I’m sure many of you, like myself, have spent time over the past years watching either a TV series or a film involving an end of the world type scenario where our systems fail and people have to cope with the new reality. There is this mix of fascination with the possibility and concern with reality, that seems to be one reason why we watch those psy-fi dramas.
Here on the podcast, we have had guests who explain how in real life, system failure happens and can happen at an even greater level than we have seen so far. But when a major disaster hits and the possibility becomes a reality, even on a small-temporary level, the connection is seldom made that in fact, it would not take much to shut down the infrastructure that we are so accustomed to, and very little is being done to improve those structures.
Rare is the city or rural area where new drainage or power capacity is installed. De-centralized power generation continues to be a small movement with numerous obstacles to keep it from expanding. Services get bought, sold, and re-sold, prices go up, but few improvements get made. All sides claim a lack of funds and promise improvements for another day.
Instead of these more complicated and expensive discussions, most content spit out on the internet is about when its getting turned back on. Or, what political party will allegedly keep your house from being washed to sea. Massive deficiencies in the working of our beloved infrastructure are ignored in favor of the quick fixes and consumer level complaints.
Meanwhile we watch the zombie apocalypse, the end of electricity, and entire nations becoming submerged under water on our screens. Somehow, if its on a screen and the characters are good looking, its just a fun escape to help us ignore the fragile, rotting system beneath our feet.
The images from my home state of New Jersey the days following hurricane Irene featured flooding like few had ever seen before. The images also showed one re-occurring theme: Infrastructure collapse. Chunks of highway collapsing, a struggling power grid, and rivers rising up and swallowing entire communities. Things growing up in the suburbs of New York City, even to this day, many people never imagined could happen. But this lack of imagination is no excuse for ignorance regarding a looming crisis. There is no shortage of research and reports, as well as examples over the past decade, all of which point to the fact that all over the United States (theyre not alone of course) infrastructure is stretched and strained to its limits. The glorious promise of privatization leading to improved services has resulted in just the opposite. Lack of significant investment under a whole list of economic and social excuses has left millions of people on the edge of a crisis, many of whom don’t even know about it. Or perhaps, they don’t want to know or will never understand.
There is a phenomenon that didn’t start with this generation or this era, but has very much been perfected in our time: the art of knowing but not wanting to know. That mobile phone we all carry can poison your body – but how could we be without our phones? The computer we type on is made from toxic chemicals and will one day poison our soil – but how can we not have these essential machines? Cod Fish is on the verge of extinction – but it tastes so good! And of course on the macro scale – our global way of life is destroying the earth at a dangerous rate – but how can we not live the way we live?!
Eddie Izzard, the great comedian and life philosopher, used to do a bit about mass murderers and genocidal maniacs. He said something to the effect of “When you murder someone, we know what to do with you, we put you in prison… but over 10 or 20 people.. we can’t deal with that, we invent things like house arrest and hope no one ever goes in that house.” Though he was joking I find a great deal of observational wisdom that I apply in present day situations like the crumbling of our infrastructure. Like having to deal with genocidal maniacs, we are once again in a situation that is too hard for many to process. You can present facts and even wait for terrible things to happen which confirm the problem, and still people find a way to ignore it. Perhaps it is simply a mass coping mechanism. Otherwise everyone would so into either a deep depression or a dangerous panic. That or, they might try finding solutions and taking action to better prepare for the future. Regardless of what the economists or the politicians say.
Meanwhile many keep telling themselves that its only a few roads and a few parts of the country that had problems. Keep repeating that line about how these events are rare. Whatever it takes, I suppose, for us to collectively cope and keep doing (or not doing) the same things we always have.
All over the world our transportation systems, food production systems, and overal infrastructure are being pushed more than ever before. With the onset of financial crisis and the reality of having less resources dedicated to repairing and renewing these systems, the reality of a multi-level failure, a crisis beyond what is now called a crisis, may very well be in our immediate future.
Eleanor Saitta is a researcher, hacker, artist, designer, and writer who has been looking into and speaking extensively about these issues around the world. In this podcast we will talk about the facts that have her concerned and that what perhaps can still be done… as well as what we are too late to do.
There is no shortage of poorly written stories scattered throughout the internet, about cyber attacks leading to near apocalyptic situations involving power stations or other key infrastructure sites. And for every story, there is someone who believes it, and not many who take the time to critically examine and verify that anything ever really took place.
My guest, Anchises De Paula, is an exception to the rule. Based in São Paulo, Brazil, he has taken the time to check on these stories and speak out about them. The result is something most politicians don’t want you to hear. They prefer to keep the public in fear; believing half-truths and myths.