Rethinking America’s Infrastructure Future

How does the United States energy, products and services get transported? Through a complex interconnected system of roads, lines, nodes, and machines. Does distributing these “assets” nationwide make sense in terms of efficiency and sustainability?

The Washington Post recently released an article with maps showing the anatomy of America’s infrastructure network.  As a transportation planning [semi]professional, this made me consider the vast network we have developed over the past century and how that will be maintained in the ever-murky future. We have tried to connect every corner of the country so resources from one side can be shared with the other. This progress sounds great, but maintaining and supporting this network is a burden to our collective social, economic and environmental well-being.

Transporting natural gas extracted in Pennsylvania to be refined and used in Minnesota is a costly and dangerous operation. Just so a consumer can have tomatoes year round in Maine requires overburdening the land and people in California or Mexico. These are just two examples of a myriad of challenges we are currently facing, and will be forced to deal with as fossil fuel, water and land resources become depleted.

The next presidential administration wants to spend billions maintaining and upgrading these networks. It is important that we have reliable transportation networks, and I do not believe we should let them crumble and dismantle the progress we have made. However, the cost to transport more people and more goods nationwide is soon going to be too great to fund. This brings me back to the original question that was posed – does this nationwide distribution makes sense and what can we do about it?

What I advocate for is a paradigm shift that reduces our reliance on these networks. There is limited natural and financial resources that can be poured into our roads, bridges, pipelines and terminals. This paradigm shift must focus on supporting regional and local goods, foods and service networks. It is imperative to build up these networks with our families, communities and regional officials. This is not a partisan issue, we can not rely on the federal government to support our region when every section of the country has a different portfolio of social, economic and environmental assets. The idea is to reduce the burden we as civilized humans place on these networks, and to minimize that by producing and consuming only as far as we and our communal network can reasonably “reach”.

This “mindset and lifestyle model” is not being naive by saying every product and service must be produced and purchased within your city, state, or region. Part of the model is procuring items with the mindset of minimizing the strain you are placing on the system. This could mean researching and buying the washer and dryer shipping from 300 miles away, instead of the cheaper (in cost and parts) model produced in Mexico. Where the individual can have the most impact is seeking out those things that can be acquired locally. The mindset here is learning to use what is available to you.

The principal known as “the triple bottom line” should be incorporated into this paradigm shift . It states that sustainability is found where social equity (people), environmental stewardship (planet), and economic prosperity (profit) coincide. All three elements must work in unison.

triple-bottom-line-venn

Let’s think about an example…Local broccoli is in season? If you go to your farmers market and support that local farmer, you not only have produce with less food miles traveled, it is more likely to be ripe (more delicious) and more nutritious. You might also learn a new recipe from cooking with a regionally grown fruit or vegetable! This simple step, which anyone can do, reduces the environmental, social and economic strain you would have placed on the countries distribution network. You took that strain and turned it into local gain. The triple bottom line benefit here is you voted with your money for “people” when purchasing from a local farmer, the food was likely grown on a smaller scale and traveled less for the “planet”, and you invested your resources back into the community to continue growing for “profit”.  This is a change that can be implemented and prioritized immediately for most individuals. Unfortunately, there are still hurdles of equal access involving food deserts (areas where fresh produce is not available or sold)  and transportation that must be addressed.

Over the next few decades, the energy infrastructure of this country is going to undergo enormous changes to supply the growing populations demand. With pipelines leaking, fracked natural gas polluting air and water, this nation must consider our energy priorities moving forward and incorporate renewable energy standards immediately.

Let’s look at where the power is currently generated across this country…

             COAL                                              NATURAL GAS                        HYDROPOWER                                   WIND
powerplants-980                                                                                                                                                                                           The Washington Post

There seems to be a proportionate distribution nationwide when you consider where population centers are, and this doesn’t even take into account concentrated solar production. The shift needed here is to rely on the available regional energy supply.  Regions must prioritize what energy resources they can tap into and invest into them for the long run. The Midwest rust belt (Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky) cannot rely on limited coal resources forever, and must transition into solar, wind and/or geothermal technologies. It is simply not feasible to set up thousands of acres of concentrated solar in the desert southwest and expect that to power our entire country. This regional renewable grid system must be utilized to best harness available resources. Not only will it utilize local renewable energy sources, it has the potential to provide steady employment and empowerment to local communities.

With these few examples, America can begin to shift its paradigm and focus on supporting itself, by investing in itself. This is simply a framework to build on. Nothing happens overnight and there are many exceptions but this model is something every individual can strive for. Vote with your time and monetary resources for these regional and local ideals, and the change we all want to see will follow.

sustainable-future

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