If we do not permit the earth to produce beauty and joy, it will in the end not produce food, either. Joseph Wood Krutch

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Can technology save us?

Technology, in my very non-professional opinion, will not be able to save us from ourselves. I have no PhD on the matter, but history, I believe, will bear out my conclusion since it is based not on hope, but on observation of fact and logic. Perhaps too Spock like for some, but it gets the job done.

It is a fact that all technology, no matter how simple, requires upkeep and repair. The recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis highlights this basic problem with technology. While it has not yet been determined exactly what went wrong, undoubtedly, based on previous similar disasters, it will be one of two things. Error in construction/engineering (human error) or lack of proper maintenance (human negligence).

If this were an isolated event a different conclusion could be drawn but, this sort of event; bridge collapses due to faulty engineering or lax maintenance; has a long history dating back as far as even the Roman Empire and beyond.  Here are just four examples of bridge failures. A brief look back into history will show there are many many more. I have selected bridge disasters  in the U.S., however this is an international problem as well.

  • In 1876 the Ashtabula Bridge in Ashtabula OH suddenly collapsed, taking with it a train filled with 158 passenger and crew. 92 dead, 48 injured. The cause: A fatigue crack that was not found due to a deficient inspection routine.
  • On December 15, 1967 the Point Pleasant Silver Bridge in Kanauga OH suddenly collapsed killing 46 people, injuring 9. It was determined years of corrosion had been allowed to build and maintenance was neglected and practically non-existent. Vibrations from rush hour traffic shook the bridge apart after a major component failed due to corrosion. After this disaster the federal government mandated National Bridge Inspection Standards (NBIS) and required all bridges to be frequently inspected. This was nearly forty years ago and it is still being neglected!
  • On July 17, 1981 the Hyatt Regency hotel walkway collapsed killing 114 people and injuring more than 200. It was determined there was poor engineering of the supports and the engineer that signed off on the final report was convicted of gross negligence and lost his engineering license.
  • On June 28, 1983 the Mianus River Bridge collapsed sending vehicles into the river 70 feet below. Only three people died but the disaster brought to light that deferred maintenance on bridges was still a major concern. Inspections had not been done on scheduled intervals and not enough money had been budgeted to even pay to inspect the bridges. This was twenty-four years ago and it is still being neglected.

Fast forward to today when a bridge in Minneapolis suddenly fails taking an unknown number of lives and sending dozens to the hospital. It is likely exactly the same problem we had in 1967 and 1983. We have great technology and some very advanced technologic skill, but lack of maintenance reduces that technology to piles of scrap. With technology we can now build higher, span further, go faster, fly higher,communicate farther, drill deeper and harvest more of the earths resources in a shorter period of time than ever before. But should we?

Look out a window right now and also drive around your nearest city or town in your mind. Take note of everything you see. Now go back in time to imagine your surroundings as they were were just one-hundred years ago. Does the world look much different? Is it cleaner and safer now than one-hundred years ago? Has the industrial revolution been kind to the world it seeks to change? Have we advanced or declined in our respect for each other and the world in which we live?

Everything you see around you that is man-made is aging in some way and needs maintenance. Much of it is well past its prime and cannot be refurbished. It can only be removed or replaced. What is it going to cost to maintain all we have built over the last couple hundred years? If we tore it all down, what would it cost to rebuild? Bridges are only a small part of the equation. All technology and innovation must be maintained or replaced, big and small. Our most recent innovations, the computer and cell phone, lead very short lives and must be constantly updated or replaced. Much more frequently than older technology since they are technologically fragile. In fact all technology is fragile though and decays rather quickly. Do we have the resources to sustain all that we have built and manufactured in just the last one-hundred years? If we don't, what will happen to our society, our economy, ourselves?

Nature, given enough time, will repair itself and bring about it's own balance. Technology does not, it simply decays and crumbles leaving us with a mess to clean up. Other advanced civilizations existed before us, there may be others that follow. We find remnants of these advanced civilizations buried under sand in the desert or covered with vines in the jungle, seemingly abandoned without a clue as to why. I often wonder if they discovered the same thing we will soon. It is not possible to harness nature through technology and it is fruitless to try. The end is always a return to the earth and living a more natural and simplistic way.

Right now, in the U.S. we have bridges, dams, tunnels, buildings, rail lines, steam lines, gas pipelines, oil pipelines, water lines, sewer lines, levies and much more, in need of update and repair. Much, if not most, of this technology was built by previous generations and has been maintained with band-aids due to limited budgets and human resources. The bill to fix the bridges alone is estimated to be 190 billion dollars. That is billion with a B. The bill is about the same for dams. But what of the aging steam lines, brittle power grid, leaking pipelines,crumbling dams, failing levies, collapsing tunnels, etc. What is it going to cost to repair or rebuild those? Who is going to pay for it?

In the Appalachians right now we are literally tearing the tops off mountains so we can capture the coal underneath. We then destroy this coal in furnaces and cast it to the sky as particulate matter. This particulate rains down on the surface of the earth spreading pollution. What will be the affect on our world from this? See this previous blog.

I spoke with an engineer a few days ago who told me he will be busy for the next ten years just tearing down aging power plants that are far past their prime. The cleanup of these dirty plant sites, he says, will be massive but will most likely left for another generation. There are very few plans in the works right now to replace these plants since the money is not available. How do we maintain our thirst for electrical power when our electrical power grid cannot keep up? If our electrical generating ability fails us what happens to all the technology based on its power? Is the technology we have constructed to hold nature at bay strong, solid and sound?

Technology comes with three price tags. The cost to build, the cost to maintain, and the cost to tear down. History has shown we are great at building things, lousy at maintaining them, and slow to replace. Tear down and clean-up is generally inherited by a new generation. I am in the generation that has inherited the first wave of clean-up, hence we have Super Fund clean-up sites now with no money or resources to cleanup. The problem is too massive. My children will inherit this bill and problem and my grandchildren will be left with determining how or if we should rebuild. What legacy are we leaving in our wake for these future generations?

What we have wrought on this earth seems new and wonderful. Enjoy it now because it is probably not sustainable. Some experts may say that viewpoint is wrong, that we can overcome any adversity through technology, but the experts have been wrong many times before. History has not proven out that viewpoint. Man has been on this earth for eons of years. Civilizations and empires have come and gone. Nature and the elements has been the only constant. It is much bigger than any of us and is a force to be reckoned with. I dare say there is no manmade technology that can completely control it. Technology is convenient, new, bright and seemingly wonderful but it also has a heavy price tag. Do we have the budget to pay it?

(Note: The continuation of Mondays post will be posted here tomorrow.)

Update:  I wrote and published this post before I received my morning newspaper.  This mornings front page included a story entitled "Water, sewer lines at risk of failing in  New Orleans. "

Fifty-million gallons of water are leaking now from the system every single day.  This is a pre-Katrina problem although Katrina did exacerbate the issue. It is worried that soon the sewage lines will fail and leak into the water lines making the water no longer potable.

Quoting from the story, "We don't have the confidence now to say the system won't fail," said Robert Jackson, a Sewage & Water Board Spokesman. "We're basically holding it together by tape, by glue, by spit, whatever you can get ahold of."

The cost to repair the system: $5.7 billion.  Ka-ching! Composting toilets are looking cheaper every day.

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