The power of polarizing issues, inflamed by social media, has reduced opportunities for Americans to work together to achieve objectives about which they normally would agree. Bitter disagreement among Americans on issues ranging from vaccination policy to policies governing abortion, immigration, critical race theory, and gender, leave them barely willing to work together on anything.
One area of broad agreement, however, is infrastructure. Nearly all Americans agree that infrastructure, as it is traditionally defined, needs new investment. Freeways, bridges, railroads, dams, aqueducts, seaports, airports, transmission lines, pipelines; all of this needs to be maintained and upgraded. Trillions need to be spent.
But even on issues where there is potential agreement, solutions are now filtered through the lens of polarizing ideologies. What is today’s definition of infrastructure? Is it physical assets, or something more ephemeral? Do infrastructure priorities have to be established based on restoring race and gender equity, or by concerns about climate change? Should some infrastructure deliberately be allowed to deteriorate, to avoid “induced demand” and the unsustainable consumption that would result?
Debate over these questions, waged by politicians already alienated from one another on unrelated issues that are nonetheless far more relevant to their constituents, has paralyzed America’s ability to upgrade its infrastructure. Navigating a pathway out of this paralyzing morass takes more than just compromise, it takes the courage to adhere to controversial premises.
Chief among these is to reject the idea that legislated scarcity is the only option to combat climate change. In every critical area of infrastructure there are solutions that can enable a future of sustainable abundance. To embrace this premise does not require us to dismiss concerns about climate change, it merely requires us to stand up to policy demands from climate activists that are obviously flawed, if not impossible.
In California, environmental regulations have brought infrastructure investment to a standstill. Without expanding energy, water, and transportation infrastructure, it is nearly impossible to build housing, the cost-of-living is punitive, water is rationed so food is overpriced, the overall quality of life is reduced, and the money that ought to be paying skilled workers to operate heavy construction equipment instead goes into the pockets of environmentalist lobbyists, bureaucrats, litigators, and activist nonprofits.
To change direction, Californians can rebuild their energy infrastructure in a manner that doesn’t violate environmentalist principles, but instead balances environmentalist concerns with the interests of its residents. Why aren’t Californians, who in so many ways are the most innovative people in the world, approving and building safe, state-of-the-art nuclear power plants? Why aren’t they developing geothermal power, since California has vast untapped potential in geothermal energy? Why haven’t California’s legislators revived the logging industry they have all but destroyed, and brought back clean power plants fueled by the biomass of commercial forest trimmings?
Californians can also change direction on their water infrastructure by adopting an all-of-the-above approach. They can build massive new off-stream reservoirs to capture storm runoff. Even in dry winters the few storms that do hit California yield surplus water that can be captured instead of allowed to run off into the Pacific. These off-stream reservoirs could also feature forebays from which, using surplus solar electricity, water could be pumped up into the main reservoir, to then be released back down into the forebay through hydroelectric turbines to generate electricity when solar electric output falters. Why aren’t Californians recycling 100 percent of their urban wastewater? Why aren’t they building desalination plants?
These are solutions that may not be perfectly acceptable to environmentalists, but they’re also not hideous violations of environmentalist values. They should be defended by their proponents without reservations, but also with a willingness to spend extra to mitigate what can be mitigated. Civilization has a footprint, and we can only pick our poison. The solutions favored by environmentalists, such as wind turbines, battery farms, EVs, biofuel plantations, and solar farms, have environmental impacts that are arguably even worse than conventional solutions.
Another potentially polarizing issue—achieving “equity” with infrastructure—doesn’t have to be dismissed by proponents of practical infrastructure investment. If the pipes in Los Angeles public schools are still leaching toxins into the water students would otherwise be drinking, then invest the money and fix the pipes. If inadequate funding for water treatment plants in low income communities in California’s Central Valley means they are not operating, or cannot expand their operations, then increase the funding. But at the same time don’t lose sight of the fact that if there is more energy, and more water, that will benefit everyone, especially low-income households, no matter where they are and no matter what other challenges they may confront.
Finally, it shouldn’t be controversial to restrict discussions of infrastructure to infrastructure, but it is. Here is an area where, once again, establishing the terms of the discussion requires adhering to a controversial premise, which is that discussions of “infrastructure” need to be restricted to the traditional definition. Basic infrastructure, offering surplus capacity instead of scarcity in the critical areas of energy, water, and transportation, creates the solid foundation upon which all the other amenities of a prosperous and equitable society may flourish.