Earth: the Grand Retrofit

Humanity needs to learn a new skill.

Correcting mistakes.

Quickly survey today’s news. Start with the article in this morning’s Washington Post, entitled Floods along the Mississippi River lead to renewed calls for a change in strategy. This story might get lost next to the more extensive coverage of flooding in Memphis, and apprehension about the situation downstream, but it’s worth the read. The big ideas? First, that there are flaws in our traditional strategy of channeling rivers with levees, then building towns and locating prime farmland right up against those levees. The new approach? Moving the levees further back, giving the swollen river some floodplain to work with, and making the levees the last line of defense as opposed to the first.

But the number of miles of levee in the United States? 100,000 miles, some 85% of it locally owned and maintained. Compare with 65,000 miles of Interstate Highway.

That’s a starting point. Now pick up last week’s issue of The Economist, and you’ll find an article entitled America’s Transportation Infrastructure: life in the slow lane. The thesis? We’ve allowed our roadways, including but not limited to that Interstate, to become a morass, especially in big cities. Our rail system is in decay. Our airports struggle under today’s loads. But population is growing at about 9% per decade. The need for renovation grows more urgent year by year. The article cites a World Economic Forum rating that puts U.S. infrastructure quality at 23rd worldwide, between Spain and Chile.

[Here’s a smaller example, a bit easier to wrap our head around…the mistake we made when we approved an FY2011 federal budget that lacked $800M for NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System. Commits us to polar satellite gaps beginning no later than 2017. Degrades our storm warning capability to something last seen two decades ago. Likely to raise the toll in lives lost and economic disruption to severe weather, by amounts many times over that $800M. But how to tackle even that “smaller” problem flummoxes the folks on Capitol Hill. And at this billion dollar level, you and I can be sure that there are many more unmet needs, that will lead to costly if not tragic ends.]

Back to the big problems. Pick up any magazine, turn on any television channel, check out any website, and you’ll learn that our educational system no longer prepares our children for tomorrow’s jobs, that we put too many of our youth in prison, that health care reform is only starting to address the problems in this sector. Then there’s the need for more effective environmental protection. The list goes on and on…


You might rightfully say, “Bill, here you go again exaggerating. We do so know how to correct mistakes.”

Touché! I’ve mentioned one example in this blog. Any time you and I drive a car, all we do is correct our earlier mistakes. We’re either too fast, too slow, heading too far right, or too far left. Those are our only choices. And yet we’re able to sail along, mile after a mile.

The difference is that those driving mistakes are small, and they are reversible. What do I mean? So long as we don’t actually make a wrong turn, or take the wrong road, the mistakes are small. Until we hit another car or run into a tree, the mistakes are reversible.

But these are big mistakes. Irreversible mistakes. And correcting big, irreversible mistakes is so much more expensive than starting fresh. Ever hear the aphorism “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.” Or maybe the spinoff quote (one of my favorites):

“How do you make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? Step one: take a piece of silk.”

And therein lies our problem, especially here in America. “Take a piece of silk” has historically been our strategy. Did the eastern cities get crowded, congested, unlivable? First, we just moved west. Then, as the urban problems continued to mount, we fled city by city to the suburbs. As for those roadways, whenever they reached their carrying capacity, we just converted previously unused land to new roads.

For the past few decades, however, we have increasingly had to learn how to modernize older infrastructure, while at the same time maintaining the use of what had been there previously. An entirely new engineering discipline emerges: construction management. Look around you. Many of the roads you use daily are rimmed with jersey barriers, cones. Signs warn of new traffic patterns. Construction spotlights blind your evening travel, as crews hustle during off-peak periods to minimize delays to the morning and evening commutes. It’s all about maintaining continuity even as we modernize.

We’re going to get better at correcting mistakes. But first?

First we have to get better at admitting mistakes.

More on this next time.

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