Is It Tme to change the Experiment?
One of the most memorable days was my first as a college freshman where in back-to-back lectures I was treated to what seemed then to be the wisdom of the universe.
At 9:00 a.m., the head of the Geology Department—also head of USGS located 6 miles up the road—introduced the eager band of Geology 101 students to descriptions of building processes, ending his preface with a backhanded slap at “those who think the continents are moving around.”
The 10:00 a.m. introduction to Economics 101, again performed by its department head, was no less insightful. In explaining the difference between economic and free resources, the professor pointed out that “air, water, and dirt are free resources” and therefore not subject to the laws of supply and demand.
The year was 1954, three years before the findings of the 1957 Geophysical Year launched the Unified Theory of Plate Tectonics, which knocked conventional geology on its ear. Likewise, our vision and understanding of natural resource use, abuse, and sustainability in the interceding 50 years have received a severe wake-up call. Response to plate tectonics has been the purposeful migration of our population to seismically supercharged portions of the nation, while our response to resource management has been … what? Certainly something less than enlightened.
Over the last half-century we have undergone a transition from a rural to an urban society, a trend that is accelerating, taxing our ability to provide new water delivery and discharge systems, and overwhelming those already in existence. I’ve listened to estimates for the repair, replacement, and upgrade of our existing water infrastructure between now and mid-century range from $15 trillion to $30 trillion—figures, mind you, predicated on fighting a rear-guard action. Road repairs, right-of-way demands, and new highway construction could add another 50% to the total.
It’s one thing to screw up your courage enough to ask where such amounts of money might come from, but quite another to question our society’s ability to actually mobilize itself to utilize such an investment. In short, even if we could find the funds, could we actually deploy them in a meaningful way? I think not, and even if it could, is that the proper response?
It still seems like only yesterday our nation reeled in the wake of well-planned, organized, and coordinated terrorist attacks designed to inflict the maximum number of human casualties and capture the undivided attention of the entire world. Now after five years of digesting the lessons of those attacks, and devoting an enormous amount of our national treasure to ensure our ability to respond to disasters of all sorts under the banner of “Homeland Security,” we’ve watched in impotent amazement the colossal disconnect between the planners and those responsible for putting the plans into action, in the wake of the biblical class storms of the past couple of years. Bad enough were the loss of life, property, and public funds, but infinitely worse was the precious time squandered in the development of programs so bloated and far removed from the threats they were supposed to meet that they became impediments to those on the firing line.
In addition to Water Efficiency, we publish six other infrastructure-related publications—MSW Management, Erosion Control, Grading & Excavation Contractor, Stormwater, Onsite Water Treatment, and Distributed Energy—for professional audiences, a situation that makes us acutely aware of the common denominators and barriers that exist among their subjects. You may find it a stretch to believe that such disparate areas as water handling, transportation infrastructure, waste handling, and energy resource management have much in common, but I’d like to suggest that the factors affecting them at the deepest level are strikingly similar. More to the point, lean thinking lies at the heart of each, and in that sense the magazine’s title might as easily be Lean Water.
The areas of command and control, once in the hands of predominantly local interests, have gravitated inexorably to higher and more remote levels of centralization, a situation not well suited to the demands and changes taking place in our society. Bad enough by itself, the curse of institutionalization carries with it an even greater danger: a disconnect between us as individuals in recognizing the seriousness of the challenges we face and the acceptance of responsibility for taking timely and effective action.
Is the Sky Falling?
Not if we don’t wimp out. While it’s clear that no longer have we the luxury of sitting back and watching the process go from critical to life-threatening, it is equally important that we don’t rush our way into wasteful, feel-good—perhaps even counterproductive—solutions. Instead we need now to step back and take a long-range look at the challenges and threats we’re facing, where they came from, just what it is we must achieve to survive, and even what lifestyle changes we’re willing to accept 10, 20, 50 years down the line. What we’re engaged in is a process—one in which we may not like some of the casualties such a regimen will produce—but only in this way will we be able to see clearly the actions necessary to the survival of ourselves and the societal values we hold in common.
Finally, I can’t help coming back to the mighty Pogo recognition that “we have met the enemy and he are us.” Without public awareness and dedicated support, no program, no amount of wisdom or intelligence can be the architect of victory. Success lies in turning on light bulbs of knowledge one person at a time … starting with us.
What will it take to achieve this? Darned if I know, but I’ll go back to the question I asked in the title and say, yes, it is time to change the experiment, and that’s what every page of Water Efficiency will be dedicated to promoting.
Author's Bio: John Trotti is the Group Editor for Forester Media.