Sunday, May 10, 2009


Urban Infrastructure Deterioration

Around the world, cities — especially older cities — are harboring massive ticking time bombs that will soon bring them to ruin. No, I am not talking about explosives placed by terrorists. I am talking about crumbling urban infrastructure. Everything that makes the city what it is — the roads, water mains, sewerage, and the like — has been put in place with massive expenditure. Now, you may think that by “expenditure” I am speaking of money. And indeed, when people talk about building and maintaining infrastructure, they always speak about it in terms of money, i.e., how much it will cost to do the job.

However, that is highly misleading, and in fact obscures the real problem. It is not money that builds and upgrades infrastructure, it is energy (for an excellent treatment of money and energy, see Michael C. Ruppert’s new book A Presidential Energy Policy). Just look around yourself if you are in a city, and imagine the amount of fossil fuel energy embodied in just your immediate area: the streets, buildings, electrical grid, water mains, sewerage, traffic lights, sidewalks, and the rest. You can talk about how much money was spent building all of it, but money only buys access to energy; it does not actually do any of the work.

OK, let’s look at this in more real-world terms. Before going any further, read this short article, 1,600 km of Tokyo sewage piping needs renovation. It’s clear that this component of Tokyo’s urban infrastructure is deteriorating faster than it can be replaced or fixed up. Note this important statement of fact in the article: “In Tokyo, the laying of sewage pipes was conducted rapidly around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics...” The really key bit of information here is “1964.” Why? Because that was right in the middle of Japan’s period of blistering postwar economic growth. Since at that time oil was much cheaper, it’s clear what drove that rapid growth and allowed Japan to so quickly rise out of the ashes of war and build itself into a major economic power. And it’s also clear that cheap energy made it possible to lay so much sewage pipe. Now that we are at or near peak oil, there is no question that it’s all downhill from here for the infrastructure of Tokyo and all other cities around the world.

Finally, just think about the implications. To turn back to the article one more time, it makes this rather dry matter-of-fact observation: “If old sewage pipes corrode and leak, it will become impossible for residents whose homes are served by the pipes to use toilets or baths.” In big cities, which cram lots of people into small areas, this is nothing less than a recipe for disaster.

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