By Greg Justice (C23)
The Long Now Foundation is a wonderful Bay Area organization dedicated to promoting long-term thinking. Recently they made a generous donation of 10 tickets to Presidio Graduate School students enabling them access to a sold out talk by James Fallows on "Civilization's Infrastructure."
"Infrastructure decisions—and failures to decide—affect everything about a society for centuries. That long shadow, James Fallows points out, is what makes the decisions so difficult, because “We must choose among options whose consequences we can’t fully anticipate.” What we do know is that infrastructure projects are hugely disruptive and expensive in the short term, and neglecting to deal with infrastructure is even more disruptive and expensive in the long term. What would a healthy civilization do?”
Presented by the Long Now Foundation, Atlantic magazine columnist and author James Fallows’ spoke before a sold out audience at the SF Jazz Center Tuesday, October 6th. The event, titled “Civilization’s Infrastructure,” presented a historical accord of infrastructure – domestically and abroad, how infrastructure seems to infrequently come about and be very piecemeal in the United States, and what one can do to change that for the future.
Fallows’ lecture focused around U.S. infrastructure, in particular, but also included first-hand accounts from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America – mostly from where Fallows’ previously resided. Further, to the amazement of this attendee, he spoke of how every society in modern history has neglected infrastructure in some way, intentionally ignoring growing needs. Developed and developing countries fall into having either one of two categories: a strong “hard infrastructure” element, meaning they have the capital and physical materials for infrastructure to take shape, or, conversely, they have a “soft infrastructure” element, in which they mainly possess the spirit and cultural resources for such. From his living in China, Fallows asserts the country has amazing and modern infrastructure that even rivals the U.S. – including 100 recently built airports; however, the people of China severely lack the cultural element needed for long-term development. He also noted the majority of China’s new infrastructure can be found principally in Beijing and Shanghai, and pointed-out how Shanghai’s MagLev (magnetic levitation) system does not even connect with the city’s subway system – a major transportation planning blunder.
Fallows went on to assess the U.S. mostly, though occasionally, brings about hard infrastructure, and only becomes strong in both soft and hard infrastructure elements when three particular factors are present: 1) an emergency – whether through war or natural disaster, 2) a military development or defense-funded project, as well as, 3) the presence of a “story” – an associated narrative strong enough to make citizens look beyond their own immediate financial interests and see the long-term benefit of such infrastructure. Of interest was how he connected post-World War II U.S. infrastructure to military funding, and these project’s construction being based upon national security needs: the interstate highway system and other transportation facilities (ports, airports, railyards), modern higher education institutions and the G.I. bill, as well as, communications technologies first developed under the auspices of intelligence gathering and national safety. Having been raised in Redlands (Southern California), Fallows’ spoke of the great period of infrastructure evolution experienced by California in the late 1950s though the 1960’s, as well as, the “story” of California’s emergence as a global leader in multiple industries around that time. Of significant note was former Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown (Jerry Brown’s dad), and the landmark period of infrastructure in California.
This lecture was of great interest to me initially, as I am a devoted scholar and incredible proponent of modern infrastructure, especially in the realm of sustainable mass transportation and development. However, Fallows’ grew my interest further when he started-off stating he was going to speak in terms of “systems” and infrastructure’s interconnectedness to other facets of society. As a current student in Principles of Sustainable Management (POSUM), this was an excellent event to learn of real-world applications of systems thinking, and how future infrastructure must be sustainable, lasting for more than a few decades.
While on its face, this would seem to be a lecture tailored to, and most beneficial for, MPA students, but of great discussion, as well, was the contributions of private business to infrastructure. This included how non-governmental organizations can inspire through research and advance such development, and in the cases of public-private partnerships, even deliver and manage respective projects. Now, I look forward to reading his latest book about China (2013), as well as other works done on this issue.
For more information about James Fallows and this seminar – including video from the event, please visit the Long Now Foundation event webpage.
Date of Talk: 10/6/2015
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