Collapsing structures, from superhighway bridges in Minnesota to coal mines in Utah, are not just indictments of corporate engineering and government malfeasance or inaction. Such structures are part of a culture of collapse that undermines environmental and economic sustainability. With politicians now swarming to acknowledge an infrastructural crisis in the US, the question must be raised: “Infrastructure for what?”
Certainly, concerns over the viability of public works in a country that continues to squander its resources on imperial adventures, while providing massive tax breaks to corporations and the super-rich, are valid. It’s not surprising that a September 2003 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers concluded by noting that the “condition of our nation’s roads, bridges, drinking water systems and other public works have shown little improvement since they were graded an overall D+ in 2001, with some areas sliding toward a failing grade.”
On the other hand, what is the environmental impact of improving the conditions of our nation’s roads if that means that more and more private polluting transportation gets conveyed over greater distances by far-flung individual commuters? Shouldn’t the logic of providing additional travel opportunities for gas-guzzling and CO2 spewing automobiles, SUV’s, and trucks be questioned? Unfortunately, we have become so habituated to our pathological built environment that we seem to be in denial of its minor and major flaws.
Such flaws are compounded by fetishizing festivals celebrating the automobile such as the one about to take place in the metro Detroit area on August 18. Now in its 12th year, the Woodward Dream Cruise jams cars and their jockeys onto the main drag running from Detroit to Pontiac for more than just the one day event. Irrespective of global warming, this crazy celebration of one of the planet’s greatest enemies draws hundreds of thousands of auto enthusiasts. Can you imagine what people might say if they exist two centuries from now? Wouldn’t it be similar to how incredulous we would be if someone discovered that during the Bubonic Plague in medieval Europe some enterprising burghers decided to round up the city’s rats for a rat parade!
So, building and repairing more roads in the face of real environmental devastation should be open to debate, instead of mindlessly promoting privatized travel. It’s interesting to see the contrast in Caracas, Venezuela where improvement of the roads has taken a back seat to improving the lives of the poor through extensive health care, food, and educational opportunities. But don’t hold your breath that such an agenda will be adopted here.
In fact, given the degree to which commodification of basic necessities has embedded itself in our culture, it will take a lot more than the documentaries of Michael Moore to wake up the citizenry and change both political and everyday customs. So many of us have uncritically become guzzlers of bottled water that it’s hard to foresee any major effort to provide free and safe water to all of the citizens of the US. Certainly, we are far from the courageous and ultimately successful struggle by citizens of Bolivia to stop the privatization of water in their country. Perhaps, we have lost touch with the primordial relationship to our natural environment that is evident in such water wars.
If we now live in a culture of collapse, it is essential that we critically address not only our relationship to our natural and built environment but also to our intellectual imagination for another kind of world. Among the many compelling case studies cited by Jared Diamond in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, is the story of the Vikings in Greenland. Diamond makes clear that their insistence on grazing animals for the consumption of meat, even while climatic changes were further eroding the overgrazed grasslands, doomed them to extinction. Of course, they could have changed their long-standing patterns of meat consumption and sought out alternatives, but that custom was too ingrained and their imaginations too constrained.
So, if we are to address our survival as a county, let alone as a species, we need to consider the serious consequences of the kind of culture we inhabit. While repairing infrastructure may save lives in the short run, what does it mean for our environmental and economic sustainability to pour money and human resources into the very built environment that is a threat to our existence? If we want to avoid total collapse, we need to spend some time and energy in thinking about the implications of our built environment and the culture that surrounds it.
FRAN SHOR, a peace and justice activist, teaches at Wayne State University. He is the author of Bush-League Spectacles: Empire, Politics, and Culture in a Bushwhacked America.