Over the past two centuries, federal, state, and local governments throughout the United States have launched a wave of infrastructure projects.
They built channels for moving freight in the 1830s and 1840s. Governments supported the railways in the middle and late 19th century. They created local sewerage and water systems Late 19th and early 20th century and beyond dams and irrigation systems through much of the 20th century. During World War II, a huge amount of public money was spent on the construction and expansion of ports, factories, airports and shipyards. And after the war, the construction of roads – a long national and local project –became a federal enterprise.
The results may have been worth the price, but it is useful to admit that the price was there – what will continue to be paid.
Many of these projects did not end well. The problem was not that the country did not need infrastructure – it did. And the problems were not the result of technical failures: much of the Americans successfully built what they intended, and much of what they built still stands.
The real problems arose before someone raised the shovel or raised the hammer. These problems stem from how difficult it is to imagine, and they are easy to ignore when we are excited about new spending, new construction and increased employment.
The questions of what massive structures to build and where are actually very difficult to answer. Infrastructure is always the future: construction takes years and takes years.
Money invested in roads, railways, airports and dams cannot be redeployed, and what is built will cost a lot of money in the future. When infrastructure is not needed, we throw away good money for bad.
Obsolescence is not the worst of the potential problems that can result from infrastructure costs. In the 19th century, railways dominated, but the United States built too many of them, especially in the lightly populated west. I spent the whole book discussing the many ways in which this work, which is now hailed as a major success in government funding of private infrastructure, was actually costly and wasteful failure. Expenses began with bankruptcies and recurred regional and national economic crises what 19th century Americans called “railway recesses. “
Building canals for railway time turned out to be a big mistake. However, climate change is making the construction of the infrastructure of the carbon economy a much more dangerous undertaking.
Infrastructure is and will be designed to promote development. But that can be a problem. There is such a thing as stupid growth, like a development that involved 19th century markets with wheat, timber and minerals that they could not absorb. The result was many failures in business and abandonment of entire geographical areas when the economy collapsed, as in a time of dust.
The economic damage caused by the rebuilding of the railways faded before the environmental damage caused by mining, clear-cutting and large-scale agriculture. And that points to another problem.
People tend to ignore the long-term costs of their plans, especially when they benefit and others incur costs.
At the beginning of the 20th century, municipal water and sewerage projects were very successful. They probably had more to do disease reduction as medical advances. They made modern cities livable.
But they incurred costs for others. For a year, Los Angeles became Los Angeles drainage of water away from the Owens Valley, emptying the lake and reducing arable land to desert. For a year, San Francisco became San Francisco flooding the Hetch Hetchy valleywhat naturalist John Muir once called “a wonderfully accurate match for the great Yosemite. “The results may have been worth the price, but it is useful to admit that the price was there – what will continue to be paid.
When launched, the new infrastructure seems to be a list of benefits. In the middle of the 20th century, hydropower and irrigation enthusiasts saw all sorts of benefits as the government swelled western rivers and irrigated western countries. But many of these countries need an unreasonable amount of watering to obtain the desired crops. Dams completely changed the nature of rivers and hurt the iconic species of the western Pacific, especially salmon.
Builders could have been helped if they had a little less faith that future technologies would fix the problems they intended.
It may be the largest federal infrastructure system of the late 20th century transnational road system. It changed the spatial arrangement of the people and the way Americans moved. It took advantage of American car culture until multinationals stormed the cities they ravaged, and people faced the climate change that their cars had. so much to contribute.
When promoting infrastructure, politicians bring out jobs, growth and a host of amenities and benefits. Citizens should be more sophisticated.
They should ask who – especially which companies and developers – will benefit from these projects. They should look beyond the assessment label to social and environmental costs. Building canals for railway time turned out to be a big mistake. However, climate change is making the construction of the infrastructure of the carbon economy a much more dangerous undertaking.
Richard White is Professor of American History at Stanford University. He is a historian specializing in the American West, the history of capitalism, environmental history, history and memory, and indigenous history. He is a MacArthur Fellow and recipient of the Mellon Honorary Professor Award. His work has won numerous academic awards and he has twice been a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
This comment was originally posted by The Conversation –US history shows that spending on infrastructure does not always end well.
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