Crumbling Down

It’s tempting to look at the world, at least the world as it gets filtered through our digital imagery, and feel like the globe we’re sitting atop is spinning out of control. I’m sure part of this is by design—people in the midst of fear—rational or irrational—are much easier to corral and control.

At the same time, there is a corresponding tendency on the part of 21st century humans to believe (irrationally, I would add) that technology, that amorphous term that gets tossed around willy-nilly at every turn, will bail us out of every single one of our problem patches. I’m a contrarian when it comes to this technological salvation app.

America’s infrastructure and the upkeep required to maintain it is trending in the wrong direction—to borrow a term from a popular series that curried favor with the Tee Vee watchers out there—it’s “breaking bad” and has been for decades. When the American Society of Civil Engineers released their report card on the condition of the nation’s infrastructure, the overall grade was a D+. This was relative to our roads, bridges, dams, waste water facilities, airports, and includes the electrical grid.

This report card, issued every four years, indicates that since 1998, the grades have remained consistently near failing. Getting Ds in school was never a positive indicator of future success—getting near-failing grades on public infrastructure is even more problematic. One simple, but profound takeaway from reading the report card is that these grades across all categories are essentially due to delayed maintenance and underinvestment. Where investments are being made, they are in new construction—more roads, bridges, etc. that eventually become affected by insufficient and deferred maintenance.

Everything Americans require for their existence is contingent on our infrastructure, and infrastructure that is becoming obsolete, or in some cases, is failing altogether. The I-35 bridge collapse illustrates the latter. Our food is primarily trucked in over our U.S. highway system. The hype around farm-to-table is great for foodies, but local farmers and food won’t produce enough food to feed the entire U.S. population.

In order to avoid a longer blog post than this is already becoming, let me focus on something that happened to me this week. I’ll take that experience and link it to my points about infrastructure, while also hitting on some of my previous blog themes over the past few weeks.

On Tuesday, I attended the CEI Annual Meeting, held on the campus of Bowdoin College in Brunswick. The dining hall where the meeting took place accommodated a turnout of probably 350 people.

I respect the work that CEI does. In a previous incarnation, I partnered with several of their project managers and they were capable and willing collaborators. For the purposes of self-disclosure, I received their Partnership Award in 2011. So, to be clear, I’m not a critic of their work by any means.

However, their choice of Jeremy Rifken to deliver this year’s keynote was one that made me arch an eyebrow when I first read about it. I also wondered how his kind of techno evangelism  would be made relevant to Maine and New England. Interestingly, I also noted that the talk was going to be delivered by technological means, as Rifken is in Germany and would be unable to attend in-person.

Rifken is someone who holds considerable cache in certain circles. Some have even described him as one of the “thought leaders of our time.” He certainly is prolific as a writer, cranking out over 20 titles over the past 35 years, and I respect that.

A kind description might be that Rifken is a futurist. I’ve always lumped him in with the Alvin Toffler crowd. If I were being less charitable, I might characterize him as someone who runs with the techno-utopian crowd. What do I mean by that term? Basically, this group of writers and thinkers believe that technology holds the key to societal transcendence, and if we just embrace technology with greater vigor and enthusiasm, while investing as much public capital in a variety of Ponzi schemes, all the troubles facing America and the world—like crumbling infrastructure—will suddenly disappear. While I’m being a bit facetious, I’m fine with what I’ve written. Americans are holding out a false hope in technology that borders on the magical, not based in intelligence, experience, or even science.

For brevity’s sake, Rifken riffed on the themes found in his new book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, The Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. The book was on sale at the breakfast/meeting and I picked up a copy. I’ve been reading through portions of it the past few days, matching the details with my notes from Tuesday’s address.

Jeremy Rifken: Techno-Utopian

Jeremy Rifken: Techno-Utopian

I don’t know how to say it kindly, or any other way. What Rifken was selling on Tuesday was pure, unadulterated bunkum. It’s the kind of techno-babble that always overlooks basic realities based in science and certain non-negotiable scientific precepts. That never stops tech evangelists like Rifkin from bamboozling people that rarely if ever question any premise related to technology’s promise of unbridled progress.

I’ll summarize Rifken’s talk for you quickly.

We’re about to enter what he calls the “Third Industrial Revolution,” which conveniently is also the title of his 2011 book. Rifken believes that we’re entering a period when what he terms, “the Communications Internet, the Energy Internet, and the Logistics Internet” will converge and create a “global neural network” connecting everything and everyone. This will be the “Internet of Things.”

This new paradigm will create a new economy that will supplant consumer capitalism. Rifken detailed a world of self-driving cars, 3D printers manufacturing whatever we need, and we’ll all have personal power plants running off green energy, which will be fueled by renewables such as solar and wind. Talk about having your cake and eating it too!

Rifken is a rock star in Europe and I believe he has a consulting gig with the European Union. He holds Germany up as the prototype of all things progressive and holy. According to him, the cost of generating solar has dropped from $76 (per kilowatt?) to $.36. There are now countless energy cooperatives being set up across the EU. Everything is coming up diamonds in good ole’ Europe. No mention about certain marauders from the 7th century raining terror down on the heads of French citizens and other members of the G7 across the pond, however.

Furthermore, in the gospel according to Rifken, conventional elements of economic scarcity are giving way to the realities of abundance, all part of this magical paradigm shift.

Most of what forms the foundation for this shift and Rifken’s “Third Industrial Revolution” can be found at his Wikipedia page. I’ll post a summary for contextual purposes:

1) Shifting to renewable energy 2) Transformation of the building stock of every continent into green micro-power plants collecting renewable energies on-site (you and I will have a little power plant on our properties, making our own power); 3) Integrating hydrogen and other storage technologies in every building throughout our infrastructure to store intermittent energies; 4) Using the Internet and its technology to transform our power grid and every power grid on every continent into an “energy Internets; 5) and then, the transitioning of our vehicle fleet to electric-powered Google cars.

Rifken offered nothing in the way of how we transition from our current 20th century infrastructure, to his “new way,” 21st century world of self-driving cars, 3D printers, and personal power plants. Perhaps he forgot about geopolitics, resource allocation, neoliberalism and austerity, and a host of other issues. Perhaps, due the poor sound quality, he did offer a plan and I missed it, given the garbled, tin-can-connected-by-wrapping-twine satellite feed.

Long story, short; I wasn’t as taken with Rifken as the other 349 people in the room at Jewett Hall. In fact, after leaving the campus, I stopped at Curtis Memorial Library and I had a book waiting for me that I’d requested from their inter-library loan program.

It was the perfect antidote to the irrational technological exuberance of the Rifkens of the world, and the kind of “greenwashing” common from those true believers positing that technology can save us from ourselves.

I’ll share just a tidbit from Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails, edited by Stephen Graham, who also happens to reside in the EU, in England.

While Rifken was trumpeting technology’s sustainable salvation, he never once mentioned that technology and the “Internet of Things” he envisions actually requires massive amounts of electricity to power it. This rarely gets acknowledged in any article about the magical jelly beans of technology. He also offered no thoughts on how we make this transition to a post-carbon energy model, other than offering up intermittent sources like solar and wind as a panacea to our energy dilemma.

Here’s just one short clip from Disrupted Cities:

Google’s recently built server farms on the banks of the Columbia River in the state of Oregon are an excellent example here. These have been specifically located to benefit from huge amounts of cheap power necessary to keep them and their air conditioning running (for every watt of electricity used for data processing, such servers require half a watt in cooling). This server center alone–one of dozens in Google’s booming global network–requires 103 megawatts of electricity–enough to power a city of 82,000 homes. With Yahoo, Microsoft, and Ask.com also building major data centers on the Columbia River, major new electrical generating stations are being built to cope with the demand–at great public expense.

There are other “contrarians” offering a different perspective on technology and its potential to create the kind of utopia that snake oil peddlers like Rifkin are selling, including whether or not renewables will ever adequately replace oil in being able to power the world’s economy and meet our ever-increasing energy requirements. This interview with Richard Heinberg is a good place to start.

Maine faces a myriad of challenges as a state. Our aging infrastructure and crumbling road surfaces is just one of them. We are the oldest state in the country and getting older by the day. Our current workforce is shrinking, meaning we’re running out of workers. Instead of investing in efforts to attract young transplants to Maine’s down towns, like Biddeford, the current administration offers up tired, ideological quick fixes, like gutting local municipalities, going against the long-standing traditions of local control. If you haven’t read Colin Woodard’s essay on the topic, I urge you to do so.

Those are just a few of the issues facing Maine over the next decade and beyond. None of them will be solved by a slice of the pie-in-the-sky techno-utopianism of the variety served up by Rifkin.

5 thoughts on “Crumbling Down

  1. Oh, brother, I’d love to pile on with you. Rifkin, no doubt, has no understanding that Germany’s solar power boom has been disastrously costly to the country. You know I’m generally for solar energy, but it’s a lousy source of energy if it has to be collected and shipped anywhere. Worse, conventionally fueled electrical power plants get hammered by the ups-and-downs of the usage cycles. On a bright sunny summer Sunday (no real industrial demand for electricity), Germany’s solar rooftops generate a tremendous amount of electricity–but it can’t be shipped anywhere, say to France, and it won’t feed a factory. Meanwhile, the conventional plants have to shut down production for just that sunny afternoon, but crank back up for that night, and maybe produce more for Monday’s start of the work week, but if it’s sunny the domestic demand is off and there’s not enough industrial demand. A nuclear plant, for example, is pretty much full-on or full-off; oil and gas plants tend to work best at consistent near-peak capacity, and they are expected to bounce up and down like a golf ball in response to the sun. That is incredibly expensive, and it is a real problem that those praising Germany’s solar success tend to gloss over.

    I’m glad you cited Heinberg on this, because it’s not just oil that’s near peak, it’s nearly every element required for our high-tech convergent future. You name it, nearly all the good stuff’s already all gone, only very expensive dregs to hunt for in bad quality sources.

    Every day I get up and drive around here, using gasoline that will never exist again; in a car made from materials that can only be recycled with far more energy than went into making them in the first place. The roads are filled with SUBs the size of Wyoming and the most ridiculous pickup trucks on raised suspensions you’ve ever seen. Their drivers stomp on the gas to haul their lawn tractors, gas-powered edgers, gas-powered leaf blowers and whatever else from over-manicured suburban lawn to over-manicured suburban lawn. When the money gets tight, these bubbas will be the first guys to get cut out of the family budgets. I’d like to see Rifkin explain his big sales pitch to them.

  2. BTW, the complete failure to fund maintenance and train people to do it is one of the most clearly defined traits of the “third world” one can think of. A German telecoms company built a microwave comms network for a certain country (guilty but nameless here). They trained local technicians how to care for it, and above all that the cooling reservoirs needed to be checked and filled at least monthly. After a year the country’s government complains loudly about the theft of the German company, how they came and built something, taking the money and leaving. Now it doesn’t work. The company sent its people back. The reservoirs were empty, the equipment was burnt up. Why wasn’t it maintained properly, despite their training locals to do it?

    Turns out the locals they trained were of a lower social status than their bosses, or their bosses. The cars the company supplied as part of the contract were kept for the bosses. The actual maintainers were expected to make the rounds and keep all the sites operaiting… on foot.

    When you get right down it, is that really so different than what is happening here, fluffing up “economic growth” numbers by shoveling contracts to builders in the club and ignoring the costs of maintenance in the meantime? Not to mention that all that money shoveled to other club members comes from bonds, loans that must be paid off. Just wait until that tax bill comes due.

  3. Looking around me, reading my tea leaves, and more important—just observing things—it’s obvious that collapse will be a process akin to “death by a million cuts,” or better, given the topic, death by a million bad decisions like deferring maintenance on infrastructure and directing funding to projects and cronies that do nothing to ensure sustainability and benefit us in the long-term.

    The latest issue of The Baffler, No. 27, has a great article on Buffalo, NY, and the redevelopment and revival of this Rust Belt city. Some trenchant observations, and the writer, Catherine Tumber, highlights how Buffalo—while certainly hollowed-out by the loss of manufacturing and the disinvestment that accompanied jobs leaving and going overseas—was equally devastated by the sprawl development and urban renewal policies of the 1960s and 1970s.

    The article highlights how difficult it’s been for those in Buffalo, with some really good plans to revitalize the city, especially pushing back against sprawl development, and recognizing the opportunities for “reindustrialization” in some of the these cities that used to be the core of our economy throughout much of the 20th century. The writer is definitely channeling Kunstler (and even references him), especially his take on New Urbanism.

    Unfortunately, the article isn’t online. Perhaps you’ll run across a copy in your travels.

  4. Let me add an addendum to my previous comment.

    There is so much bunkum being spread by the development mafia in the U.S. I see it in play all the time in Maine, especially in Portland, but it’s evident in Lewiston, Bangor, and other places, also. This idea of Maine embracing this idea of “innovation” as a way forward.

    I’m sorry, but Maine’s hopes for the future aren’t tied to becoming an innovation hub. We’ll never be able to compete with Boston, and any other larger, more urban, metropolitan area. However, we have some strengths that could be enhanced and further developed, without turning Maine (and Portland) into this overly-gentrified shell of its former self.

    Here’s a really good article about Tumber (again) speaking in Holyoke, Mass., about not succumbing to the current flavor of the month in development, that being innovation, or what she calls “knowledge-based economic development.”

    Later in the article, she’s quoted as saying that “the human condition imposes moral, physical, political, personal, economic, and metaphysical limits to growth.” That’s anathema to the development professionals. You can see that she rankled the planning guy from Holyoke, Marcos Marrero.

    Whenever you offer a counter-argument to never-ending growth, you’ll always be in the minority in most professional settings. That was certainly the case at the CEI event I referenced, when Rifken was pushing his theory of “magic jelly beans” as the solution to all our problems.

    Anyways, some good stuff from Tumber, who is a fan of Lewis Mumford’s ideas on cities and urban design, always a positive in my book!

  5. I’ll check out Tumber, while keeping in mind that unfettered growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

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