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Book Review: “How Infrastructure Works,” By Deb Chachra

Angus Stocking on March 15, 2024 - in Profile

Reviewed by Angus Stocking

As a land surveyor for 15 years and then an infrastructure writer for 22 years, I have understandably acquired hundreds of books relating to infrastructure. Sometimes purchased for professional reasons, sometimes as gifts from well-meaning loved ones, sometimes coming home with me from conferences, and sometimes sent to me out of the blue by publishers hoping for a review. I love this; I love the substantial infrastructure and geospatial reference library I’ve assembled; I love the way the serious tomes look on my shelves; I love getting cool books for free because I’m a writer; basically, I love everything about collecting important books on the most important topic: infrastructure.

Except I don’t actually read that many of them. Mainly because, who has the time? I’m more likely to read three white papers on cement composition for sewer repair than I am to read “The Big Necessity” (Rose George, Metropolitan Books), even though the latter was a gift from a girlfriend, simply because I have to read the white papers for a white paper I’m writing. Nor will I likely ever do much more than occasionally dip into “The 99% Invisible City” (Roman Mars & Kurt Kohlstedt, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), although it’s a beautiful and well-regarded book, as I can tell from the cover that it’s an excruciatingly fascinating “gee whiz” book about the fundamentals of my chosen professional occupation, and I already experience a surfeit of “gee whiz” moments while doing my job interviewing actual infrastructure professionals.

There are exceptions—books I’ve read and reread, and studied exhaustively: “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” (Edward Tufte, Graphics Press) and its sequels are examples, as are “A Pattern Language” (Christopher Alexander et al, Oxford University Press) and Alexander’s four-volume magnum opus “Nature of Order” (Christopher Alexander, The Center for Environmental Structure). These great books have the following in common:

1) Interesting and useful … at least to me. By making VDQI beautiful to look at, Tufte (the “godfather of visualization”) was able to intensely interest me—and a million other nerds—in the previously obscure discipline of statistical information. And useful too; by impressing on me such concepts as “data-ink ratio” and “chartjunk,” Tufte—via my work as a licensed land surveyor—significantly improved the legibility and usefulness of certified survey maps and subdivision maps filed by me in Dodge County, Wis. And by insisting that the built world (i.e., infrastructure) can be imbued by designers and builders with greater or lesser amounts of what he called “life”—a term encompassing livability, usefulness, beauty, etc.—Alexander has made a couple of generation’s worth of homes and buildings more beautiful and livable. And land developments, too; there are three subdivisions in Wisconsin that are—I fervently hope—at least slightly better due to the knowledge I gained from Alexander. (Just to brag a bit, I interviewed (the now deceased) Alexander on several occasions, have published several articles and reviews on Alexandrian topics, and the great man himself even offered me a job once … which I stupidly declined—an error I regret to this day.)

2) Authoritative. Both Tufte and Alexander worked and taught extensively in their respective domains (statistics and architect/contractor) before ever setting pen to paper. In a word, both are exceedingly credible, and readers can be assured that their teachings are derived from experience.

3) Important. That is, having the potential to dramatically remake human civilization. That sounds grandiose, but just think what a world it could be if every bit of information conveyed visually (in signs, books, instruction manuals, PowerPoints, GUIs, articles, documentaries, charts, graphs, maps, labels, etc., etc., ad infinitum) was better at conveying information, and if everything built—all infrastructure—was built better and better-suited to purpose.

Perhaps we can summarize these three criteria: to be of worth to infrastructure professionals (my heroes) a book needs to be information-rich. And not just full of factoids and opinions, but rich with ideas that are (in Patrick Harpur’s phrase) “good to think with.” Or put even more pithily: to be great and worth our time, a book needs to offer significant return on investment by making our life, work and thinking better.

Now comes Deb Chachra’s “How Infrastructure Works” as contender for the coveted title of “great infrastructure book, at least to me,” and there is much to commend this 2023 release. Given that it says “infrastructure” right on the tin, it promises to be an interesting and perhaps useful book, and, as a lifelong “charismatic megainfrastructure” nerd with unimpeachable academic credentials, Chachra is certainly credible … but is “How Infrastructure Works” important? With reviews in the New York Times, the Washington Post and other East Coast media outlets, it’s apparent the literary class thinks so, but what about readers of Informed Infrastructure? Will infrastructure professionals come to believe that “How Infrastructure Works” presents a potentially world-changing new paradigm, perhaps even marking an inflection point in the way engineers and designers and builders think about and build the vast collective systems that sustain human civilization?

Let’s try to answer that question; certainly, HIW is information-rich by any standard, and the ratio of “ideas that are good to think with” per page is extraordinarily high. This makes a conventional review somewhat difficult, but in the paragraphs below, I’ll skip a stone over the top of this worthy book to draw out what I see as some of the important philosophical frameworks presented by Chachra, grouped into four “idea clusters.” And to make these ideas stand out a bit, all italicization below denotes sentences or phrases taken verbatim from HIW.

Infrastructure as Agency

In her opening chapters, Chachra necessarily writes more for the hoi polloi than for the infrastructural elite who read Informed Infrastructure; “necessarily” because the ultimate aim of HIW is to inspire massive, global renewal of civilization-sustaining infrastructure, and, for that to happen, Chachra will have to write for, well, everyone.

And so she begins by describing herself making dinner because it might be the quietest and most domestic part of my day … but that very ordinariness is utterly extraordinary. Hiding in plain sight in this scene are many of the different ways in which our infrastructural systems augment what’s possible for me to do with my body alone. Common infrastructural systems—water, sewage, electricity, natural gas, transportation, and communications are amazing in that they make it possible for me to live the kind of life that I want to live, a life of comfort, agency, diversion, and connection to others.

Chachra goes on to speak of infrastructure systems as something like mecha suits enabling relatively frail humans to summon clean water at will, whisk away sewage and garbage, talk to anyone anywhere and fly at rocket speed wherever we desire, all by calling on regional or global infrastructure networks and even, I’ll add, establish precise location on Earth by commanding our pocket supercomputers to consult constellations of satellites to tell us where we are and where we want to go. Really, when one thinks about it, we all live as Tony Stark playing superhero, except that our Iron Man suits are far roomier and more comfortable.

But importantly, we live that way if we live in a part of the world with good infrastructure.

Between their familiarity and their unannounced, unexplained presence, infrastructural systems are easy to see but just as easy to ignore, unless we bring our conscious attention to bear on them … We now live surrounded by technological systems of nearly unimaginable scale, extent, and complexity … It took me a shockingly, embarrassingly long time to recognize the inequity that is baked into nearly every one of these facilities and systems.

The Collective Networks We Live Inside

I find much of the current conversation around equity vs. equality to be confusing, even dispiriting. In contrast, a call for infrastructure equity is something I can get behind wholeheartedly. By “equity,” it seems right to me that all the world’s people should enjoy the unthinkable luxury of access to the aforementioned individual agency. “Unthinkable” except that the infrastructural birthright that grants this agency is already an accomplished fact for a portion of humanity—a desire that this agency-granting “birthright” be extended across the planet strikes me as among the most laudable and least problematic of charitable urges. And, as a species, we’re already heading in that direction.

It’s true that existing infrastructural networks can be fairly described as vast constructions whose purpose is to centralize resources and agency to a small fraction of extremely privileged humans and to displace the harms to many others. And yet it’s also true that what makes networks special is not just that they’re collective but that they can also be synergistic: the more people who use them, the more valuable they become for everyone … Every community, home, or business that is connected to a road or telephone network makes the whole network more valuable for everyone on it.

Moreover, many of these “vast constructions” are already transnational or global and governed by internationally applied standards and agreements; the North American electric grid and international shipping of intermodal containers are examples, as is the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), beloved of my land surveyor’s heart, that integrates no less than five national satellite constellations—GPS (U.S.), QZSS (Japan), BEIDOU (China), GALILEO (EU) and GLONASS (Russia)—all to lend agency to just about anyone anywhere trying to establish his or her location on Earth or to navigate from one place to another.

And so it seems possible that a global infrastructure policy aimed at collective infrastructural uplift of all humans is not only the most altruistic of collective pursuits, but perhaps also the cheapest and most-efficient way to make everyone happy. Implementing such a policy might even prove be great fun.

Infrastructure’s Critical Inflection Point

There is much doom and gloom hysteria attached to the climate change (or even climate “crisis”) narrative. I may be misreading her, but it seems that Chachra avoids direct identification with the loudest voices here by largely framing HIW’s arguments in favor of reimagined infrastructure policy around climate instability.

She is right to do so; in transposing by media fiat the measurable and debatable hypothesis of “global warming” with the unfalsifiable proposition that climate is “changing” (of course it is; year by year, day by day, moment by moment, climate changes), narrative proponents do a great disservice to their own cause by risking alienation of the “reality-based” infrastructure professionals—civil and structural engineers, traffic analysts, urban planners, scientists, farmers, etc.—who will have to be the ones actually reimagining and rebuilding the infrastructure that sustains humanity. Climate instability, on the other hand, insists that—whether by warming as in the Medieval Warm Period or cooling as in the Little Ice Age (which ended about 1850) or something wilder and more catastrophic like the comet- and/or volcano-incited Younger Dryas or the explosion of the Yellowstone Caldera or a geomagnetic storm on the scale of the 1859 Carrington Event—the climate humans will be attempting to flourish in 100 or 500 years from now is almost certain to be dramatically different from the climate we are building infrastructure for today. And since our infrastructural systems—for that matter, nearly all human systems—have been created assuming that, however variable the weather might be, the underlying climate is stable, it is a very good idea to revisit those assumptions and start planning and building now—in the same way civil engineers plan and build for 100- and 500-year storms—to create infrastructure that will be successfully suited to vital purpose when things change, as they must. In a word—a much used and misused, but still true and useful word—infrastructure must become resilient.

Similarly, Chachra largely eschews discussion of “peak oil” and demonization of anthropogenic CO2 when speaking of emissions and hydrocarbon combustion, choosing instead to draw attention to what she sees as the inefficiency and inelegance of the current energy production dominant. As an example of elegance in energy production, she says of Dinorwig Power Station (an extremely cool hydroelectric facility in Wales, visiting which HIW has put on my bucket list):

Dinorwig sets my engineering heart aflutter not just for its scale, although size does indeed matter, but because of its undeniable elegance, the way it solves a problem by using the available resources—mountain lakes! low overnight demand!—cleverly and parsimoniously … I appreciate the Dinorwig Power Station so much because of the decisions made to minimize harms, like rehoming the local fish or burying the transmission lines so as not to spoil the view. What this reveals is that the beneficiaries of Electric Mountain and the community that would be negatively affected were considered to be largely the same people.

Energy production then—necessary as it is to both individual agency and collective uplift—must free itself of dependence on hydrocarbon combustion not because oil is about to disappear the day after tomorrow and not solely because emissions are polluting, but because a system that must go to increasingly problematic lengths to extract and transport hydrocarbons only to then burn them inefficiently with at least some resulting “harms” is, at minimum, inefficient and inelegant. In response, and to employ another oft-used and misused word, energy production infrastructure must become sustainable.

If readers detect that I’m perhaps too-strongly leaning into these arguments made in HIW, well, it’s a fair cop; for years now, in bipolar fashion, I have been torn between near-disgust with what I see as needlessly dystopian fearmongering arising from servants of the climate change narrative while at the same time yearning desperately for a “Golden Age of Infrastructure” to better support human flourishing—and also, not incidentally, the flourishing of my children and hoped-for grandchildren. That is, a utopian built world that is more beautiful, equitable, resilient, sustainable and, yes, more elegant. Chachra provides philosophical “infrastructure” that neatly resolves much of that angst and internal division. Put simply, Chachra and HIW give me rational hope for a better world, and for that I am grateful.

And she goes on to explain that such a Golden Age is not only necessary but possible.

A Grand Vision for the Built World

For most of human history, access to energy has enabled or limited what’s possible.

Chachra begins laying out her grand vision by asking: What would it take for every human on the planet to use about the same amount of energy as I do, in my warm, well-lit home, with fuel for cooking on tap, and access to mobility options including a personal vehicle, mass transit, and air travel? We can ballpark it taking the per capita energy footprint of Canadians and multiplying it by the eight billion people in the world, which gives us about 2.4 * 1021 joules per year, roughly 10 times the current global energy consumption.

This a rough, back-of-envelope calculation; by contrast, estimating the amount of solar energy landing on Earth is a relatively straightforward question of experimental physics and geometry … it’s enough to bathe our planet in radiant light and warmth to the tune of about 5.5 * 1024 joules each year. That means that our estimate of the civilizational usage to meet the needs of every human on Earth is about 0.04 of incipient solar radiation… that is, four parts in ten thousand … our fragile blue-green marble of a planet, suspended in space, is absolutely awash in energy—enough to provide all humans with the power to live comfortable lives of agency and connection.

That is a lot of energy! Doesn’t that mean a lot of emissions?

A higher energy footprint only means a higher emissions footprint if that energy come from combustion. But if it doesn’t—if we power our infrastructural systems, particularly the electrical grid and transportation—with energy that doesn’t come from fossil fuels, we can decouple our energy footprint and our carbon footprint.

Wind and solar? Don’t those both come with plenty of their own problems?

Well, yes, but, renewable energy is now where electricity itself was a century and a half ago: the technologies are still somewhat emergent, with some unresolved questions, and they’re still only a small part of energy systems.

Described here is a heartening “one-two punch” that—by pointing out that, at least in theory, energy production can be “decoupled” from combustion and emissions, and that it’s reasonable to expect great advances soon in renewable energy theory, technology and adoption—effectively sounds a death knell for one energy production dominant and ushers in its sustainable and resilient replacement … and perhaps the infrastructural equity and utopian built world that a new energy production dominant makes possible.

Refreshingly, Chachra implicitly rebukes globalist calls for reduced energy consumption by a reduced human population, and I appreciate her clear-eyed recognition that any attractive future for human civilization must be enabled by cheap, sustainable energy for all and widely distributed resilient infrastructure.

We’re accustomed to thinking about reducing carbon emissions as going hand in hand with reducing energy consumption. But knowing that there is enough renewable energy to meet the needs of every human on Earth is a big deal, because it changes the terms of the problem. Rather than focusing on reducing our energy usage—a scarcity mindset—we instead can focus on increasing the amount of energy that comes from renewable sources. And we have a suite of emerging technologies that allows us to get energy without setting anything on fire, which means that for the first time in human history, it’s possible to entirely decouple energy usage from carbon emissions. If we put these together, we can realize that stabilizing the global climate doesn’t have to mean rationing or limiting energy usage, and it doesn’t have to mean sacrifice. Transitioning rapidly and completely into renewable, decarbonized sources of power is how humanity can access unprecedented energy abundance.

It is absolutely possible to create systems that are functional, resilient, sustainable, and equitable, on a global scale. The challenge is figuring out how to get from here to there, technologically and socially.

How, indeed, do we get from here to there? If I have one quibble with “How Infrastructure Works,” it’s that this question is tentatively explored and partly addressed, but not (perhaps understandably) definitively answered. For example, in two successive chapters, Chachra discusses The Social Context of Infrastructure and The Political Context of Infrastructure … to my mind, she might have reasonably continued this discussion with a chapter devoted to The Spiritual Context of Infrastructure.

Not necessarily, I hasten to add, to inspire religious renewal among civil engineers or meditative contemplation among traffic analysts and pavement contractors, but simply to “inspire”; the word means literally to “breathe life and spirit into,” and a couple of generations of infrastructure professionals will have to be greatly “inspirited” if they are to be the ones that “create (or recreate) systems that are functional, resilient, sustainable, and equitable, on a global scale” in the way that previous generations of their peers were inspired to build out the rail and highway networks that make civilizations prosperous, or the transnational electric grids that safely empower billions or the globe-encircling satellite constellations that go a long way toward telling us exactly where we are, or, really, any of the great works of humans that enable us to flourish.

In some ways then, Chachra (and HIW) seems to waver in voice between “prophet of a coming infrastructural doom” and “resolutely secular academic telling of a bright future” and neither voice, I believe, is sufficient in itself to inspire the global reimagining and renewal of infrastructure that she envisions. Rather, an effective supra-social and supra-political appeal to reality-based professionals will be needed—a clarion call to action that hits them squarely in the feels, and we might as well acknowledge that such a call will necessarily be spiritual in nature.





About Angus Stocking

Angus Stocking is a former licensed land surveyor who has been writing about infrastructure since 2002 and is the producer and host of “Everything is Somewhere,” a podcast covering geospatial topics. Articles have appeared in most major industry trade journals, including CE News, The American Surveyor, Public Works, Roads & Bridges, US Water News, and several dozen more.

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