As I alerted you before, last night Scott Huler (blog, Twitter, SIT interview) did a reading from his latest book On The Grid (amazon.com) at the Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh.
The store was packed. The store sold out all the books before Scott was even done talking. The C-Span Book TV crew was there filming so the event will be on TV some day soon. Scott was also, earlier yesterday, on WUNC’s The State Of Things (the podcast will soon be online here) and the day before that he was on KERA’s Think with Krys Boyd (download MP3 podcast by clicking here).
Scott’s energy and enthusiasm are infectuos. He held the audience captive and often laughing. The questions at the end were smart and his answers perfectly on target. But most importantly, we all learned a lot last night. I think of myself as a reasonably curious and informed person, and I have visited at least a couple of infrastructure plants, but almost every anecdote and every little tidbit of information were new to me. Scott’s point – that we don’t know almost anything about infrastructure – was thus proven to me.
What Scott realized during the two years of research for the book is that people in charge of infrastructure know what they are doing. When something doesn’t work well, or the system is not as up-to-date as it could be, it is not due to incompetence or ignorance, but because there is a lack of two essential ingredients: money and political will. These two factors, in turn, become available to the engineers to build and upgrade the systems, only if people are persuaded to act. And people are persuaded to act in two ways: if it becomes too costly, or if it becomes too painful to continue with the old way of doing things. It is also easier to build brand new systems for new services than it is to replace old systems that work ‘well enough’ with more more modern ways of providing the same service.
There are people who advocate for moving “off the grid” and living a self-sufficient existence. But, as Scott discovered, they are fooling themselves. Both the process of moving off the grid and the subsequent life off the grid are still heavily dependent on the grid, on various infrastructure systems that make such a move and such a life possible, at least in the developed world.
What is really astonishing is how well the systems work, even in USA which has fallen way behind the rest of the developed world. We are taking it for granted that the systems always work, that water and electricity and phone and sewers and garbage collection and public transportation always work. We get angry on those rare occasions when a system temporarily fails. We are, for the most part, unprepared and untrained to provide some of the services ourselves in times of outages, or to continue with normal life and work when a service fails. And we are certainly not teaching our kids the necessary skills – I can chop up wood and start a wood stove, I can use an oil heater, I know how to slaughter and render a pig, how to get water out of a well, dig a ditch, and many other skills I learned as a child (and working around horses) – yet I am not teaching any of that to my own kids. They see it as irrelevant to the modern world and they have a point – chance they will ever need to employ such skills is negligible.
I got the book last night and am about to start reading it – very eagerly so. Scott started with his house in Raleigh and traced all the wires and cables and pipes going in and out of the house to see where they led. He compared what he learned in Raleigh and its various infrastructure experts and officials, to the equivalent services in other geographical places, and traced them back in history. I can’t wait to read the synthesis of all that research. I hope you will read it, too.
Cross-posted from Science In The Triangle
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