19 March 2011

Which Road?

There is so much happening right now, in such an immediate way, that I have not been altogether sure what to write about. I live about 15 miles from an operating nuclear reactor, on a fault line, in a place where there is pretty much only one road out... if I had a car, which I don't. It is my fervent hope that the current events will cause a suspension of the re-licensing process now underway at that plant and cause it to be closed. I really do not even want to go into the massive amounts of rhetoric now prevalent in public discourse about all this. It is mostly artificial. Instead I would like to move laterally to consider this.

I have been thinking about roads. I think about roads a lot for some reason. The very first time I was in China I went overland from WuZhou to Guilin by bus. The road was under construction for almost all of the 200 mile trip. In that 200 miles there was one piece of construction equipment, aside from trucks and even trucks were not plentiful. All of the work was being done directly with human labor. I had been in Asia almost a year by this time, but this was striking and I still remember it vividly. This was 25 years ago and of course much has changed in that time.

Consider Mcluhan's "the medium is the message." The notion here is that the communication is embedded in the medium in a way that the medium then effects and becomes the communication. This is a dynamic relationship occurring within the structure of the system, taken as a whole. Historically roads are the primary medium of communication for land empires and civilizations. The roads represent the structure of communications. The Roman Empire is an example of this, but it is no less true in other empires (the Great Wall is also a road). The Roman Empire was extended and stabilized through its roads, which allowed the movement of information, commerce, and military. The Roman 'postal' service was an intelligence agency, among other things. The relationship between the roads and this communication was dynamic, i.e. an interrelationship through which all 'components' are effected. The 'rule by law' which we more or less inherited from the Romans was affected in great part by the roads. The roads in this sense are not a passive infrastructure, but an active medium. All built infrastructure functions in this way, though we typically treat infrastructure and its effects as a passive or given condition. Eventually we come to believe in the infrastructure as necessary.

Upon going outside in a city this past week I commented to a friend that someone seems to have covered the earth for as far as the eye can see with an impermeable cap. Beyond this remarkable and oft noted absurd condition, it is even more troubling that everyone seems to be acting as if this were a normal, desirable, even necessary condition. When thinking about the energy supply chain of this insane moment in human history I will sometimes point out that the contained vehicular explosions of our transport are not only running on oil, but are made from oil, running on surfaces made directly and indirectly from oil.

So I have been thinking about roads. I decided that I wanted to understand the footprint involved in this modern form of infrastructure and communication. So far I have failed. At this moment considering the ecological footprint of anything is fraught with all sorts of dilemmas. There is a debate about what should be considered "in" or "out", ostensibly to prevent double counting and such. There is a debate about where the 'baseline' should be placed. Is it a highway or a parking lot? How does the use effect the footprint, etc.

With regards to roads in particular there is an artificial and insular debate that so obfuscates the matter as to make it practically impenetrable, and this is where the explicit analogy lies. If you begin to research the footprint of surfaced areas you will soon find yourself in the morass of a debate about whether cement or asphalt surfaces have a lower footprint. What a specious waste of time. It is a profit driven, industry lobbied waste of time. There is no doubt some serious work taking place and proponents of various industry interests make valid points and all that, but much of it is occurring in an artificially held, unexamined and corrupt context, despite what might be considered the immediate, myopic best intentions of any particular lobby.

One example of this is the debate about whether cement or asphalt is more recyclable. Within the context of this completely artificial debate this might be useful if anyone were actually recycling either of these. It is really only recyclable in theory. The reason that this is only a theoretical debate is that the financial model does not make recycling of either a profitable endeavor. The profitable endeavor in the current system is new surfaces. Some work has been done in lowering the emission in the cement making process, but really both cement and asphalt are environmentally disastrous. Considered grossly they are simply processes of burning the earth and then covering the earth itself with this burnt earth. That is not a metaphor. The only context in which they could be considered even remotely viable is completely artificial. There is nothing in the current enacted (and alienated) system requiring a different answer or even the exploration of the possibility of a different answer. The result is this artificial debate the result of which is still a disastrous, unsustainable, ecologically destructive 'solution.'

Forget the emissions footprint of the production and use. Forget the effects that an infrastructure designed to optimize the use of private automobiles has had on our social fabric and way of (not) living together in so-called developed economies. Forgaet the artificially subsidized quality of the entire undertaking. Since we, in developed economies, do and are forgetting this all the time it should not be hard. The roads are also doing things like poisoning the water system and coastal waters. The system of roads create artificial water sheds which then erode and destroy topsoil where the surface has not been directly paved over anyway. I am sorry. It is insane. It is a daily insanity with which we live as if it were not only normal, but as if a sign of progress and now view as necessary.

No doubt the response to such ranting as I am offering (if not dismissed altogether) is to rhetorically ask about alternatives. This is a mysterious condition. Paving massive swathes of the earth with asphalt and concrete is necessary? Really? There is no alternative? Well there is something to this after all. From where we are, subsidizing, identified with and enacting in our daily lives a corrupt system of profit maximization and consolidation - arguing about the relative merits of cement or asphalt - there is indeed no alternative. It is a self reinforcing, one dimensional view of our reality in which we pretend that such a view is exhaustive of reality. An alternative cannot even be considered. The 'resources' required to investigate even the possibility of such an alternative are not available. In the places where alternatives emerge, the artificiality of a system intentionally designed and geared to maximize and consolidate profit, over any other value, deletes or distorts those alternatives so thoroughly that they seem ridiculous or impossible.

I currently live less than 15 miles from an aging nuclear facility. It is built on three fault lines. The current rhetoric is that the largest possible earthquake here would be 6.5 and that all the systems are designed to withstand this. This is simply bullshit. We do not know and we are not learning. We do not know much about earthquakes. We certainly cannot predict them. What allows such statements to be made and stand as if true? What are all the dynamics involved in that? What assumptions are made? What is the actual basis for such certainty in a fixed and mechanistic design of something that is not only immediately deadly, but constitutes an incredible long term liability? The arrogance of this view of our 'designs' is simply stunning to me. How are our 'designs' within this model working out globally so far? What is actually going on in the background?

Asked another way - If you felt you could shut such a plant down, would you do it? What is it that has you believe that you cannot? Ah, really? How might you address that question, instead of investing all your resources in the strategically insane venture of keeping it open, I wonder?

Asphalt or cement? Would you like me to poke out your right eye or your left? Are you still beating your wife, by the way?


  1. roger, i know this is completely irrelevant and beside the point, but I have been watching this company, http://www.terratechsite.com/

  2. Hi- point? That company looks very cool... and if there is a point somewhere lurking in what I wrote, being aware of this sort of thing seems really relevant to me. This is a great example of a kind of alternative emerging in an interesting way. Thanks for sharing the link. -roger