The past couple of summers have been interesting in Northwest Indiana. The Borman has been getting rebuilt, Calumet Avenue has finally been completed all the way to US 30 (eighty years in the making), and the Dan Ryan if finally getting is total makeover. Meanwhile the Indiana Harbor Channel inches its way towards a dredging and cleaning (hah) and the Cline Avenue interchange is beginning to fall apart a mere few years after it was finished. Some parts seemed to be falling apart even before it was finished. And people are belly-aching over what happens when a stretch of CTA rail gets a needed rebuild.
Meanwhile there’s reports that the pipes underneath the cities are falling apart. I know that one pipe going down Manor Street has opened up at two different places within a block, and while a water company’s truck being swallowed up by a sinkhole in Portland Oregon may be funny, the loss of a billion gallons of water a day underneath New York isn’t (especially since fixing that leak might be able to stop the damming of a river in upstate New York). And they’re not the only tunnels worried about: Many of the passenger train tunnels on the Northeast Corridor are well on their way to falling apart, and would probably be closed down by now if it weren’t for the fact that the trains are electric.
Meanwhile, the electric seems to be getting worse and worse. Mind you, part of that is the peak oil about to hit us full in the face, but ever since the idea of enlightened regulation was replaced by “markets, markets and more markets” (and you thought Libertarians were noiseboxes with no effect on American Politics) service has become worse and worse. It used to take an act of God to cause a blackout, now one tree limb touching the right spot causes whole states to black out. Thing is, we didn’t used to have these limbs hanging out — the companies would trim the trees back in the day. Now they cut corners, and millions lose power.
And let’s not talk about New Orleans, either. I’ve done enough of that.
Mind you, I tend to go for the most expensive stuff, and that includes building and fixing things. While I can understand why one would want to do things a little less well than one would like (two rail lines instead of three, planning 75 years instead of 100 years), there’s something absolutely wrong when we keep building to a thirty year lifespan for stuff that should be made to stand for centuries.
This problem will only become greater as oil and liquid energy becomes scarcer. After all, society is based on an allocation of energy. In the United States, we allow the energy to be distributed via private channels, with some used by public agencies to fix and build what’s supposed to benefit the public. (Yes, the private sector is supposed to benefit the public, but that benefit is mainly to the investors and the companies, with society-wide benefits a side-benefit).
Presently we’re pulling in enough energy of all types to do everything we seem to want, even at a price that’s double of what it was less than seven years ago (and putting a lie to the idea that inflation has been controlled during the Bush Jr. Era, as fuel is an important part of the American lifestyle). What happens, though, once the amount of energy starts dropping? Sticking in Flourescent Lights in every lamp possible would only lead to a limited impact, and the amount of energy will keep dropping.
What will be kept up?
Will anything be kept up?
Surely the cities will find themselves falling apart, if they’re not doing so already. Much of the rise of the American City has been less a return to the vitality of the fifties and before, and more a recreation of the city as a playground for empty-nesters and the Young and Childless. When society decides they can’t keep up this fantasy, we’re going to see things REALLY fall apart.
Whether this will lead to benefits for the rural areas is also iffy. After all, we’re talking about city folk. Problem is, the people who make it to the city are less likely to survive in a rural setting. They tend to not have any of the skills that rural places need, and those who can make lots of money in an urban setting have skills that work ONLY in an urban setting. Poor, unskilled people can live in a city, place them in the hinterlands and they’ll either run back to the city or they’ll die.
And what happens when there’s no city for them to escape to?