern culture in the United States?  Probably.  

However, our modern culture has a little more durability -- along with a great deal more engineering capacity -- to meet such challenges.  The obvious question is, unhappily, will we move to sustain ourselves with engineering -- infrastructure -- projects to mitigate the effects of climate change, or will we simply continue short sighted, "musical chairs" charades, considering only who will get first pick of the wealth we have?

Of course, a major part of our own dilemma is the artificial competition for resources -- a contest between cultural survival in the future and immediate opportunities to redirect such money into the pockets of the powerful and connected.  Believe it or not, this situation may be a modern version of something quite similar to what faced the Chaco and Mayan city fathers before.

Did they face city residents with the same infatuation for "not facing reality" as these great cities were signing off on their own death warrants?  Greed, religious mythology and unbounded appetites for power and influence were almost certainly just as present then as they are now.  And, just as frustrating for the prospect of "keeping things going."

As moderns, we may have some advantage from centuries of science, education and technology -- even if not from advanced philosophies, but none of these comes to bear on the problem when they are not applied.  Our own destruction, if it continues to approach without even a hint of rational preparation -- will not leave such durable evidence of its previous existence.  All of this could become not ruins or edifices of past greatness, but mere whimsies sustained only by folk songs sung around open fires in the company of sheep and chickens.

The world in our media "news" and conversations is showing us the graphic departures from the environment which designed the infrastructure of even a much nearer past.  Structures which used to suffer "acceptable" damage from the tornadoes of a few decades ago no longer do.  The future apparently plans to replace "acceptable" with "survivable."

The Indus Civilization began here 4,600 years ago (map source BBC)
 Did they pick this place even though "floods always happened here?"

Cities -- whether on the banks of the Indus in Pakistan or on the urbanized coast lines of Australia -- used to occasionally flood, but now are under water as far as the eye can see.  Heat waves and droughts have always visited Africa for centuries, but in the modern form they not only crush life in that great continent, they host wild fires outside Moscow!

Meanwhile, every time a national disaster of these new, unusually grave, severity plows through another part of our modern culture, the report is the same.  "Well, things like this have always happened."  Really?

Were the flooded cities built where "floods always happened?"  Did Africans establish their homesteads and villages where "droughts always happened?"  Was Moscow built in a place where "land fires were always a problem?"  Did Great Nature place the glaciers of Greenland in a spot where "melting always happened?"

There's little advantage to be taken from reciting another litany of environmental "warning signs."  Even so, it takes each of us significantly more effort to neglect reaching such a conclusion every day.

So, Infrastructure?  What Can We Do?

Rather than "running wild" with a thousand details, let's instead imagine that we were speaking to the "city council" of Chichen Itza.  Undoubtedly, the conversation would turn to infrastructure changes which might have been undertaken -- all in hindsight, of course -- to mitigate some of the climate change challenges, particularly the drought and subsequent food problems.

With this sort of setting, we might be ready to look over a few of the possibilities available to our modern government, presuming that things have finally gotten bad enough to somehow spur it back into an "operational state."  After all, modern culture has some great advantages which can be brought to bear, not the least of which is our modern government.

Remember, although global climate change has everything to do with water, it doesn't suggest that there will simply be less water.  The problems arise from the fact that the water is moving from where it has traditionally been to new places.  Preparing the infrastructure for the new conditions will encompass everything -- rising ocean levels, new harbors, migrating regions of arable land and startling increases and decreases in regional rainfall and temperature and, most likely, the relocation of population centers and transportation systems.

Here a few "starters" we can use to begin our "wish list."  They won't be mere "wishes" for very long.  Things are speeding up much more than early models predicted.

1. Figure out what the geographical climate of the United States will be when this phase of global change gradually settles into its new profile.

2. Initiate government policies which will re-prioritize social/cultural resources, certainly including tax money, to projects which are consistent with the new conditions.

3. Construct infrastructure projects which correspond to the extreme weather changes which will develop as a product of the climate change.  This includes dams which must either be higher or simply abandoned, enhanced levees and drainage models to protect existing cities which are to be preserved, weatherization and structural enhancements to structures which will face different environments than the ones in place when they were designed and, perhaps one of the most expensive, the relocation and reconstruction of most of the developments along what used to be the coastline.

4. Massive development of new agricultural areas which will replace those no longer viable as arable lands because of temperature and rainfall changes or the increasing severity of storms.

5. A redefined military with the capabilities necessary to meet challenges in a world where entire populations are starving to death.  Historically, several "interesting" things tend to "happen" along the way as Malthusian corrections unfold.  There has never been a correction the size of the one approaching.  Planetary population is going to dive from around 7 Bn to around 4 or 5 Bn.

Actually, the old adage about "oceans protecting us" may come back into favor to some extent.  Still, we should not expect that some of those "interesting" things will not reach us.  We're not talking about a shortage of imported French wine.

The final element on our list has more to do with psychology, philosophy and maybe even religion.

6. Soon enough, most likely in the next generation of Americans, children will grow to adulthood with the "next nightmare."  The last one was the Cold War, but this one will be living and maturing in a world where the planetary death rate is the new nightmare.

The fabric of civilization and perhaps even hope itself will be under attack.  We will either emerge from this as rational human beings with the same spark of enduring optimism which has propelled us this far or -- we won't.

Sleep well tonight, but don't sleep too long.

A "post posting" post script from MeanMesa:

First, if this post interests you, visit MeanMesa's longer paper, Managing Global Warming Solutions.

Second, if the list provided above spurs you to think of more suggestions, please comment.  We will need all the creative energy and brain power we've got to get through this one.


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