Preventive maintenance, the price of civilization

The 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke said that human society was based on a contract between the present generation, past generations and generations yet to come.

He was speaking and writing about social institutions, but the same is just as true of the physical infrastructure of our society.

When I was a boy, electricity, telephone service and running water were not things that everybody had, and there were living people who could remember when these things are unusual.   I enjoy a higher material standard of living than my parents did, based on technologies I did nothing to create, from my Internet connection to my thermostat-controlled furnace.   I can’t repay my debt to previous generations, but I can pay it forward to the next generation.  That’s what I think Burke meant.

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These thoughts were prompted by an article I read in The Washington Post on-line by Brad Plumer about how electric power outages are becoming more common.   He noted that the U.S. electrical transmission system is aging and not being replaced, and wondered if there would be fewer outages if there were a more modern system.

Of course the expense of upgrading the transmission lines will have to be paid by someone—the utility stockholders, the utility customers or both.  The cost of neglect may be greater in the long-run, but the decision-maker won’t be around to face the consequences.

I think this is part of a larger problem—neglect of the preventive maintenance that is needed to keep our technological systems going.

grid-constructionThere is a lot of political support for gee-whiz technologies such as high-speed rail, but not so much for mundane work such as inspecting and upgrading the existing track system so that trains can proceed safely at normal speeds.

I don’t see this as an economic or governmental question as a question of attitude.  No matter what the system, there will be a temptation to put aside long-range concerns and focus on the next quarterly profit statement or the next election.  We live in the present and forget the generation yet to come.

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Here is a link to the Brad Plumer article.

Why blackouts are becoming more common by Brad Plumer for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.

Here are links to other articles about the sacrifice of the future to immediate concerns.

Fukushima apocalypse: Years of ‘duct tape fixes’ could result in ‘millions of deaths’ by RT News.  (Hat tip to Daniel Brandt)  Here in the United States, we have aging nuclear power plants, operating past their scheduled decommission dates, because this is easier than taking on the economic burden of building new plants.

Clean-Up or Cover-Up? What BP and the EPA Did to the Gulf by Shanna Devine for The Washington Spectator. The toxic dispersants used by BP were more harmful to human and marine life than the oil itself.  And they did not get rid of the oil, but merely removed it from the surface of the Gulf.

Texas Towns Frack Their Way to Drought Conditions by the Real News Network.  Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas threatens the water supply of some west Texas towns.

A $60 trillion economic time bomb lurks in climate change by Paul Farrell for the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch.

We Americans have a nice, comfortable high-tech society.  It would be a shame to let it wear out or break down from neglect.

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