Frog + Water + Heat

In 1996, in Washington State, I had my first-ever rock chip of my windshield.

It was a good one: a fist-sized rock, nestled deep inside a load of freshly felled timber being hauled down I-5, got jostled enough to pop out, bounce on the pavement, and aim right for my windshield.

As I said, it was my first — after 18 years of driving all over the country. In the 24 years since I’ve gotten at least 2-3.

My theory (which I’m willing to cede to anyone willing to study it) is that the incidence of windshield cracks and chips is an indicator of the health of our national infrastructure.

I used to joke back in the 90s that our nation’s love affair with SUVs coincided with the wearing-down of roads everywhere. Rather than insist on better-maintained roads, we all just tacitly agreed to buy vehicles that could go off-road on our own streets…

As a kid, I don’t recall my parents driving on chughole-filled roads unless we were on dirt or gravel. They were there but patched promptly. Bridges and overpasses were not graded on a national list of degrees of decrepitude. As a nation, we were the envy of the world, infrastructure-wise. Here in little old Oklahoma, we were the beneficiaries of programs in the 50s and 60s that created a maritime shipping corridor (McClellan-Kerr waterway), terminating at the Port of Catoosa — over 1,100 nautical miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Because of that investment, products and raw materials were unloaded in Muskogee and were promptly repackaged or manufactured into other products at local factories.

There are a ton of prerequisites necessary to create a great society, and infrastructure is a big one. About the time all our postwar investment started to require new injections of capital, we chose as a nation to spend in other directions. Suddenly BIG GOVERNMENT was bad, and without mentioning it specifically, that meant reducing maintenance costs from the annual budgets. Doing what we do best: pass the buck to the next generation.

Of course, this didn’t happen in a vacuum: at the same time, municipalities of all sizes extended their local infrastructure farther and farther out, running water, sewer, and electricity out to new suburbs, which require roads and supposedly increase the engine speed of the economy. Which in turn require more maintenance costs.

We’ve seen an example of infrastructure maintenance fail on a macro scale last week in Texas particularly, where the state’s ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) apparently urged but did not mandate all energy producers to maintain adequate generation reserve capabilities, leading to energy blackouts, frozen water pipes, etc., etc.

Research seems to point to our warming of the polar areas creates more instability in the jet stream buffer, which normally keeps such arctic blasts penned up. The same global forces that create stronger and longer hurricane seasons, and more coastal flooding, creates super-strong winter events. Poor Texas, being at the southern end of the central plains, gets a double-whammy.

So what are we to do?

Knowing our current political climate, are we to take our home energy needs into our own hands, much like we did with buying SUVs?

That’s an approach that’s becoming more feasible all the time: solar electricity on your own home gives you something better than the big generator on the pad next to the garage — an investment that will pay off over time and not be as much of an ongoing expense. Couple that with better home insulation, and possibly more modern heating/cooling approaches, and we’re personally in a better place if we can afford the investment.

The other approach: bite the bullet and recognize that “we broke it, we bought it.” Or engage citizen groups to decide, town by town, what is most important and in what order — it’s amazing what politicians can do when they’re convinced that their electorate really wants something. It may be that some places may decide to break the cycle — decide that their best interest is to consolidate investment in the city core, where that infrastructure is used to serve the greatest number.

So like so many things, it’s up to us to fix either for ourselves or for all of society. Because after all, we broke it by not keeping it maintained.

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