Highways Are Part of Our Life Support System


April 25, 2016


From Harvey Kronberg's Quorum Report 2016


By Glenn W. Smith

Former Capitol reporter and longtime Democratic consultant. He is currently director of Progress Texas PAC.


It’s Not Infrastructure; It’s Our Life Support System
From the Left: QR’s Liberal Columnist Glenn W. Smith argues that roads, bridges, water systems etc. are more than infrastructure – they are life support systems we must maintain.

It’s no mystery to popular culture’s storytellers: life requires life support systems. When life support systems don’t exist, they must be built. When they fail, they must be fixed. Robinson Crusoe knew it. Chuck Noland, the Tom Hanks character in Cast Away knew it. Astronauts Mark Watney, Matt Damon’s character in The Martian, and Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock in Gravity, knew it.


Judging by our lack of attention to our life support systems, we are a bit slower on the uptake. You may know these systems by the dull, unromantic and uninspiring term “infrastructure.” There’s nothing about the term that signals its significance to life.


It’s easy for selfish politicians to refuse to spend money on something called infrastructure. We know that must be true because politicians in Texas and around the nation have refused to do just that.


I doubt, however, that even the most craven politicians would look us in the eye and say, “No. No money for life support systems. Sorry.”


Some components of our life support systems have obviously evolved naturally, our air and water for instance. Our job is to manage these in ways that allow life to flourish now and into the future. Other components must be built and maintained: roads, bridges, public transportation, dams, levees, ports, airports, water distribution and sewage systems, energy generators, schools, etc.


The New Yorker recently published an essay describing some reasons for the decay of America’s life support systems. Much of it has to do with modern conservatism’s absolutist hatred of all things government related. Taxes are theft, many on the right believe. For them, taxes which build a road so other people can drive on it are just theft by another name.

We’ve also lost something of the common purpose we once shared. Americans were proud to work together to build the network of Interstate highways after our national triumph in WWII. An extreme and blinding individualist ethos has led many to forget they can’t build their own private highways, farm their own food, fly their own planes, or build their own trains, provide for their own water and carry away their own sewage.

I still remember how proud my father was when we returned to Texas from out-of-state driving trips. Crossing, say, the Louisiana border into Texas one found the highway was beautifully paved, wide and well striped. Needless to say, that brag is no longer possible.

Comedian John Oliver recently joked about Texas’s nickname that, “A lone star is what most people would give Texas on Yelp.”

There is no arguing with Oliver if what is being rated are our life support systems. A couple of years ago the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report card on America’s life support systems. Texas received a D minus on drinking water, a D on flood control, a D on dams, a D on roads, and a C minus on wastewater. Education here scored the same as Texas scored on wastewater – a C minus – a parallel we can hope is a coincidence.

I know, water still flows from our taps. Not every school building has fallen down. Traffic is awful, but we can still drive. Flooding does seem to be an increasing problem, but our sewage is still carried away. We are not, like our medieval forebears, tossing it into the streets from our open windows.
But it is the nature of life support systems that they seem work okay until they fail. Slow declines are too easily overlooked. The proverbial frog in slowly heating water doesn’t notice until it’s too late.

When it comes to our misuse of naturally occurring life support systems, we will be damned for our failures if we don’t act soon. The warming climate is already killing people and other life on Earth.

So, this is not a matter of building and maintaining some abstract thing called infrastructure. This is about life, about all our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren. Do we really want to be the generation that turns off the life support system for the world?