Tag Archives: sustainability

Battling Aging Infrastructure, the Enemy Is Us

Awash in local media headlines about Baltimore’s recent major water-main and sewer failures—and the flooding, street closures and business disruptions the inevitably accompany such events—Maryland’s Senator Ben Cardin and the city’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake jointly signed an editorial in the local newspaper calling for reinvestment in our failing water systems. (Baltimore Sun, “Commentary”, 7/31/2012, p. 15)  The need, they wrote, is national.  They did not elaborate, but spectacular failures in other cities—Chicago in December 2011; suburban Atlanta and Washington, DC, in May 2012; and Kansas City in July, to give a few recent examples—offer persuasive support.

That these officials would go on record together in the cause of at least a portion of our nation’s infrastructure is certainly admirable.  However, the scope of their concern is too limited.  The problems of age, obsolescence, and catastrophic failure are not confined to water and sewer systems.  Across the nation bridge closures, natural-gas leaks, potholes, power outages, and erratic data connections have become painfully frequent.

It is also disappointing, albeit understandable, that the senator and mayor failed to acknowledge that we—a profligate citizenry and our elected leaders—are largely to blame for decades of deferred maintenance and failures to upgrade to new technology that have left our infrastructure in many places decrepit.

Parents generally understand that leaving their children a dilapidate house or car is not a great gift, but the typical taxpayer has little knowledge and less redress when a government executive or legislator chooses to satisfy vocal current interests at the expense of silent infrastructure. All residents and businesses suffer from this failure of fiduciary responsibility and leadership. We have systematically squandered a legacy built through the hard work of preceding generations.

Fool me once, so the saying goes, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  If the time has come to reinvest, as Senator Cardin and Mayor Rawlings-Blake wrote, then as voters and taxpayers we should insist on a new deal: First, we should require that adequate funds are dedicated to infrastructure maintenance and upgrading so that decades hence our grandchildren are not confronted with the same crisis we now face.  Second, we should insist that our infrastructure is designed, constructed, and managed to provide reliable service and to be quickly repaired when failures occur.  Finally, we should rebuild with an eye on the future by incorporating smart information technology throughout the system. The people responsible for the infrastructure itself know how to do these things, but it will take leadership from elected officials to get them done.  Calling for reinvestment is only a small first step.

(An edited version of this post was published in the Baltimore Sun web edition in August 2012.)

“Sustainability” may be fundamentally unsustainable, but we have a chance

The idea of “sustainability” has clearly taken root.  The word appears frequently in print as well as Internet media, and national governments around the world have established agencies and programs devoted to it.  There seems to be widespread agreement that the idea has something to do with energy supplies, environmental impact, and economic growth, and perhaps with social engagement and political stability as well, although the scope of what is to be sustained—individual well-being, national prosperity, global status quo, for example—seem to differ from one forum to another.  However, there seems also to be a dawning realization that the idea’s application as a basis for guiding humanity’s actions may not be sustainable.

An important early appearance of the meme, if not its initial source, is often attributed to the World Commission on Environment and Development, commonly known as the Brundtland Commission.  This group of international experts was convened by the United Nations in 1983 to propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development; recommend ways that concern for the environment may be translated into greater co-operation among countries; and help define shared perceptions, aspirational goals, a long-term agenda for action.  The Commission’s 1987 report, Our Common Future  suggested that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  Among the still-expanding literature on the subject, I have found no more cogent definition of the term.

It might seem like a small step from seeking humanity’s “sustainable development,” a steady advancement of people’s achievement and wellbeing, to the “sustainability” of humanity, our survival as a prosperous species.  For a number of reasons, however, I suggest there is a large gap between the two concepts.  The gap is so broad, in fact, that I doubt the value of sustainability as a meaningful basis for guiding our principles and policies. Let me explain why.

To begin, the time scale for thinking about our sustainability far exceeds our abilities—politically, socially, historically, perhaps psychologically—to plan, take meaningful action, or even pay attention.  Scientific evidence suggests that the biological genus of which humans are a part evolved into being and the first hominid use of stone tools began in Africa perhaps 2.5 to 3.5 million years ago.  Evidence of homo sapiens sapiens, our particular species, dates back about 250,000 years.  (In all of this, my phrasing is meant not to convey any skepticism, but rather to acknowledge that we rely entirely on inference from the limited data available to us to draw conclusions about past events and conditions.)

Our various experiments in culture, social, and political organization are rather brief when seen in sharp contrast with these time periods.  Damascus is often claimed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, but evidence for large-scale
settlement seems to date back only about 4,000 years. (The earliest Egyptian, Sumerian, and Chinese written records may have been created about 6,000 years ago.)  The community water-management schemes of Bali and other parts of Indonesia, arguably among the better models for sustainable relationship of humans and their environment, began to exist perhaps 1000 years ago.  England’s Magna Carta was first issued in 1215 and the United States, our ongoing experiment in capitalist democracy, was established less than three centuries ago.  Viewed against the backdrop of human history, “sustainability” has had a very brief span of influence.

In addition, there is the fundamental uncertainty of our existence as a species.  While some people prefer alternative explanations, the fossil evidence suggests that many varieties of creatures have come and gone since the first simple cells appeared.  The famously extinct dinosaurs died out, some scientists suggest, after an asteroid colliding with the Earth caused extreme global climate change.  On a less cosmic scale, scientists theorize that the ash from a volcanic eruption approximately 70,000 years ago at Lake Toba on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, similarly caused such a dramatic global cooling that human population was drastically reduced.  Outbreaks of bubonic plague (the infamous Black Death of 14th Century Europe) and related famines in more recent times have dramatically reduced human populations in Asia and Europe.  Apart from simply not giving in to existential despair, probably the best we can do in light of such evidence is to limit our perspectives to decades at most.  Some government agencies already seem to be unable to maintain funding for the programs they established to enhance their communities’ “sustainability.”  (For example, see the commentary on Sustainable Cities Collective.)

Finally, we really cannot know whether our actions are “sustainable” with respect to either our development or our survival.  Application of the Brundtland definition requires forecasting not only the consequences of our current actions but also what future generations may judge to be their own “needs.”  On the one hand, our society and our global environment are a complex system, susceptible to the well-publicized “butterfly effect;” any small perturbation can cause unforeseen consequences.  On the other hand, our values, technologies, and culture change from one generation to the next, so that what may seem to us an inconsequential change may be seen very differently by our children; consider for example the shift in our views about air pollution pesticides.  In general then any assessments of the future consequences of our actions are more than likely to be inaccurate.  Even more fundamentally, it seems quite likely that we simply cannot do anything to meet our own present needs without in some sense compromising the options available to future generations.

While “sustainability” or even “sustainable development” may be problematic as directly useful concepts, the ideas nevertheless do point the way toward useable principles. Applying these principles will at least increase the chances of our long-term survival:

  • Use only renewable resources: No matter how large the supply reservoir may be, it will eventually be exhausted.
  • Eliminate all waste and pollution: What economists refer to as “residuals” are simply an indicator of inefficiencies in
    our production processes.
  • Stabilize our population: Increasing humans’ wellbeing and chances of survival as individuals and as a species depends ultimately on enhancing labor productivity as well as on applying strictly the first two principles.

Living without electricity

Living without electricity for a while helps to focus the mind on how we rely on our infrastructure and our ability—or lack thereof—to make reasoned choices about that reliance.  Hurricane Irene swept up the mid-Atlantic coast on a weekend, likely reducing the storm’s impact on most businesses.  Forecasters did a nice job, giving plenty of warning of the approaching winds and rain, and many people seem to have been prepared for some inconvenience.  The hurricane’s actual path probably reduced the amount of damage at actually occurred, at least until the eye of the storm went inland and through New England to produce devastating floods.

Even so, disruption was extensive. Amid blowing winds and a torrential downpour, the power went out at my house at about 3 am Sunday morning.  A neighbor reported seeing the flashes of what we assumed to be the pole-mounted equipment blowing as downed branches and trees shorted out the overhead wires.  Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE), the utility serving us, reported that some 750,000 of its 1.23 million customers in the region lost service. The public relations folks claim that crews have been brought in from as far away as Kentucky to help with repairs.

At home and still without power more than 72 hours later, I am able to use my laptop and communicate with the world thanks to cellular telephone service and 100 feet of extension cord plugged into my neighbor’s house across the street. His side of the block did not fail.  We plugged in the fridge, have a gas range and good supply of candles; I must admit that many others are suffering much more than we are at the moment.

At least three aspects of the situation nevertheless bother me.

First there is the customer service.  While BGE messages to customers claim they are working “around the clock,” local news reports that the repair crews shut down for the evening at 8 pm; the statistics reported for restorations of power show clearly there was no overnight progress. Four days since BGE claims to have started storm operations, more than 20 percent of customers who lost power are still in the dark.  Our local food market could not open and had to throw away thousands of dollars’ worth of spoiled goods.  The planned Monday opening for the city’s schools had to be pushed back to Wednesday.  I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect the utility to work around the clock to restore full service.  I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect that parts and materials should be available within a 2-day period from other parts of the continent to accommodate these foreseeable emergency demands.  Yet I cannot take my business elsewhere and there is no apparent way that failures of customer service will influence the company’s profitability or its executives’ income.

Second is the facility system.  Electricity is delivered to my city neighborhood and much of the region by overhead wires. Many storms far short of hurricane intensity cause frequent power interruptions. (To the BGE’s credit, my impression is such outages tend to be fixed within 4 to 6 hours, regardless of when and under what weather conditions they occur; this seems to me a reasonable standard.  Why are utilities and other infrastructure providers not required to make their performance statistics public, with standardized definitions and measurments?) While my definitely-leafy part of the city is less dense than many, I do not really understand why the poles have not been retired and the wires placed underground.  I know the initial cost would be high, but I not convinced it would not be more than offset by the avoidable out-of-pocket and inconvenience costs I pay for recurring outages and reductions in the utility’s maintenance expenses. I suspect that the idea of moving to underground installations throughout the city is made unattractive by utility accounting and regulatory systems (increased investment in fixed capital), not to mention the public-relations and political headaches of using cutting into city streets or securing private easements and connecting to each house and shop.  Nevertheless, I believe we should not have to consolidate to Manhattan-style densities to warrant the investment.

Finally, there is the thought of what the future may hold.  If costs for such new technologies as fuel cells, photovoltaic installations, and wind-powered generators continue to decline, as I expect they will, I think small customers located in less-dense areas will decide to cut their ties to the power grid.  Large corporate utilities will deal primarily with large consumers, whether they be businesses or multi-unit residential cooperatives and condominiums. A future in which a large fraction of households can meet their domestic energy demands from locally-supplied sun, breezes, and digested grass clippings and leaf collection is arguably more sustainable than what we now have, but it does imply maintaining what many people now call “sprawl.”

Making infrastructure investment more attractive through consumption

I must have been offered at least a dozen credit cards in the past week, each one an opportunity to spend on clothes, electronic toys, food, travel, and other items for consumption. Each of the financial institutions hoping to attract my business was also hoping, I imagine, that I might by choice or chance not pay their bills in full and thereby convert my debt to a longer-term and high-yielding asset on their books.  I would be bound, according to terms typical of the offers, to pay interest on my unpaid balance at rates significantly above 10% annually, 5 to 10 times what the banks would pay me to lend them money by purchasing a certificate of deposit.

While I am certainly annoyed by the steady barrage of credit-card offers, particularly within the context of my recent memories of financial meltdown, mortgage crisis, and federal debt-limit bickering, my deeper concern is why are there no attractve offers to buy into my city’s or state’s or nation’s infrastructure.  With aging bridges and pavements, bursting water mains, and straining levees almost everywhere apparent in this country, the demand for infrastructure investment should be booming.  Meeting that demand—whether through private initiative or government action—would not only create immediate jobs in materials, construction, and facilities management, but also provide the services to support sustained growth in the economic sectors that depend on efficient transportation, clean water supply, and flood-free operations.  Can we create ways to make infrastructure investment—a good thing—as attractive and painless as—a bad thing—going deeper into consumer debt?

I think we can.  Here’s one idea.

Suppose a state government joined with an appropriate team of banks, utility companies, and local authorities, that is, form a serious public-private partnership. (PPP)  The PPP would begin by marketing an affinity-branded credit card and matching debit card.  The attraction for consumers using the cards would be a credit—say 3 to 5 percent of all purchases—to be applied against current infrastructure services (for example, transit fares; water, electric power, and natural gas fees; tolls and or parking fees), property and real estate transaction taxes, or purchase of tax-advantaged bonds issued by the government members of the PPP.  The bonds could be of the zero-coupon variety, to reduce the need for current cash flow and to encourage longer-term consumer saving.  Employers and utilities could use the card to store transit credits and demand-management incentives for employees and customers.

The cards’ branding could celebrate the social as well as physical infrastructure of the target market region. Card-holders would receive their credits only by using the card to pay for infrastructure services and taxes (or by investing in bonds), accelerating the trend toward reducing cash processing costs and revenue leakage.  The bankers gain access to a large population for associated marketing and data mining.  There seem to me to be a lot of winners in this scheme.

Feasibility seems proven.  Affinity cards and employee-benefit debit cards are well developed, of course.  There are rudimentary versions of what I am imagining in use, such as multi-system transit fare cards (Washington’s SmarTrip and Baltimore’s CharmCard), the E-ZPass highway toll-collection system, and the services offered by Toronto-based Skymeter.  While we are not likely to change from a consumption-driven economy, perhaps we can channel some of the consumption painlessly in savings, investment, and a sustainable infrastructure.

Sustainable Values and Infrastructure

There seems to be little question that we are now in one of those historically recurrent periods of societal crisis that tell us we must change our ways.  A plethora of recent books present dismal perspectives of our clash of cultures, changing climate, losses of species and languages, and financial crises, and how each threatens our well-being and lastingness.  The threats are very real, of course, but to me are interesting because, if relief is to be found, surely our infrastructure must have an important role.

Seeking to understand this role, I have finally plowed my way through Raj Patel’s modestly titled exegesis on modern economics and human nature, The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy. (2009, New York: Picador)  With ample reference to both foundational and more radical texts of market economics and Western social theory as well as more personal accounts of current populist movements, the book has definitely generated buzz and expanded its author’s reputation to sometimes messianic proportions.  (For a review, see “Are You the Messiah? A political economist gets a following he wasn’t expecting,” by Lauren Collins, New Yorker magazine, November 29, 2010)

The reading took longer than expected, because as page after page turned I felt compelled to pencil in questions, opposing references, and outright objections to Patel’s perspectives. Where he sees elemental democracy in the masked pronouncements of a Zapatista Junta, I see the tyranny of the mob. When Patel disparages the possibility of getting prices right—or having any prices at all—for clean air and water, I despair at the idea that humans will forsake the desire to improve their lives, however privileged they may be, satisfied that their needs—defined by others—are being met. While Patel finds it essential to feed the world’s growing population by rationing necessarily limited food production, I wonder why humanity might not be happier and arguably better off limiting population to levels supportable with an abundant and varied food supply.  I suppose I must recommend the book at least because it offers the attentive reader ample intellectual stimulation.

Patel’s message seems to be that for two key reasons a market-based, democratic society is essentially unsustainable and revolutionary change is essential. First, there is no hope of getting the prices right for clean air, pure water, cultural diversity, historic associations, and myriad other resources we humans use in pursuit of comfortable lives. Second, our abilities as humans to work together toward success in this pursuit are hopelessly subverted by the existence of corporations, disembodied entities that behave with the legal rights and powers of a person but lack a person’s moderating moral and ethical judgment.   Without the restrictive forces of either appropriate prices or moral imperatives, corporations and people ruthlessly seek exclusive control of collective resources and private gain from exploitation of these resources.

Hope lies, for Patel, in a Buddhist theory of value.  “The real value of something,” he writes, “is not its ability to satisfy a craving, a desire, a vanity, but to meet the need for well-being.”  With enlightenment, we will recognize that our desire for cell phones, shoes, and other such “baubles and fripperies” is nothing but illusion created by hidden persuaders.  Corporations will somehow adapt, I suppose, and we will lose our lust for more, all settling happily for just “enough.”

British economist Diane Coyle’s book The Economics of Enough: How to Run the Economy as if the Future Matters. (2011, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) takes a similar stance on the problems but offers a more moderate assessment of the underlying issues and, to my mind, a more practical prescription for what must be done.  She focuses her attention on the inevitable necessity of making tradeoffs among efficiency, fairness or equity, and freedom in how people are able to pursue and manage their resources.  Our values and our governance, as individuals and groups within our society, determine how the balance is struck, and today we have “tilted too far”—in Coyle’s view and my own—“in favor of individualism and the gratification of immediate wishes,” toward freedom at the expense of fairness and even efficiency. Where previous generations made investments, we now are consuming our assets.

Regarding values, Coyle’s views are not so different from Patel’s: We need a change of values to guide our behavior.  In Coyle’s analysis, however, a revival of what Max Weber termed the Protestant ethic, principles that guided people to work for the future rather than immediate gratification, could be effective.  Neither author has much to say about how we are to decide what is “enough” for individuals and groups in a pluralistic society. Patel would no doubt be the more austere judge.

To Patel’s call for changed values, Coyle adds changes in measures of achievement and in our institutions of governance.  The ways we measure economic growth, productivity, and well-being are simply inadequate for dealing with our growing understanding of the importance of intangibles. With the revolution in information and communications technologies, services account for an ever larger share of production; we do a poor job of measuring  quality of services, and the shortcoming is especially severe regarding what we term quality of life matters.  The  technology revolution is also transforming how individuals, corporations, and political entities relate to one another. Coyle imagines that societal decision making can be shifted from centralized agencies to “involve a more productive  and thoughtful interplay between markets and governments than we’ve typically had in the past…”, but here I could not quite make out her image of that future. Perhaps she envisions social networking platforms supporting grass-roots participation, a sort of Swiss direct democracy via telethon or Facebook.

Development of such a participatory system would certainly signal the integration of a new set of technologies into our infrastructure.  In past decades, new infrastructure technologies have been accompanied by—and arguably enabled or perhaps caused—changes in how society operates. Rail and then highway transportation changed the patterns of human settlement; piped supply of clean water changed the way households operate.  These changes in turn have been accompanied by changes in our fundamental values, on the scale contemplated by Patel and Coyle.  If we are to have the change in values these authors argue we need for a sustainable future, then I believe we must expect to reshape our infrastructure.

Our roads, our legacy

The nation’s network of roads, taken together, is the legacy of investments made over the course of many decades. The legacy includes land committed to enabling people and goods to be moved from place to place, and with that land forests and grasslands cleared, streams diverted, and flora and fauna displaced. Added to these natural resources are concrete, steel, and other materials, and the human labor of planning and construction to produce the pavement and bridges, signs and signals, guardrail and rest areas that daily carry millions of vehicles.

Despite the efforts of clever analysts, there is no authoritative appraisal of this legacy’s current value. That the legacy has any value at all is a proposition based on our society’s desire for access and mobility and our adoption of  economics as a way of understanding and directing our behavior.  The protracted discussions in the U. S. Congress and many state legislatures concerning how we pay for roads and government’s role in their management is a reflection of our lack of consensus on the value of the legacy and what we should do with it in the future.

It’s as though we are beneficiaries gathered for the reading of the will following the demise of a wealthy relative. We’ve inherited a family estate and now must decide what’s to be done with the property.  Is there a substantial bank account, stocks and bonds?  Do any of us want to live in the mansion; can we afford it?  What’s to be done with the art collection?  Is the land still to be farmed or subdivided for development?  Can the gardens and fen be conserved?

Our legacy is a diverse collection of assets.  The fundamental questions facing us are whether to use these assets to realize the greatest return to the beneficiaries or to keep the legacy intact at the lowest cost.  We may seek advice from the financial advisers, groundskeepers, curators, and other staff who have cared for these assets in the past.  The answers will depend, however, on what we judge to be important, what we think we can afford to do, and how well we can agree among ourselves.  It’s all very complicated.

These are the issues facing the people who take responsibility for managing our roads  For more than a century the network was growing as the nation moved across the continent and trucks and cars began to compete with trains, wagons, and trams as primary means for moving from place to place.  Today we have more than 4 million miles of public roads in the 50 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, according to the U. S. Department of Transportation; about 2.7 million miles of these roads are paved. The strategic core of the network is the National Highway System (NHS), about 160,000 miles of paved roads judged to be important to the nation’s economy, defense, and mobility. Within the NHS, the Interstate Highway System, inaugurated by President Eisenhower in 1956, accounts for just over one-quarter of that, about 47,000 miles.  While the Interstates represent just over 1% of the nation’s road mileage, they carry about 25% of the nation’s traffic, measured by vehicle-miles of travel. (1)

We have reached a point where the demand for new roads nationwide has been largely satisfied. Additional capacity would be welcome in some places where population and jobs are growing, and this means adding lanes and upgrading standards on some routes. Substantial revisions of facilities will be wanted in other areas to enhance livability and improve safety, for example replacement of Seattle’s Alaska Way Viaduct with a tunnel. It may be that we will choose in coming years to make substantial new investments in rail transit and other forms of mass transportation, and this may necessitate alterations in communities’ roads.  But in much of the nation the primary task facing the people responsible for our roads will be managing our legacy assets.

When it comes to roads and other public works, the job of “asset management” has come to mean primarily looking after the facilities’ condition and maintenance to ensure they can provide the services for which they were constructed.  Other than re-purposing a freeway lane for use by high-occupancy vehicles only, dedicating road right-of-way for transit use or installation of fiber-optic cable, or converting abandoned rail lines to bicycle trails, road assets are not particularly fungible, that is, easily converted into other forms of assets. (Stock markets, for example, make it possible for owners to easily exchange shares for cash and vice versa.)  The nascent market in private-sector leasing and operation of toll roads (the Chicago Skyway, for example) and other facilities are a step toward encouraging infrastructure asset managers to think about how the value of  might be redeployed to increase public benefit, but we are still a long way from managing a road system as though it were a mutual fund.   In the meantime, asset preservation seems to be the primary objective, simply making sure that everything is still presentable and in working order when the family finally decides what to do.

(1) See http://www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/html/table_01_04.html,
http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policy/2008cpr/es.htm