Monday, February 22, 2010

Infrastructure: Priorities and painful decisions

Christine Patton is a former risk and process management consultant; and currently Co-chairs the Transition Town OKC initiating group. She has a nice blog "Peak Oil Hausfrau". Check out her blog entry on the difficult decisions we need to face to maintain the most important infrastructure we built. Here is a short extract:

When cheap energy reigned, we built acres of infrastructure, 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.

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?

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?

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