“Imagine … an America with rebuilt, healthy, dynamic metropolitan areas, and gleaming new port facilities, and networks of  high-speed rail, an America with electric vehicles and a smart grid and energy generated by the power of the sun and wind and  water and the ocean’s waves. Imagine if the children of today’s toddlers had access to world-class public schools all across the  nation and a higher education system that is both first-rate and affordable.

 “Imagine if we set out seriously to do all this.

 “Imagine.” [1]

An excellent vision for the future, both short and long term. So how will we get there?

Just enduring each day in the midst of this great recession has been a struggle for most of us in these last couple of years. Given what I and others have attempted to share about the challenges of Peak Oil (to say nothing of the potential harm climate change will cause us all), summoning a noble vision for the future is a great first step. But how we manage to realize this in the face of our economic struggles and the added burden of decreasing access to affordable oil is an entirely different matter.

If we are to prosper in the days ahead, there’s a foundation we require in re-building and re-creating success, growth, and prosperity—a subject I’ve already begun discussing (here and here). For starters, a sound highway system (bridges included), clean water, adequate sewage treatment, a ready supply of affordable electricity and utility services—among other essential elements of a sound infrastructure we can depend on—are every bit as necessary in the days to come as they have been in the past.

But with the onset of Peak Oil, the challenge not just to sustain the levels of growth we’ve become accustomed to, but to enhance our standards of living upon recovery, is going to require enormous sums of money to repair and in many cases rebuild and reinvent the infrastructure that has supported us to date and which must support us going forward.

If those lifestyles are to continue, (recognizing as we must that standards of living and our economic ways of life on the other side of this recession will likely be very different than what was when we entered it), then we’re going to have to make our infrastructure sustainable—with no guarantees that we will power up enough, or any, alternative energy sources in time. But it’s foolish in the extreme for us to ignore the many warning signs that oil production is struggling now just to keep up with decreased demand during this recession, (let alone what will be once we regain our economic footing), and just blithely expect magic technology to rescue us so that we can continue on unaffected by the realities of diminishing oil production and supply. We have choices; it’s just that none of them are especially easy.

It’s unpleasant to think about having to add one more major financial challenge to our already-filled plates, as I’ve discussed previously. Peak Oil’s onset alone may prove to be an overwhelming burden. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling as though I’m not up to the task of adding nebulous infrastructure concerns to what we have to deal with. Aren’t those things usually left to government … or someone else?

It’s easy, especially in these difficult economic and political circumstances, to ignore infrastructure concerns—even the most basic maintenance and repair issues. (Who has the stomach to request more money for that?) But as much as we think we cannot afford the vast sums needed to address existing maintenance issues and the transition away from fossil fuels, infrastructure spending is an absolutely essential investment. It is the foundation upon which we’ve built our industrial and economic existence, and it will be as we transition away from reliance on fossil fuel.

Facing a future of decreasing energy supplies, we will have less and less available to maintain the systems that support our ways of life. More critical decisions about financial resource allocations will confront us soon enough. But we cannot afford a piecemeal approach, or deal with infrastructure considerations solely when emergencies arise. Ignoring the need to address current infrastructure shortcomings puts us all at risk personally and economically.

(Two simple examples: Bridge collapses are not consequence-free; and our ability to compete in the world marketplace suffers when our transport or utility systems are not up to the demands of production and supply.)

Failure to plan for an efficient transition away from oil dependency is just as damaging. Competitors in other nations are already leaving us in the dust when it comes to devoting resources to infrastructure upgrades. As far as I know, they have no plans to wait for us to catch up.

We may give very little thought to these ramifications, but in the real world they carry stiff penalties that affect all of us. When our national economy is not competing effectively, where else do the adverse consequences trickle down but to all of us … farmers, big business, small business, entrepreneurs, student, families? We’re all in this together.

Unfortunately, we may pushing the envelope in terms of how much longer we can put off dealing with infrastructure concerns.  In 2009, the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave our national infrastructure an overall grade of “D.” (The scores: Aviation D; Bridges C; Dams D; Drinking Water D-; Energy D+; Hazardous Waste D; Inland Waterways D-; Levees D-; Public Parks and Recreation C-; Rail C-; Roads D-; Schools D; Solid Waste C+; Transit D; and Wastewater D-.)

Not particularly impressive. We’re in for a long wait if we think those problems are just going to go away—that MO cannot be a strategy.

According to the ASCE, we have a maintenance deficit of $2.2 trillion dollars over just the next five years. That begs two questions: Where does that money come from? And what happens if we don’t start dealing with the problems reflected by those scores? “Can’t afford it” likewise cannot be a strategy.

We need to start thinking long-term. As mentioned above, competitor nations are leaving us behind when it comes to infrastructure investment and planning. China is reportedly building a network of more than 40 high-speed rail lines. Our next one will be our first. There are many more examples of what other nations are doing and planning, even in the midst of this global economic downturn, to prepare themselves for recovery.

One problem is clear:

“…. right now there are not enough people at the higher echelons of government trying to figure out the best ways to raise the  enormous amounts of money that will be required, and the most responsible ways of spending that money. And there are not  enough leaders explaining to the public how heavy this lift will be, and why it is so necessary, and what sacrifices will be  required to get the job properly done.” [2]

What the hell are we waiting for? How much more evidence do we really need?

Next: Part II


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/17/opinion/17herbert.html?_r=2&adxnnl=1&ref=opinion&adxnnlx=1258455637-lZ9f+84UVVV0xzhkak7qzg; What the Future May Hold By BOB HERBERT
[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/20/opinion/20herbert.html?ref=opinion; Falling Further Behind By BOB HERBERT