Stimulus packages…and truly critical infrastructure

Critical infrastructure? If you’re a young reader you can’t remember a time when this phrase wasn’t in the nation’s vocabulary. And critical infrastructure itself has always been with us since the very earliest civilizations (absent only the label). Think the irrigation works of Babylon. The aqueducts of ancient Rome. But the term itself?

Feels as if it’s been in popular use for only a couple of decades.

Just what is critical infrastructure? Dictionary.com provides the following definition for infrastructure: It’s the basic underlying framework or features of a system or organization. And critical infrastructure? That’s infrastructure that is essential to the functioning of such systems. It’s the bits of the framework that you don’t want to ever stop working. Ever.

It’s the total of the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area, such as transportation and communication systems, power plants, etc.

Including elevators.

Elevators are essential infrastructure for high-rise buildings. Our current cities of skyscrapers have been with us only a century. Why? We weren’t waiting for steel or concrete that was structurally up to the job. The building materials had been available for centuries. We were waiting for electricity, and for the genius of Elisha Otis and George Westinghouse.

So back to the laundry list of critical infrastructure. It includes electricity, communications, transportation, water, natural gas and oil distribution and delivery. Give it a little thought. You can come up with your own additions.

Take sewage. There’s a system we never want disrupted.

But critical infrastructure also includes soft infrastructure, doesn’t it?

What do we mean by that? We mean schools, health care, police, fire, the financial system, and much more.

Remember: these elements, whether engineered or social, are connected, and each is critical. Have you heard of SCADA?

SCADA stands for supervisory data control and acquisition. SCADA systems run our water supplies, our electrical grids…and that sewage system. And much, much more. SCADA runs those ATM’s on every street corner. Think of the day that none of those works. A disruption of SCADA systems affects all facets of modern life.

Thus all these infrastructures need not collapse simultaneously to create a problem. Disruption of any of them will do. All it takes these days to bring life as we know it to a halt is a disruption in the function of any single one of these critical infrastructures.

That’s why the emergency managers of the country lose sleep at night. The profile of disaster used to be loss of life. Then, with the emergence of civilizations and their associated economies, disasters became a blend of loss of life and property damage. We were rich enough to have something material to lose. Finally, in today’s world, with our dependence on critical infrastructure, disasters have become a mix of loss of life, property damage, and economic disruption. With critical infrastructure, the impact of, say, pandemic, is different. There’s no physical damage, but if workers are to sick or scared to show up at the plant or office and keep the critical infrastructure humming, the impacts of illness are compounded in a wholly new way. Accidentally cut a cable supplying power to all of Newark Airport, as happened a few years ago? The physical damage? Maybe a few hundred dollars. Shutting down the airport on an emergency basis  and diverting all those flights? Costs thousands of times greater.

That said, all critical infrastructures are not equal. Some are foundational to our activities, past or present.  Roads and bridges fall into this category. Today, many of these legacy infrastructures are aging. That’s why, when the President and Congress announced its stimulus package, the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009, these headed the list. Education, health, and green energy were also in the mix.
But other infrastructures are newer. Their greatest contributions lie ahead.

Take the infrastructure needed to observe the Earth; to develop our understanding of how it works; to get smarter about how to tap energy, agricultural, and water resources; to stem the degradation of the environment, ecosystems, and biodiversity; and to build resilience to weather and geological hazards and extremes. That infrastructure includes but is not limited to hardware. It includes our understanding of the economic, social and psychological forces and trends that shape people’s ability to use this understanding beneficially. It encompasses the development of a professional workforce ready to tackle these issues. It comprises the public education needed to give voters the tools they need to evaluate programs and options and alternatives for such work.

Regrettably, neither the stimulus measure of 2009 nor that of this year highlights the need or the opportunity to enhance this infrastructure. The fact is, it could be done for what amounts to sales tax on these important initiatives. Something like ten billion dollars would make a huge positive impact on such efforts.

Maybe this challenge escapes national notice for that reason. It’s hard to see how it puts large numbers to work immediately. But the extant analyses suggest the economic benefits would be many times greater. And such a stimulus measure would employ some of the hundreds of graduates in geography and the Earth scientists each year. And putting these eager, energetic, high-minded young people to work to improve life the world over?

That flavor of stimulus would make us all proud.

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