Author Q&A, On the Grid: A Plot of
Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work, by
Scott Huler (Rodale, May 2010).
So you decided to write a book about, what, flushing
your toilet? How does that come about?
moved from Philadelphia down to Raleigh, NC, in 1992, and before I left an
editor I trusted said, "You'll see a completely different culture there: here,
all the fights are about staving off catastrophe; there, it's all about zoning
and land use." He might have been speaking in Urdu for all the attention I
paid, but of course he was completely right. It wasn't long after I moved here
before I noticed that the place was growing so fast you would actually say it
was metastasizing: pick any road and drive a couple miles and you'd come to the
edge of the city, places where new sidewalks were going in, trenches being
extended, filled with pipes and wires and god knows what all, and poles going
in to hold up ... well, something else. It was like seeing the bones of the
"infrastructure," whatever that is, sticking out, and if made you think: all
that stuff, it's down there, and ... doing whatever it does. But I had no real
idea what that was.
one day some guys were up on utility poles in the neighborhood I lived in and I
asked what they were doing and they explained they were adding a new loop to
the grid, and I was dumbstruck. You mean that "grid" everybody talks about
it's real? It has physical being, and it is somewhere and it goes
somewhere and somebody built it and somebody maintains it and you could follow
it and see where it leads you? It was like I had stumbled onto the beginning of
the Oregon Trail or something. I wanted to follow that trail and see what I
I started with my house my ordinary house, full of baby toys and unvacuumed
carpets and cloggy drains and followed those Oregon Trails. Back along the
electric wires to the power plant; back up the water pipes to the treatment
plant. Down the wastewater pipes to the sewer plant. Along the roads and
railroad tracks to get a sense of where they lead, who manages them, who pays
for that, and who thought it all up.
Okay, so what the hell is this infrastructure stuff
that everybody's talking about, and how does it work? Who's in charge of it?
Who pays for it?
first thing that blew my mind and this was a project of many mind-blowings,
let me assure you was that the infrastructure is so complex that almost
everything is part of it: streets, sidewalks, roadside ditches, GPS satellites,
all play a role, along with the obvious stuff that you already know to point at
electric lines and telephone lines and cable lines and cell phone towers, and
of course things like water plants and sewer plants. It's everywhere, and we
totally ignore it. But once I started looking at it, I couldn't tear my eyes
pays for it? All of us, of course, though we fight about it just about every
waking second. Consider this next time someone asks for tax money for road paving.
Used to be that you were responsible for maintaining the road that ran by your
house, and if you didn't do it your neighbors would put the pressure on. When
American towns organized, they obliged the citizenry to give a few days a year
to maintaining the roads. So you can either pay the tax money or get up early
one week in July because, Ding! it's asphalt week and it's your turn, so
bring a shovel. When you drive over potholes and complain about the city doing
such a lousy job of maintaining the roads, you're complaining, really, about
yourself. You've just chosen to pay them rather than do it yourself.
if you don't think municipal taxes are complex enough, think about your local
power utility. Chances are good it's publically traded and government
regulated. That means it's trying to keep both shareholders and customers
happy, with the government keeping an eye out for the customers' good. It can
usually find a balance. But now add in the Smart Grid, whatever that is
(depends on whom you ask) and encourage all those right-minded customers to
conserve power for the good of the planet. The power company makes money by
selling power; how can it possibly satisfy its shareholders, its customers, and
conservationists? That's not a rhetorical question: If you have an answer,
contact your power company. They'll give you a lot of money for that answer.
Why on earth do you care so much about sewer pipes
and gas lines?
they turn out to be fascinating. Not just to learn, say, how they get
pollutants out of my water, or what that pink stuff is that starts growing in
the vaporizer if we don't clean it often. But each of these infrastructure
streams has a history whether it's something like water, which goes back to
the Roman aqueducts and before, or stormwater management, which goes even
further back (stormwater management turns out to be foundational literally
because if you don't manage it, your buildings sink into the ground).
those histories get quite complex. Left to themselves, for example, water
companies happily supplied wealthy neighborhoods with water, but poorer
neighborhoods weren't nearly as attractive as markets. Thus, at the
beginning of the last century, African Americans died of Typhoid at a rate
twice that among whites, partially because they lacked access to clean water.
More, water was originally supplied on a connection basis that is, you didn't
pay per gallon, you paid per year, and nobody was measuring your consumption. Soon
enough water companies figured out that wasn't encouraging sensible use or
generating their best return. This does more than provide an interesting tidbit
of water history it also sheds an interesting light on current discussions
about tiered payment plans for, say, Internet and cable use.
point is, a lot has been going on for a long time to shape the services we take
for granted and the way those services are provided and paid for.
Speaking of history, how can it be that as recently
as 1940 if you took a notion and made a nice long trip to Detroit,
Boston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and St. Louis, and you used a
toilet in every one of those cities, EVERY DROP OF THE WASTE YOU FLUSHED AWAY
WOULD HAVE BEEN DUMPED INTO RIVERS, LAKES, AND OCEANS WITHOUT ANY TREATMENT AT
glad you asked that question. That's the kind of thing I kept finding, and that
kept blowing my mind. When I thought of untreated sewage dumped directly into
waterways, I thought covered wagons? Knee breeches? Perukes?
We only got around to treating our wastewater in the last century or so. (New
York City, by the way, finally got around to treating all of its wastewater
only in 1986. Before that if you visited your aunt Nellie on the upper West
Side, all your business went right in the Hudson. Nice.) And this is not
because we're disgusting pigs, mind you. It's just that you require a certain
population density before your waste say it's buried in cesspits starts building
up in large enough quantities to start fouling your wells. Or say you're
dumping it into the stream downstream, of course, from the intake where you
get your drinking water, which you've only recently started treating. It has to
reach pretty high volume before it's reaching downstream communities and making
them, say, sue you the way St. Louis sued Chicago once Chicago started
dumping its waste into the Mississippi Basin (because it didn't want to foul
its own water in Lake Michigan).
point is, we treat these unbelievable conveniences that we regard as
necessities for reasonable life as though they've been around forever. But they
haven't they have a long history, but in their present degree of extreme
effectiveness, they've been with us for a remarkably short time.
Congestion pricing to control traffic this is not
only not new, it was instituted by Julius Caesar?
if you're Caesar, and you want business to generate tax money to keep you in
nice clean togas (togas cleaned, by the way, with ammonia gathered from reprocessed
urine, speaking of wastewater), and the streets are choking with horses and
carts and people and all sorts of other undesirable impediments, don't you want
to clear the way for better tax revenues?
course you do. Caesar, being a dictator, could have things his own say, so in
45 B.C. he simply declared that only approved vehicles could come downtown
between 6 a.m. and 4 p.m. So when London in 2003 implemented congestion pricing
charging a special fee for vehicles that chose to come downtown during the
busiest part of the day they weren't doing anything the Roman emperors hadn't
done two thousand years before. By the way, by 200 A.D. or so Marcus Aurelius
had spread that policy throughout the empire.
The Chinese used to pipe naturally occurring natural
gas in hollow bamboo shoots? And used it to evaporate water to get salt? ALMOST
THREE THOUSAND YEARS AGO?
new under the sun, Ecclesiastes tells us, and by the time Ecclesiastes
tells us that, the Chinese had been using natural gas for hundreds of years. According
to historians, Chinese communities were not just using natural gas but were
actually drilling for it, piping it through bamboo, and using it to boil off
brine to make salt. People had discovered natural gas seeps in the West, too
the flame of the Delphic Oracle in Greece is widely believed to have come from
a natural gas seep, and people point to the Biblical burning bush and
thoughtfully stroke their chins but only in China did they figure out that
mysterious fire could do work.
So Chinese civilizations using natural gas
thousands of years ago; the ancient Romans managed congestion pricing around
the same time. We know about Greek and Roman aqueducts and Roman roads. Is
there anything that we've actually discovered completely new lately?
going to say no. Alexander Graham Bell invented a wireless telephone the
photophone in 1880 (it carried a signal on, no kidding, reflected sunlight).
Some people call that the foundation of fiber optics, but that actually came
even earlier: the French and Swiss were using jets of water to guide light (it
made for pretty colored fountains) in the 1840s and 1850s. So that's new-ish,
anyhow, but it didn't show up yesterday, the way people think it did.
what I think is my favorite discovery is that the foundation of modern
electronic communication multiplexing, whereby the same conductor carries
multiple signals, which are sorted out at the other end actually started in
Libya the Roman empire. It turns out that olive oil manufacturers in the
mountains figured out that instead of shipping their product to the coastal
towns, they could simply pour it into the aqueducts. Oil and water don't mix,
of course, so at the coast it was a simple matter to let the mixture sit in
tanks and let the oil separate out. Multiplexing two thousand years ago.
In the final chapter of your book you advocate
something unusual. We'll let you explain it yourself.
so. I advocate paying higher taxes and being thrilled to pay higher taxes. Every
and I use the word advisedly every expert I spoke with for this book
said the same thing: regarding our infrastructure, we face no challenges we
can't overcome. Fiber optic cable reaching to our houses, combined with
generation after generation of advancing wireless technology, make information
and communication all but instant and ubiquitous. We just have to pay for it.
Advances in the electrical grid will enable engineers (and customers) to
manage, move, share, and conserve power with ever-greater ease and confidence
as long as we pay for it. There isn't a bridge we don't know how to build or a
road we don't know how to pave and there are paving approaches you can take
now that, with reasonable resurfacing, last virtually forever. We just have to
you get the picture. Pipes need to be replaced and maintained, valves
exercised, poles serviced or lines buried, bulbs replaced and signs posted.
Roads repaved, replaced, serviced; bridges inspected, maintained, repaired or
simple: you maintain it or it falls on your head (or collapses beneath you). In
1981, in America in Ruins: The Decaying Infrastructure, Pat Choate and
Susan Walter estimated that the United States was about $850 billion behind in
its infrastructure funding, and they figured that put us in crisis. The American
Society of Civil Engineers estimated in 2009 that we were now more like $2.2 trillion
set out in On the Grid to do nothing more than explain how these systems
worked and where they came from. I didn't expect to emerge as an advocate of
higher taxes. But that's our choice: pay to maintain these systems that border
on the miraculous or learn to do without them.
prizes for figuring out which I choose.