Acts of Creative Destruction: Rebuilding America for the 21st Century

Sara Robinson

This blog has been covering the shameful collapse of America’s infrastructure on almost a weekly basis, so it should come as no surprise to even our most casual readers that the physical structures and systems that support our entire way of life are in serious trouble. We all know the litany: the levees of New Orleans, the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis, overtaxed air traffic systems, construction cranes coming down all over, thousands of other structures quivering on their last legs. It’s a slow-motion disaster-in-the-making.

And we all know the reason, too. All this stuff takes constant inspection and oversight, along with regular upgrades and maintenance. But for the last 30 years, conservative governments have resolutely cut budgets and driven out the experts whose job it was to keep the country’s public works in good working order. They did it on purpose, to prove their ideological argument that putting infrastructure in the hands of government was always a bad idea. And they were also quietly licking their chops, waiting for the day that the people’s capital—the stuff built up and bequeathed to us by so many generations of Americans before us—could be declared salvage, and sold off to their cronies for the price of scrap in one last privatizing fit.

Even so: we may actually look back in a decade and realize that the conservatives did us a huge favor. It’s an article of Shock Doctrine thinking that every act of destruction makes way for an act of creation (or, at least, conservative perversion). In this case, the conservatives set the destruction process in motion long ago; but it seems pretty clear that they never expected there would be an Obama Moment—a moment of national renewal in which progressives would be able to seize the process and launch some bold, creative acts of our own.

It’s not an overstatement to say that we may never have a creative opportunity like this one again. Even as our cities are crumbling around us, we’re also finding ourselves in deep trouble on the energy front. Dwindling supplies and increasing demand are working their free-market magic, shrinking our household budgets and destabilizing our oil-based economy. Call it climate change or peak oil or simply the fall of the petrodollar, but there’s a growing awareness that there’s something deeply amiss — and completely unsustainable — about the entire system by which America extracts and consumes energy. And the more forward-thinking among us also realize now that solving this problem is going to require us to dramatically re-order our economy, invest in and invent new technologies, and completely re-think the way we build cities.

Much of our current failing infrastructure was built between the early 1930s and the mid-1960s—an era of vast public works projects that dammed rivers, raised skyscrapers, and laced the nation with interstate highways. The things our parents and grandparents built and the policy choices they made expressed the cultural values, economic and social priorities, and new technologies that dominated their era. Cheap energy allowed them to replace the streetcars and railroads—considered urban wonders by their own grandparents—with the speed and convenience of cars, trucks, and airplanes. It fueled the construction of big single-family houses and vast freeway networks, which in turn encouraged suburban sprawl. In an era when people believed that humans were put on earth to dominate and tame nature, and defined “quality of life” by the quantity of goods consumed, the suggestion that any of this might be permanently damaging the earth—or that it might cause problems down the road that would seriously threaten human existence—was simply absurd.

Fast forward 60 years, and we’re now in a very different place. It’s all too clear that our grandparents’ technologies, economic priorities and ideas about what comprises a satisfying way of life are creating serious, planet-wide ecological trouble. These days, we realize that we live on a finite planet, and that we’re finally bumping up against its limits. In particular, we don’t have the vast reserves of cheap energy that will allow us to sustain the all the power-hungry systems our ancestors bequeathed to us. Those sprawling post-war cities made perfect sense in their time; but increasingly, they don’t make sense in ours. But because all this stuff is already built—at a tremendous cost in money and material—it’s also daunting to consider just how much of it will have to be rebuilt, refitted, or simply scrapped and replaced (or not) in order adapt to the new realities.

It would be much harder to justify a broad-scale rebuilding effort if everything was still working as it should. But since the conservatives have already done us the favor of letting it all fall apart, we’ve got a great opportunity to launch the same kind of national overhaul that we saw in the FDR years. This time, though, we have the opportunity to do rebuild the country our own way—a way that expresses 21st-century values, technologies, and economic priorities.

It’s not enough to merely restore what’s already there. We need to take an entirely fresh look at our assumptions about how cities and towns should be built, and put sustainability at the core of all our planning decisions. We might decide to reclaim what our 19th century ancestors knew about building pedestrian-friendly cities, where families lived above shops on lively neighborhood streets; and cozy small towns where everyone lived just a few blocks from Main Street. We might follow the example of Europe, which has closed most of its historic old downtowns to traffic, increased density, and connected its cities with fast electric trains. (The average European maintains a comfortable middle-class lifestyle with an ecological footprint that’s less than half that of the average North American.) And we might rewrite our building and planning codes to encourage the use of green technology, and to reflect the new understandings about sustainable living that our urban planners have been refining over the past 40 years.

(We might also consider the parable of Greenberg, Kan.—the 1,400-person prairie hamlet that was flattened by a tornado in May 2007. Rather than simply rebuild, they invited in the sustainability experts, and decided to use their insurance money to reconstruct Greenberg as “the greenest town in America.” Now that’s what I’m talking about.)

There’s a lot of this already happening at the local and regional level, as cities invest in LEED-certified public buildings, carve out bike trails, contain sprawl and preserve valuable agricultural land, and expand electric rail networks as they upgrade existing streets and bridges. And, for the most part, it will continue to happen just this way—one bridge, one solar or wind farm, and one rail line at a time.

But there’s also much a new Obama administration can do at the federal level to greatly accelerate this process—and some initiatives that are simply too big to happen unless the federal government steps in and sets the direction. For example, while we’re making solid progress toward carbon-free cars, nobody at the moment has the slightest clue about making a carbon-free airplane. However, much of the world already runs on high-speed electric trains. The technology already exists. And the U.S. is already criss-crossed with enough old railroad right-of-ways that we could create an all-electric semi-high-speed (100-120 mph) national rail network by 2015—for a price tag that’s less than we spend in three months in Iraq.

Ultimately, such a network could take most of the truck freight off the interstates, greatly reducing the amount of carbon generated by transportation. The system could also be a competitive option for many air passengers who now take shuttle flights under 1,500 miles, reducing congestion and carbon output in our air traffic system as well. And electric trains can be powered by many different kinds of carbon-free sources, including wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, or nuclear.

This idea was first proposed by Alan Bates at The Oil Drum. I heartily recommend his article, which explores the electric train idea in great economic and technical detail. But my larger point is this: There are plenty of good ideas like this out there. And right now, in the Obama Moment, we have an unprecedented opportunity to seek out the best of them, and start turning them into our children’s reality.

Rick Perlstein notes that the Obama Moment will be a short one, and progressives will need to move quickly to get as much done as possible before it closes. But, as we saw in the FDR years, infrastructure renewal moves at a somewhat different pace—and has a sweet way of entrenching itself in a way that makes it very hard to stop the momentum once it gets started. Over the short term, the important goals are:

  1. Restore public confidence in the government’s ability to undertake large national infrastructure projects, and re-assert its right to set goals and policies to ensure those projects proceed smoothly.
  2. Define the overarching standards for a reconstructed America. This will include federal review of the building and planning codes now in use, and probably the writing of new mandates that set out 21st-century standards and priorities for energy use, urban and transportation planning, and environmental design. Once these are put into law and accepted into general use, they’ll be very hard to change.
  3. Commit funding for a massive 10- or 20-year program that will upgrade or replace failing components of America’s infrastructure. The country is broke (as it was in FDR’s day); but this kind of spending needs to be seen as the long-term investment in our economic future that it is.
  4. Restore a fair, honest, broad-based system of public contracting that will put large numbers of Americans to work on these new projects. (And write the new rules in a way that ensures that the firms doing the most innovative work don’t have to compete with Halliburton and Lockheed for the lion’s share of the funding.) Once you’ve got a healthy, competitive construction industry that knows how to build sustainable projects—and is relying on the government to keep it in business—you’ve got a political constituency that will fight to ensure that the rebuilding will continue for the next several decades, regardless of who’s in power.

Once again, the Roosevelt years offer a guideline for what’s possible, and how we might get this done. The conservatives, for their own reasons, have cleared the deck for us to start over. It’s up to us to seize the moment, and get it done.