On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood, and the Systems That Make Our World Work
By Scott Huler
Rodale, 236 pp.

Huler visits Quail Ridge Books & Music at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 26.

“If you want to see examples of virtually every demographic challenge facing the United States,” writes Scott Huler on page 1 of On the Grid, “come to Raleigh.” Regular Independent Weekly readers will recognize immediately the ways in which Raleigh’s rapid growth in recent decades has begun to strain its infrastructure:

“All those people leaving the Northeast and Midwest for the Sun Belt? They’re landing right here in Raleigh. All those miles of roads being built to forestall traffic jams? Raleigh is building them. Those strip shopping centers filled with big box retailers that function for a decade or so and then wither and die, replaced five miles further out with the same center, only newer? That’s Raleigh. New development going up without a clear sense of who’s going to pay for the sewers, the roads, the schoolsand whether there will be, say, enough water for the new folks to drink? Welcome to Raleigh.”

On the Grid‘s extended demystification of “the systems that make our world work” will certainly enlighten readers living anywhere in contemporary America, but the book has particularly urgent interest to people living here in the Research Triangle. Huler’s crises are our crises; his “average neighborhood” is our backyard.

On the Grid begins with the severe 2007–08 regional drought that saw water levels in our reservoirs drop to precarious levels of 30 percent of capacity or less, and slowly spirals out into an investigation of the various networked sewage lines, paved roads, electrical generation, telecommunication, and garbage removal that make American life as we have known it possible. Part trivia almanac and part detailed history, On the Grid explores the workings of the infrastructural systems around us as well as any book on the subject I’ve read, making the hidden material foundations of our society visible and immediate. Nearly every page has at least one intriguing thought experiment or deliciously quotable factoid. Who would have guessed that New York City only began treating 100 percent of its sewage as recently as 1986? Who’d have anticipated cloth diapers would turn out to be worse for the environment than disposables? Who’d have thought garbage disposals were that wasteful? And whose topological map of their neighborhood won’t be forever altered by the Zen-like injunction “You have to learn to think like water”? For anyone interested in infrastructure issues, On the Grid is an instant classic, already indispensible.

What Huler highlights at every step of On the Grid is the fundamental precariousness of the systems we depend on despite our ignorance of them. One of the more palpable themes of the book is an awed appreciation for the engineers who keep these things goingbut hand-in-hand with this appreciation is a kind of millennial terror that the systems will soon begin to fail, and indeed that they have already begun to fail and we just can’t bring ourselves to notice. Over and over again in his examples Huler turns to fallen empires of the past to explain our challenges, but he seems most preoccupied with our great imperial predecessor, Rome; though the book is largely apoliticalperhaps even sometimes to a faultthe final chapter makes no bones about the declinist potential of neoliberal budget-slashing. “Since the end of the Roman Empire, allowing your infrastructure to rot has been a fine way to speed social collapse,” Huler writes, before providing an accounting of our infrastructure reinvestment shortfall that totaled $842 billion in 1981 and totals $2.2 trillion today. (You read that right: $2.2 trillion, at least according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.) “We’re going to have to pay more,” he told the gathered crowd at a recent reading at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop. “Our children will ask us, ‘Was water really free?’”

While Huler finds some scattered reasons to hopehe spends some time celebrating popular Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin, who called herself the “sewer mayor” and even raised taxes to protect Atlanta’s water supplythere’s a palpable sense in On the Grid that we just won’t be able to turn the ship around, that we’re just too lazy, too entitled, too ignorant and too set in our ways to change. Of those sins it is “too ignorant” that clearly frustrates Huler the most; early in the book he approvingly quotes James Burke’s pithy description of contemporary Americans’ relationship to their infrastructure: “Never have so many known so little about so much.” At the Regulator he argued it was “borderline immoral” for people to know so little about the systems on which they depend, and after hearing his spiel it’s tough to disagree.

Perhaps it’s a desire to avoid a too-hopeless pessimism that causes Huler to more or less dodge the basic question of the long-term ecological sustainability of our lifestyle in On the Gridthe question, that is, if we should keep things going even if we can. Nowhere is this lacuna more frustrating than in the chapters on water, which sidestep the question of whether we should be building where we’re building in the first place, and on electrical generation, which is too busy geeking out over the possibilities of the Smart Grid to so much as mention climate change. To his credit, in person Huler is much more talkative on these points; at the Regulator he railed against our “ideology of limitless resources” and pointedly described our current environmental crises in the apocalyptic language of the infamous Rev. Wright: “The catastrophe is happening today. Our chickens are coming home to roost.”

Like the Huler of the book, the Huler who spoke to us at the Regulator seems to hold little faith in the future. “We’ll fail,” he assured usthere’s just no political will to change. He makes a good case: We might look no further than the sad story with which he opens and closes the book, Raleigh’s March 2008 failed attempt to ban new garbage disposals in an attempt to save water during the emergency. If we can’t wean ourselves off an essentially pointless consumer convenience in the midst of a major drought, what hope is there for the real belt-tightening when it comes? You can have our coal plants and our internal combustion engines when you pry them from our cold, dead hands…

“I haven’t seen much in my infrastructure-rich neighborhood that makes me believe taxpayers are suddenly going to start asking to fund the projects that will keep our systems from falling down on our heads,” Huler writes near the end of On the Grid, unleashing in the end to the jeremiad he’s been holding back all along. “I feel like a late-empire Roman, just hoping things hold out long enough for my kids to stay relatively safe. I’m left with the melancholy belief that we’re going to stand around bickering while the pipes clog and the wires fall and the roads crumble.” In this way On the Grid suggests itself as a different sort of indispensible textbook, one you might place beside the U.S. Army Field Survival Manual on your nightstand whilelistening to the drip-drip-drip of your leaky faucetyou wait for the end of our world.