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?

I 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.

Then 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 could find.

So 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?

The 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 away.

Who 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.

And 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?

Because 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).

And 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.

The 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 ALL?

I'm 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?

Nuh-unh. 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).

The 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?

Well, 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?

Of 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?

Nothing 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?

I'm 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.

But 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.

Just 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 replaced.

It's 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 behind.

I 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.

No prizes for figuring out which I choose. 

 

Wires, pipes, roads, and water support the lives we lead, but the average person doesn't know where they go or even how they work. Our systems of infrastructure are not only shrouded in mystery, many are woefully out of date. In On the Grid, Scott Huler takes the time to understand the systems that sustain our way of life, starting from his own quarter of an acre in North Carolina and traveling as far as Ancient Rome.

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